Gena’s and my hearts broke for so many of our fellow Lone Star State residents and Americans citizens across the country as the below-freezing extreme weather wrought devastation and deaths. We pray for the countless precious souls affected. And we say with optimism and a fighting patriotic spirit on behalf of all Americans, “We will rise again!”
As multi-millions suffered across multiple states without water from frozen and broken water lines and the loss of heat and power, my mind and heart reflected back to the early years of our republic when George Washington’s Continental Army persevered the brutal winter at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, roughly 20 miles northwest of Philadelphia. Not to minimize our couple weeks of frigid weather across the U.S. and its fallout, but it also provided a window to better understand and appreciate even more what those Revolutionary warriors suffered through for several consecutive months.
With Monday, Feb. 22, being Washington’s birthday, and while so much of our country bounces back and recovers from the proliferating big freeze, probably more than any other year in recent memory we can appreciate anew the sacrifices the Valley Forge soldiers made during the six-month encampment of 1777-1778.
Despite Washington’s desire to return to his beautiful Mt. Vernon estate with his beloved wife, Martha, he returned to his home on the Potomac only once between his acceptance of his appointment as the commander in chief of the Continental Army in 1775 and the American victory at Yorktown in 1781. That’s a long tour of duty in anyone’s book, especially when it was spent entirely in warfare. Washington remained with his soldiers even under the most difficult of times, including his army’s winter encampments.
The official website of Washington’s Mt. Vernon estate explained:
As his army marched into Valley Forge on December 19, Washington hoped that his officers and soldiers, with “one heart” and “one mind,” would surmount the troubles that lay ahead of them. The lack of proper clothing was a significant problem. While Washington knew most of his men were fit for duty, he calculated that at least a third of them had no shoes. Many did not have a decent coat to protect against the constant rain that plagued the camp. (As Washington described two days before Christmas in a December 23, 1777, letter to Henry Laurens, “… we have, by a field return this day made no less than 2,898 Men now in Camp unfit for duty because they are bare foot and otherwise naked. …”)
Washington ordered his soldiers to build wooden huts for themselves, twelve by twelve feet each, and then search the countryside for straw to use as bedding. He hoped this would keep them warm since there were not enough blankets for everyone. Even worse, his quartermaster reported that he had just twenty-five barrels of flour and only a little salt pork to feed the entire army. As Washington explained in a letter to Henry Laurens, the President of the Continental Congress, unless something was done quickly, “this Army might dissolve.”
The National Park Service (NPS) detailed the men’s dire straights: “The winter of 1777-78 was not the worst winter experienced during the war (though temps ranged from a low of 6 degrees in Dec., 12 degrees in January, 16 degrees in February and 8 degrees in March), but constant freezing and thawing, and intermittent snowfall and rain, coupled with shortages of provisions, clothing, and shoes, made living conditions extremely difficult. … Shortages of clothing did cause severe hardship for a number of men, but many soldiers had a full uniform. At the worst point in early March, the army listed 2,898 men as unfit for duty due to a lack of clothing.”
Washington wrote that the soldiers sometimes went “five or six days together without bread, at other times as many days without meat, and once or twice two or three days without either.”
Washington continually petitioned Congress for provisions. Army records revealed that each soldier received a daily ration of roughly one-half pound of beef during January 1778. However, food shortages during February left the men without meat for several days at a time. But if one’s mind’s eye conjures beef patties from a local market or hamburger joint, think again.
History.com explained in its sobering article, “Starving Soldiers at Valley Forge“:
Putting over 12,000 already weak men together in a ramshackle camp with little food was a recipe for disaster from the start. The men subsisted on a concoction called “firecake”–flour and water mixed together and baked in iron kettles. The men didn’t get any kind of yeast or leavening agent with their rations, so the firecakes were flat and dense. On a good day, the cakes were tasteless; on the bad days, weevils or maggots would have found the flour store and added some extra protein to the mix. The large amounts of salt needed to preserve meats rendered an end product that had to be soaked repeatedly to be remotely edible. And since animal fats are much less prone to spoilage than muscles, most of the “meat” the men were given resembled a hunk of salty lard more than a juicy chop or bacon slab.
