Starving Ships & Freezing Winter at Valley Forge, 1777-78
Washington lost the Battle of Brandywine on September 11, 1777, and was force to retreat toward Philadelphia.
At the same time, British General Burgoyne's troops marched down from Canada through New York, expecting British General William Howe to be marching up from New York City to help him.
Howe, instead of helping Burgoyne, decided to set sail from New York City to capture Philadelphia -- America's largest city and busiest port.
Howe's inexplicable action was considered to be, at least in part, motivated by professional rivalry between British Generals.
Burgoyne soon lost the Battle of Saratoga, having to surrender nearly 6,000 troops.
This American victory persuaded France to enter the war, transforming it from Britain suppressing rebellious colonies into a global conflict between the world's two largest military powers, stretching Britain's resources.
General William Howe landed and marched his troops toward Philadelphia, which was effectively the capitol of the United States.
In European warfare, if you captured an enemy's capitol, the war was effectively over.
Rather than surrender, the Continental Congress quickly evacuated Philadelphia.
They even took the down the Liberty Bell and carried it with them so the British could not melt it into musket balls.
Congress had written an order, December 12, 1776:
"... until Congress shall otherwise order, General Washington shall be possessed of full power to order and direct all things relative to ... the operations of the war."
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Washington attempted to fight the British, but at the Battle of the Clouds, torrential rains drenched both sides, rendering all firearms useless.
Washington then led his 11,000 American soldiers on a forced retreat to a place 25 miles distant from Philadelphia - Valley Forge, on December 19, 1777.
Meanwhile, another 11,000 Americans were dying on British starving ships Scorpion, Hope, Falmouth, Stromboli, Hunter, and Jersey.
Yale President Ezra Stiles recounted May 8, 1783:
"'O that my head were waters, and my eyes a fountain of tears,' that I might weep the thousands of our brethren that have perished in prison ships --
in one of which, the Jersey, then lying at New York, perished above eleven thousand the last three years -- while others have been barbarously exiled to the East Indies for life."
The Prison Ship Martyrs Monument stands in Fort Greene Park, in the New York City borough of Brooklyn.
Soldiers at Valley Forge were from every State in the new union, some as young as 12 and others as old as 60.
Though most were of European descent, some were African American and American Indian.
Among them were:
Marquis de Lafayette,
Colonel "Mad Anthony" Wayne,
future Chief Justice John Marshall,
Lutheran pastor turned Major-General John Peter Muhlenberg, and
George Washington's Jewish physician, Dr. Philip Moses Russell.
Lacking food and supplies, soldiers died at the rate of twelve per day.
Over 2,500 froze to death in bitter cold, or perished from hunger, typhoid, jaundice, dysentery, and pneumonia.
In addition, hundreds of horses perished in the freezing weather.
A Committee from Congress reported on the soldiers:
"Feet and legs froze till they became black, and it was often necessary to amputate them."
Of the wives and children who followed the army, mending clothes, doing laundry, scavenging for food, and caring for the sick, an estimated 500 died.
President Calvin Coolidge told the Daughters of the American Revolution, April 19, 1926:
"We have been told of the unselfish devotion of the women who gave their own warm garments to fashion clothing for the suffering Continental Army during that bitter winter at Valley Forge.
The burdens of the war were not all borne by the men."
A surgeon from Connecticut, Dr. Albigence Waldo, wrote in his diary:
"December 25th — Christmas. We are still in tents, when ought to be in huts — the poor sick, suffer much in tents this cold weather.
But we now treat them differently from what they used to be at home, under the inspection of old women and Doct. Bolus Linctus. We give them mutton and grogg — and a captial medicine once in a while — to start the disease from its foundation at once.
We avoid piddling pills, powders, Babus's Linctus's cordials (cough lozenges) — and all such insignificant matters whose powers are only rendered important by causing the patient to vomit up his money instead of his disease."
Two days before Christmas, George Washington wrote:
"We have this day no less than 2,873 men in camp UNFIT FOR DUTY because they are barefooted and otherwise naked ..."
"... that unless some great and capital change suddenly takes place ... this Army must inevitably ... starve, dissolve, or disperse, in order to obtain subsistence in the best manner they can."
The Continental Congress talked of replacing General George Washington with General Horatio Gates of Battle of Saratoga fame.
Called the "Conway Cabal," it was orchestrated by Thomas Conway, who Washington had passed over for promotion.
When an anonymous letter was sent to Virginia Governor Patrick Henry, attempting to enlist him in the plot, Henry immediately sent the letter to George Washington to warn him of the insidious scheme.
Maryland delegate Charles Carroll, the only Catholic to sign the Declaration, was instrumental in persuading Congress to keep Washington as Commander-in-Chief.
Hessian Major Carl Leopold Baurmeister noted the only thing that kept the American army from disintegrating was their "spirit of liberty."
A farmer reportedly observed General Washington kneeling in prayer in the snow.
President Ronald Reagan stated in a Radio Address, December 24, 1983:
"The image of George Washington kneeling in prayer in the snow is one of the most famous in American history."
The Boy Scout Handbook, 5th edition (1948), in the section 'Duty to God':
"You worship God regularly with your family in your church or synagogue ... faithful to Almighty God's Commandments. Most great men in history have been men of deep religious faith. Washington knelt in the snow to pray at Valley Forge."
