Tredyffrin Easttown Historical Society
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Source: January 1991 Volume 29 Number 1, Pages 3–10

Christmas 1777

Bob Goshorn

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In November 1777, after the Battle of Germantown, the British army had completed its occupation of Philadelphia. With Fort Mercer, on the Jersey side of the Delaware river, evacuated and demolished by the Americans when they could no longer defend it and Fort Mifflin, on the west side of the river, taken after a siege of several weeks, General Sir William Howe next made plans for an attack on the main body of the American army, encamped at Whitemarsh, about eleven miles north of the city.

Through reports from his network of spies in the city, and also a message from the Quaker patriot Lydia Darragh, who had overheard two British officers discussing the planned attack, the British plans were known to General Washington. When the British approached the American position early on December 5, they found the Americans deployed in a strong defensive position, with their flanks also well protected. As a result, the British withdrew and returned to Philadelphia to spend the winter. ("I sincerely wish that they had made an attack," General Washington wrote in his report to the Congress, "as the issue, in all probability, from the disposition of our troops and the strong situation of our camp, would have been fortunate and happy. At the same time, I must add that reason, prudence and every principle of policy, forbade us quitting our post to attack them.")

Even before the planned attack, however, it had been decided that the encampment at Whitemarsh was not "a proper place" for the winter quarters of the American army. On November 30 General Washington had called a Council of War with his sixteen general officers to consider various locations.

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There was considerable discussion, and several sites were suggested: Wilmington, favored by five; Reading, supported by seven; and even Bethlehem. Each had its drawbacks. Wilmington was voted down for several reasons: to establish quarters there, it would first be necessary to dislodge the British garrison still located there, and, even if this were successful, in the event of a British attack from Philadelphia, the army, withdrawing to the south, could be in danger of being trapped between the Delaware and Chesapeake bays. Similarly, Reading and Bethlehem had the disadvantage of being at some distance from Philadelphia, a disadvantage made even more significant after the Pennsylvania Supreme Executive Committee issued a "remonstrance" that all its support -- troops, supplies, and financial aid -- would be withdrawn unless the army remained close to Philadelphia.

A fourth suggestion was the valley in Tredyffrin, in the vicinity of the Valley Forge, recently destroyed in September by the British. Edward S. Gifford, in his The American Revolution in the Delaware Valley, has stated that this site was "at the suggestion of General Wayne", but Gilbert S. Jones, for many years the superintendent of Valley Forge Park and later a member of the Park Commission, in his historical record of Valley Forge Park wrote, "Records do not show definitely what person actually suggested Valley Forge first" and that the "earliest written suggestion seems to be a memorandum submitted ... to the Council of War at Whitemarsh by Colonel Henry E. Lutterloh, who urged that one or more brigades be 'stationed at 'Wolley Forge'." (The spelling may be a reflection of his Teutonic background.)

In any event, this was the site selected for the winter encampment by General Washington. His reasons for its selection were a part of the General Order he issued, while camped "at the Gulph", on December 17:

"The General ardently wishes it were now in his power to conduct the troops into the best winter quarters. But where are these to be found? Should we retire to the interior parts of the state, we would find them crowded with virtuous citizens, who, sacrificing their all have left Philadelphia and fled further for protection. To their distresses humanity forbids us to add. That is not all; we should leave a vast extent of fertile country to be despoiled and ravaged by the enemy from which they would draw vast supplies and where many of our firm friends would be exposed to all the miseries of the most insulting and wanton depredation. A train of evils might be enumerated but these will suffice.

"These considerations make it indispensably necessary for the army to take a position as will enable it most effectually to prevent distress and to give the most extensive security, and in that position we must make ourselves the best shelter in our power. With activity and diligence huts may be erected that will be warm and dry. In these the troops will be compact, more secure against surprises than if in a divided state and at hand to protect the country. These cogent reasons have determined the General to take post in the neighborhood of this camp.

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And influenced by them, he persuades himself that the officers and soldiers with one heart and one mind will resolve to surmount every difficulty with a fortitude and patience becoming their profession and the sacred cause in which they are engaged."

On December 11 the army left Whitemarsh, and eight days later, on December 19, it arrived at Valley Forge.