For many revolutionary soldiers, threats of starvation became so critical that they were left with no alternative but to boil and eat the leather from old shoes and tree bark.
Some rays of culinary respite broke through the Valley Forge’s valleys of starvation when a German baker named Christopher Ludwick, whom Congress appointed “superintendent of bakers, and director of baking, in the grand army of the United States,” arrived at the camp. He produced roughly 135 pounds of bread for every 100 pounds of flour for the next five years of the war. Washington rightly called Ludwick “a true and faithful friend, and servant to the public.” So admired was Ludwick that Dr. Benjamin Rush, M.D., a signer of the Declaration of Independence and once treasurer of the U.S. mint who was also called “the Father of American Psychiatry,” wrote a treatise on him in 1801 still worth reading: “An Account of the Life and Character of Christopher Ludwick.”
Food and freeze weren’t the Continental Army’s only winter enemies. The NPS revealed what truly compounded their grief:
Perhaps the most notable suffering that occurred at Valley Forge came from a factor that has not been frequently mentioned in textbooks: disease was the true scourge of the camp. Men from far flung geographical areas were exposed to sicknesses from which they had little immunity. During the encampment, nearly 2,000 men died of disease. Dedicated surgeons, nurses, a small pox inoculation program, and camp sanitation regulations limited the death tolls. The army kept monthly status reports that tracked the number of soldiers who had died or were too sick to perform their duties. These returns reveal that two-thirds of the men who perished died during the warmer months of March, April, and May, when supplies were more abundant. The most common killers were influenza, typhus, typhoid, and dysentery.
The army interred few, if any, of its soldiers who perished within the lines of the camp. Doctors dispatched the most serious cases to outlying hospitals, both to limit disease spread and also to cure those individuals who could be saved. The army buried the soldiers who died in these out-of-the-way care facilities in church graveyards adjacent to the hospitals. These scattered Southeastern Pennsylvania gravesites have never been systematically commemorated.
Relief didn’t finally come for Washington and his troops until late spring when they left the valley of the shadow of death, as Mt. Vernon concluded: “Finally, on June 19, the Continental Army – better trained and more determined than ever – marched out of Valley Forge. Washington, who proved his leadership, remained their commander [despite divisions and what seemed at times like imminent coups]. Together they headed for New Jersey where they would make a stand against the British army, on its way from Philadelphia to New York, at Monmouth Courthouse.”
What Gen. Washington and the Continental Army endured brings tears to my eyes and gratitude to my heart. Their sacrifices should inspire every American today, and serve as a vivid reminder that there really is no prize without perseverance. They remind me of the moving 19th century poem by Thomas Buchanan Read (1822-1872), simply titled, “Valley Forge,” which states:
Such was the winter’s awful sight
For many a dreary day and night,
What time our country’s hope forlorn,
Of every needed comfort shorn,
Lay housed within a hurried tent,
Where every keen blast found a rent,
And oft the snow was seen to sift
Along the floor its piling drift,
Or, mocking the scant blankets’ fold,
Across the night-couch frequent rolled;
Where every path by a soldier beat,
Or every track where a sentinel stood,
Still held the print of naked feet,
And oft the crimson stains of blood;
Where Famine held her spectral court,
And joined by all her fierce allies:
She ever loved a camp or fort
Beleaguered by the wintry skies,
But chiefly when Disease is by,
To sink the frame and dim the eye,
Until, with seeking forehead bent,
In martial garments cold and damp,
Pale Death patrols from tent to tent,
To count the charnels of the camp.
Such was the winter that prevailed
Within the crowded, frozen gorge;
Such were the horrors that assailed
The patriot band at Valley Forge.
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