The Foundation for Victory – An Examination of the American Experience at Valley Forge

by ExGen on December 16, 2007

Victory was still years away when General George Washington led the Continental Army into winter encampment at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania in December of 1777. The Army was to suffer greatly and overcome numerous obstacles during the winter of 1777-1778, but a new efficient, effective fighting force would emerge with the help of a foreign solder, and an allegiance with another nation. The foundation for victory was to be created this winter, but the Army would have to survive first.

Until late 1776, the American Revolution was fought by a small Army and local militia. Enlistments were typically for one year, and each winter the Army went through a period of reorganization and restructuring. Looking to establish a stronger, more organized fighting force, Congress adopted a plan in September, 1776 that established a permanent standing army and set the length of enlistment for the duration of the war. A little over a year later, the Continental Army marched into Valley Forge for winter encampment. This would mark the first winter since the beginning of the war that General Washington would not have to dwell on the leadership, manning, and structure of his Army. Instead, time and effort could be spent on reviewing the previous year’s campaign and improving battlefield performance.

On December 19, 1777 General Washington led his troops to a high point eighteen miles west of the British-held Philadelphia. His Army, twelve-thousand strong, was on the eve of a winter which would see many die from exposure, disease, and starvation. The layer of snow on the ground was six inches deep, and the first task at hand was to begin building shelter for the troops. It was not until the middle of January when enough huts were constructed for the entire Army to be protected from the elements of nature. Even then, many of the men were without blankets or adequate clothing such as coats, shirts, or shoes to keep them healthy and warm. Dysentery and typhus were common ailments. Hunger plagued the men for the first half of the winter, when food supplies were short. There was talk of mutiny among the Army, but in early March of 1778 a new quartermaster general was appointed and much needed supplies began to arrive in Valley Forge.

Less than a month earlier, on February 23, 1778, a man named Frederick von Steuben arrived at Valley Forge. Steuben, with the aid of falsified credentials by Benjamin Franklin, presented himself to Congress as a former general in the King of Prussia’s Army. In reality, von Steuben was only a captain of the general staff, but shortly after his assignment with General Washington he was appointed a Major General in the Continental Army. ‘Baron’ von Steuben was given the responsibility of training the green Army, and he began the task by teaching drill to a company of one-hundred men. Steuben created a simplified drill manual based on modern European advances in warfare, and emphasized improved execution over speed. The importance of bayonet fighting was also instructed. Soon, this model company was a well-disciplined unit and began to train the remaining units at Valley Forge. By the time they would march out of winter encampment in June of 1778, the Continental Army had been transformed into an effective fighting force prepared to tackle the challenges awaiting them.

On May 4, 1778, slightly over a month before the Continentals would leave Valley Forge, Congress ratified the Treaty of Alliance between France and the United States. The allegiance with France boosted already growing spirits in the camp because it brought with it the possibility of additional arms, clothing, monetary aid, and other foreign goods. On June 18, 1778, fearing a blockade by French ships, the British withdrew from Philadelphia and moved toward New York City. The next day, Washington ordered his troops out of Valley Forge in pursuit of the British. Just over a week later, the two armies fought to a standoff at the Battle of Monmouth. Finally, on July 10, 1778, the British threat to the Continental Army eased slightly as France officially declared war against Britain and the American Revolution began to transform into a world war.

When the Continental Army marched into Valley Forge in December of 1777, they had little idea of the changes that were to take place over that winter. Through much suffering and despair, constant training and preparing, and finally with the boost of morale and confidence associated with French allegiance, General Washington’s Army emerged the following June motivated and prepared for the long fight ahead. It would be another five years before the end of the hostilities, but the foundation for victory was created and instilled during the winter encampment at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania.

To learn more about Valley Forge on your own, take a look at Remember Valley Forge: Patriots, Tories, and Redcoats Tell Their Stories (The Remember Series) by David Garland, or Valley Forge by Thomas B. Allen.

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