The first order of business, as indicated above, was to construct huts for shelter for the men. Directions for their construction were provided in detail in general orders issued on December 20.

"He [General Washington],..." Benson J. Lossing reported in his The Pictorial Field Book of the Revolution,

"...ordered the colonels or commanding officers of the regiments to cause their men to be divided into parties of twelve, and to see that each party had its proportion of tools, and commence a hut for that number; and as an encouragement to industry and art, the general promised to reward the party, in each regiment, which finished its hut in the quickest and most workmen-like manner, with a present of twelve dollars. He also offered a reward of one hundred dollars to the officer or soldier who would substitute a covering for the huts, cheaper, and more quickly made, than boards."

The following were the dimensions and style of the huts, as given in Washington's Orderly book...:

"Fourteen feet by sixteen each; the sides, ends, and roofs made with logs; the roofs made tight with splits labs, or some other way; the sides made tight with clay; a fireplace made of wood, and secured with clay on the inside, eighteen inches thick; this fireplace to be in the rear of the hut; the door to be in the end next to the street; the doors to be made of split oak slabs, unless boards can be procured; the side walls to be six feet and a half high."

The activities of the men, most of whom were accustomed to handling an axe and shovel, are described by Harry Emerson Wildes [Note 1] in his book Valley Forge :

"Axmen hurried to the woods to cut down oaks and to hew the trunks into sixteen-foot lengths. Others searched for cedars, preferable straight-grained and of good diameter, to make roof shingles; some, armed with broadaxes, hacked out rough slabs from smaller trees. Such slabs, rough-barked on one side, splintery on the other, would provide material for doors and, with cedar shingling hard to find, would serve for roofing. Some officers thought that the men could floor cabins with these slabs, but most of the huts had no flooring but the frozen earth.

"Horses hauled the larger logs to sites selected for the company streets: men, harnessed by ropes about their chests and shoulders, pulled the smaller pieces through the snow. The work was heavy, and the ropes tore through the thin hunting shirts the men wore, but, with a dozen men working on the materials for each hut, the task was soon accomplished.

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"Once the logs were dragged to the assigned positions, the actual building progressed rapidly. Skilled workmen notched the logs and fitted them to their places. Warmed by the roaring fires of small, discarded branches and chunks of chopped logs, the men speedily raised the cabin walls to the six-and-a-half-foot height prescribed by Washington. The chinks between the logs were plugged by stones or clay orbits of slab; the roofs were similarly tightened; doors were fitted into place. Meanwhile, inside the huts, wooden fireplaces, clay-lined to prevent their catching fire, were speedily constructed.

"Cabin building on the frontier customarily required three days, ending in an all-night dance, but the troops at Valley Forge were working much more speedily. Even before the second day was done, many of the cabins had been crudely finished. . . .

"The city soldiers, unaccustomed to hut building, lagged in their tasks. These were helped by the frontiersmen now that they had finished all the building for themselves and their officers."

Thomas Paine, Alfred Hoyt Bill noted in his Valley Forge, the Making of an Army, "rode over from Lancaster [and] wrote of it afterward": "I was there when the army first began to build huts. Everyone was busy; some carrying logs, others mud, and the rest fastening them together. The whole was raised in a few days."

The newly built camp, with its population of about 11,000, was actually the fifth largest city in the colonies at that time!

In his General Orders of December 17, Washington had also announced that "He, himself, will share in the hardships and partake of every inconvenience" of the troops, and traditionally his first headquarters at Valley Forge, while the huts were being built, were in a large marquee tent.

Lossing, for example, reported,

"Until his soldiers were thus comfortably lodged, Washington occupied his cheerless marquee, after which he made his quarters at the house of Mr. [Isaac] Potts."

Similarly, Wildes observed,

"The delay [in the availability of the Potts house] pleased Washington, who was reluctant to take up comfortable warm quarters while his men were exposed to cold and snow. He ordered his big marquee tent pitched upon a hillock underneath a gum tree, proposing to remain in this thin shelter until his troops had built log huts."

