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The Philadelphia Campaign
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The Philadelphia Campaign
Chapter Four: Valley Forge

Of the nearly 10,000 men who passed through Valley Forge during the winter of 1777-78, more than 3,000 deserted. It was a harsh life. At one stage, General Washington reported that more than 2,800 of the men were "unfit for duty" because "they are bare foot and otherwise naked." Yet the leadership of the Continental Congress continued to demand a winter offensive. Never shy about unleashing his temper, Washington exploded over these demands. "I can assure these Gentlemen that is a much easier and less distressing thing to draw remonstrances in a comfortable room by a good fire," he wrote bitterly, "than to occupy a cold bleak hill and sleep under frost and Snow without Cloaths or Blankets."
The March to Valley Forge, by William B. T. Trego, 1883.

The Continental Army had originally planned to harass the British forces in Philadelphia from an encampment in markerWhitemarsh, close to the city.  Its proximity encouraged General Sir WIlliam Howe to test the American mettle in the aftermath of the  markerBattle of Germantown and the fall of markerFort Mifflin. In early December, 1777, he sent several divisions to Whitemarsh in an attempt to finally destroy Washington's army. For the first time in the campaign, however, Washington had the advantage of good intelligence. Knowing the British were coming, he was prepared for Howe's classic flanking strategy and withstood serveral assaults. After two days, the British returned to the city, content to wait out the winter and fight again in the springtime.

Washington and his generals soon realized that they needed to find a safer location for their tired army's winter encampment. Whitemarsh was simply too close to the British and too difficult to defend. They considered moving as far away as Wilmington, Delaware, and markerReading, Pennsylvania, but ultimately they chose to seek out a location near the Schuylkill River.  Here, they believed, they could  monitor British troop movements and to protect supply lines along the Schuylkill, while occupying a favorable position to defend against raids aimed at the Continental Congress, then meeting in markerYork.

At first, they moved their camp to markerGulph Mills, which one army surgeon described as so isolated that there were "but few families in the neighborhood for the soldiery to steal from." They then settled upon the Village of markerValley Forge, a small community of stone residences and forges perched on high ground not far from the Lancaster Road and near the Schuylkill River.

To house themselves during the winter, the soldiers at Valley Forge built more than 1,000 dwellings during a two-week period in late December 1777 and early January 1778. The hastily erected structures, about 14 feet by 16 feet, offered only mild protection against the elements.

The biggest challenge for the soldiers was obtaining food. The army's supply system was in shambles and occasionally the soldiers encamped at Valley Forge faced the prospect of starvation. "I lay here two nights and one day and had not a morsel of anything to eat all the time," wrote Private Joseph Martin, "save half of a small pumpkin, which I cooked by placing it upon a rock, the skin side uppermost, and making a fire upon it." Many soldiers learned to eat what they termed "fire cakes," a dull combination of flour and water baked into a thin, crisp pancake. Eventually, the supply situation at Valley Forge improved when Congress replaced Quartermaster markerThomas Mifflin with the more efficient General Nathanael Green.
Baron von Steuben pointing at soldiers and instructing them at the snow covered camp.
Baron von Steuben drilling American recruits at Valley Forge in 1778, by Edwin...

These sacrifices only served to harden the men. The arrival of Baron von Steuben, a Prussian-trained officer, to instruct the soldiers in the arts of infantry drill in February, 1778, also helped steel the soldiers for future combat. Unlike many officers of the era, Steuben believed in drilling the regular soldiers himself and thus became a popular figure in the camp.

Several foreign-born volunteers in addition to von Steuben earned the gratitude of the Americans. Although Von Steuben and the markerMarquis de Lafayette were the best known, cavalry officer markerCasimir Pulaski of Poland also achieved high commission and respect for his performance in the field. The German-born physician markerDr. Bodo Otto won praise for his role in cleaning up the hospital at markerChester Springs. In an age before antiseptic treatments or anesthesia, hospitals were often gruesome places, and disease was a great killer of eighteenth-century soldiers.
George Washington praying under trees; military camp in background.
"The Prayer at Valley Forge," engraved by John C. McRae, 1866.

Eventually, the good work of officers like Greene, von Steuben, Dr. Otto, and others helped turn Valley Forge into a busy, tight knit community. Adding to the rising spirits was the good news of the colonies' alliance with France, which promised greater firepower and more plentiful supplies. As Washington's forces were coming together in the spring of 1778, Howe's world was falling apart. Aware of the damaging political fallout from the British defeat at Saratoga, Howe resigned his post and was replaced by General Sir Henry Clinton. Howe returned to London to face a Parliamentary inquiry into his conduct, a review that he survived.

The British forces in Philadelphia, however, would not stay much longer. Although they achieved a minor victory over Pennsylvania militia forces at the markerBattle of Crooked Billet, they were soon forced to leave the region. Once they received word that the French fleet was sailing toward the Delaware River, the British determined that they could no longer hold their position. By June 1778, General Clinton had ordered the royal troops to evacuate the city.

The British then altered their war strategy, launching a major offensive in the Southern colonies. General Charles Cornwallis, who fought so well at Brandywine, soon became a terror of American forces in the South and the heralded General Gates discovered his magic did not last, facing terrible defeat at the battle of Camden, South Carolina.

For nearly three more years, the British enjoyed widespread success in this southern campaign, but just as they had discovered during the Philadelphia Campaign of 1777, time was invariably against them. They always seemed to conquer places and not patriots. In a country as large as the United States, it was a formula for military disaster. As one British officer put it, "The more land we win, the weaker our army gets in the field."

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