President Dwight Eisenhower broadcast from the White House for the American Legion's Back-to-God Program, February 7, 1954:
"We remember the picture of the Father of our Country, on his knees at Valley Forge seeking divine guidance in the cold gloom of a bitter winter.
Thus Washington gained strength to lead to independence a nation dedicated to the belief that each of us is divinely endowed with indestructible rights."
On April 21, 1778, General Washington wrote to Lt. Col. John Banister:
"No history ... can furnish an instance of an army's suffering such uncommon hardships as ours has done, and bearing them with the same patience and fortitude --
To see men without clothes to cover their nakedness, without blankets to lay on, without shoes, by which their marches might be traced by the blood from their feet, and almost as often without provisions ...
marching through frost and snow, and at Christmas taking up their winter quarters within a day's march of the enemy, without a house or hut to cover them
and submitting to it without a murmur, is a mark of patience and obedience which in my opinion can scarce be paralleled."
George Washington sent a desperate plea for help to Virginia Governor Patrick Henry:
"For several days past we have experienced little less than a famine in the camp and have had much cause to dread a general mutiny and dispersion.
From every appearance, there has been heretofore so astonishing and deficiency in providing that unless the most vigorous and effectual measures are at once everywhere adopted ... we shall not be able to make another campaign."
Outraged, Henry wrote to the Continental Congress:
"I am really shocked at the management of Congress."
Spurred to look into the situation, it was discovered that there was mismanagement by the Continental Army's Quartermaster, General Thomas Mifflin, who had been caught up in the Conway Cabal.
A controversy arose as to whether he exhibited incompetence, or, as some allege, was waylaying supplies bound for Valley Forge into his own warehouses to be sold to the highest bidder.
When Mifflin was confronted, he resigned.
Washington chose as the new Quartermaster General, Nathanial Greene, and within days Valley Forge had clothing, food, and other supplies.
A Christmas carol that would have lifted the country's spirits at this time was "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen," first published in 1760 on a broadsheet in London as a "New Christmas carol."
It was "the most common and generally popular of all carol tunes":
"God rest ye merry, gentlemen,
Let nothing you dismay.
For Jesus Christ our Savior,
Was born on Christmas Day;
To save us all from Satan's power,
When we were gone astray. (Chorus)
O tidings of comfort and joy,
Comfort and joy,
O tidings of comfort and joy."
Overcoming the freezing conditions, soldiers prepared to fight.
In February, 1778, there arrived in the camp Prussian drill master Baron Friedrich von Steuben, who had been a member of the elite General Staff of Frederick the Great, King of Prussia.
Baron von Steuben, who was sent with the recommendation of Ben Franklin, drilled the soldiers daily, transforming them from volunteers into a disciplined army.
Lutheran Pastor Henry Muhlenberg, whose sons Peter and Frederick served in the First U.S. Congress, wrote in The Notebook of a Colonial Clergyman:
"I heard a fine example today, namely that His Excellency General Washington rode around among his army yesterday and admonished each to fear God, to put away wickedness ... and to practice Christian virtues ..."
Rev. Muhlenberg continued:
"From all appearances General Washington does not belong to the so-called world of society, for he respects God's Word, believes in the atonement through Christ, and bears himself in humility and gentleness.
Therefore, the Lord God has also singularly, yea, marvelously preserved him from harm in the midst of countless perils, ambuscades, fatigues, etc., and has hitherto graciously held him in his hand as a chosen vessel."
Washington successfully kept the army intact through the devastating winter, and gave the order at Valley Forge, April 12, 1778:
"The Honorable Congress having thought proper to recommend to the United States of America to set apart Wednesday, the 22nd inst., to be observed as a day of Fasting, Humiliation and Prayer,
that at one time, and with one voice, the righteous dispensations of Providence may be acknowledged, and His goodness and mercy towards our arms supplicated and implored:
The General directs that the day shall be most religiously observed in the Army; that no work shall be done thereon, and that the several chaplains do prepare discourses."
On May 2, 1778, Washington ordered:
"The Commander-in-Chief directs that Divine service be performed every Sunday ...
While we are zealously performing the duties of good citizens and soldiers, we certainly ought not to be inattentive to the higher duties of religion.
To the distinguished character of Patriot, it should be our highest Glory to laud the more distinguished Character of Christian."
President Dwight Eisenhower stated December 24, 1953, lighting the National Christmas Tree:
"George Washington long ago rejected exclusive dependence upon mere materialistic values. In the bitter and critical winter at Valley Forge, when the cause of liberty was so near defeat, his recourse was sincere and earnest prayer ...
As religious faith is the foundation of free government, so is prayer an indispensable part of that faith."
On May 1, 1778, a messenger arrived at Valley Forge with a letter from Benjamin Franklin in Paris, announcing that the French government had signed two treaties to help the Americans: a Treaty of Amity and Commerce; and a Treaty of Alliance, pledging military aid.
Washington declared a day of celebration, beginning with religious services.
Speaking at Valley Forge during the crisis of the Great Depression, President Herbert Hoover admonished May 30, 1931:
"If, by the grace of God, we stand steadfast in our great traditions through this time of stress, we shall insure that we and our sons and daughters shall see these fruits increased many fold ...
If those few thousand men endured that long winter of privation and suffering ... held their countrymen to the faith, and by that holding held fast the freedom of America, what right have we to be of little faith?"
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