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In Alfred Hoyt Bill's account,

"By his own way of living, not less than by his efforts for his men's welfare, did Washington support their devotion to the cause. Until the last of them was housed, they could look up to the bleak crest of Mount Joy and see his blue headquarters flag, with its thirteen white stars, fluttering in the icy wind in front of the canvas marquee where he slept, ate, and worked as long as any of his men lacked warmer quarters. When the cabins were finished, he moved down to the village to what was known as the Isaac Potts house, though it was to Deborah Hewes [a tenant] that he paid his rent. It was one of the few dwellings that had escaped the conflagration kindled by the British."

The marquee tent was one of three made "in Third Street, Philadelphia, under the direction of Captain Moulder, of the artillery", according to information in "The Picket Post" formerly published by the Valley Forge Historical Society. The tents were made of heavy home-spun linen, with an oval-shaped roof, the edges scalloped and faced with a strip of hand-woven red flannel. There were thirteen seams on the end, and seven seams in the central piece. The supporting poles fitted into two holes in the roof, and the tent was held upright by twenty guy ropes attached to the top. Its length at the ridge pole was 13 1/2 feet, and its full circumference was 80 feet.

The tents were used throughout the War for Independence, from the Heights of Dorchester in August 1775 to the surrender at Yorktown in October 1781.

The tents were apparently also sometimes used in conjunction with other accommodations. In a volume entitled Recollections and Private Memories of Washington, issued in 1859, also quoted in "The Picket Post", George Washington Parke Custis noted,

"The Headquarters, even during the summer season, were located, in a great majority of instances, in private dwellings, the sleeping tent being pitched in the yard or very near at hand. Within its venerable folds, Washington was in the habit of seeking privacy and seclusion, where he could commune with himself, and where he wrote the most memorable of his dispatches in the Revolutionary war. He would remain in the retirement of the sleeping tent sometimes for hours, giving orders to the officer of his guard that he should on no account be disturbed, save on the arrival of an important express."

Despite the tradition that the marquee tent was Washington's first headquarters at Valley Forge, however, it has also been suggested that his temporary or first headquarters may have in fact been in a house in Tredyffrin Township then owned by James Davis.

In an address given to the Sons of the Revolution at Valley Forge on June 18, 1895, the Hon. Samuel W. Pennypacker, later governor of Pennsylvania, one of the original commissioners of Valley Forge Park, and an historian, reported,

"Now it happens that within the last year I secured from Amsterdam a set of most important military maps of the Revolutionary period, consisting of originals drawn at the time by a French engineer, who was with the Continental army. Among them are plans of the Battle of Trenton; of West Point; of Newport, Rhode Island; of New York; of the Battle of Yorktown; of Charleston; and last, and of the most interest to us, a plan of the encampment at Valley Forge. . . .

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"This map shows what was not before known, that the Carolina troops were encamped on the north side of the Valley Creek in Chester County: and that headquarters, before Washington occupied the Potts house, were not, as has been alleged, in a marquee tent, but were at the house in Tredyffrin Township, Chester County then owned by James Davis, and subsequently by Dr. William Harris and by Dr. J. R. Walker."

(The Davis house was located just north of Pugh Road; it is now identified as 888 West Valley Road, and is known as "Greenwood Farm".)

This map, referred to as the "Pennypacker" map, is discussed in some detail in a report prepared in 1982 by Jacqueline Thibaut, then research coordinator for the Valley Forge National Historical Park.

Despite Pennypacker's conclusion that it had been "drawn at the time by a French engineer", she concluded that "provenience information concerning this map is slight", but that "it was certainly drawn by a practiced hand, either British or American". She also noted that the "paper is certainly of the Revolutionary period, and [the map] may have been done at the time of the encampment". She also observed that the map "differs from other depictions of the encampment in several important respects"; concerning these differences she further concluded that the "placement of Huntington's brigade and the omission of Learned's appear, from the order of battle suggested by DuPortail ... to be in error", but that the "position of the North Carolina troops [as shown on the map] . . . may, because of other evidence, be correct".

No reference is made in her report to the indication on the map that the first headquarters of General Washington at Valley Forge were in the JamesDavis house. The present owner of the house, Jack Giegerich, has summarized the matter simply as that "Official Valley Forge ... have taken as [their] stand that like the marquee tent, they can neither confirm or disclaim it".

In any event, there seems to be general agreement that, in spite of the fact that all the huts were not yet completed, on Christmas Eve or on Christmas Day, General Washington moved into the Potts-Hewes house where he made his headquarters for the remainder of the encampment at Valley Forge. On the day before the evacuation of Valley Forge by the American army in the following June, Washington gave Mrs. Hewes a check for £100 Pennsylvania currency as rental for the use of the house.

As for Christmas Day itself, in Rebels and Redcoats, George F. Scheer and Hugh F. Rankin note,

"Christmas Day was but another day. Washington spent it in preparing a never-to-be-used 'Orders for a Move That Was Intended against Philadelphia in Way of Surprise."

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John C. Fitzpatrick, in his The Spirit of the Revolution, as quoted in "The Picket Post", has provided us with a description of Washington's Christmas dinner.

"And the dinner was this: A little veal; a little mutton; not much, for it is probable that the turkeys, geese, and 'fouls' were husbanded for the occasion; a small quantity of potatoes and cabbage and less of turnips. That was all! No tea, no coffee, no milk; a small amount of butter, perhaps, but no bread, no eggs, no flour, so there were no pies, puddings, or dessert. If there was either whiskey or rum, which is doubtful, as none was issued to the troops that day, there was no punch, for sugar was lacking. A minor, though irritating, difficulty was the probable lack of sufficient knives, forks, and spoons, for Washington had been separated from his baggage during the Brandywine and Germantown maneuvers, and did not obtain it again until the middle of January."

There were altogether, he also reported, sixteen at the General's Christmas dinner table.

On Christmas Eve Timothy Pickering wrote to his wife, "A gill of rum or whiskey to be served this day to all the non-commissioned officers and soldiers".

As previously noted, despite the feverish activity of the preceding week, apparently all the men were not in huts yet. Here are excerpts from a diary kept by Doctor Albigence Waldo, a surgeon from Connecticut, as reported in "The Picket Post", pertaining to Christmas Day and the few days preceding it:

"Dec. 21 -- Preparations made for huts. Provisions scarce. Mr. Ellis went homeward -- sent a Letter to my wife. Heartily wish myself at home -- my Skin & eyes are almost spoil'd with continued smoke.

"A general cry thro' the Camp this Evening among the Soldiers -- 'No Meat! - No Meat!' -- the distant vales Echo'd back the melancholy sound -- 'No Meat! No Meat!' Immitating the noise of Crows & Owls, also, made a part of the confused Musick. What have you for our dinner, Boys? 'Nothing but Firecake [a cake made from flour and water] & Water, Sir.' At night -- 'Gentlemen, the Supper is ready.' What is your Supper, Lads? 'Firecake & Water, Sir.'

"Dec. 22d. -- Lay excessive Cold & uncomfortable last Night -- my eyes are started from their orbits like a Rabbit's eyes, occasioned by a great Cold -- and Smoke.

"Dec. 23d. -- The Party that went out last evening not Return'd to Day. This evening an excellent Player on the Violin in that soft kind of Musick, which is so finely adapted to stir up the tender Passions, while he was playing in the next tent to mine, called up in remembrance all the endearing expressions -- and sensible pleasure to me from the first time I gained the affections of the tenderest of the Fair.

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"Dec. 24th -- Party of the 22d returned. Hutts go up Slowly - Cold & Smoke make us fret. But mankind are always fretting, even if they have more than their proportion of the Blessings of Life. We are never Easy -- always Blaming Our Country -- or faulting our Friends. But I don't know of anything that vexes a man's Soul more than hot smoke continually blowing into his Eyes . . .

"Dec. 25th, CHRISTMAS - We are still in Tents - when we ought to be in huts - the poor Sick suffer much in Tents this cold Weather -- I am ashamed to say it, but I am tempted to steal Fowls if I could find them -- or even a whole Hog - for I feel as if I could eat one. But the impoverish'd Country about us, affords but little matter to employ a Thief -- or keep a Clever Fellow in good humor -- But why do I talk of hunger & hard usage, when so many in the World have not even firecake & Water to eat ..."

And finally, it was a white Christmas on Christmas Day 1777. "On Christmas Day it snowed," it was noted in General George Weedon's Orderly Book," and before the next morning it was four inches deep."

Drawing by H. T. McNcill, courtesy Stephen Movlan Press

1. Wildes was later for several years a member of the History Club.


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