It was the winter of 1777, the heart of the American Revolution, when General George Washington decided my home provided everything he needed for a safe place to encamp his troops for the winter: easily defensible high ground, proximity to Philadelphia to pressure the British, the river nearby for transportation.
I watched as 12,000 men marched into the valley on December 19, weary, bedraggled, but with their heads held high. They swiftly pitched tents as temporary shelter, then busily set about building log huts. They would complete nearly 2000 of these huts, chinked with clay and laid out along military avenues.
Some of the officers made quarters in the houses of local farmers. It was more cramped than it may appear today. When General Henry Knox lived in the house above, it was half this size; expansion came after Revolutionary times. General James Varnum occupied only one room on the upper floor of this dwelling, below; the owner’s family continued to live in the rest of the house.Many of the officers, including Knox and Varnum, would later move into huts to be closer to their men.
I have seen many winters in my long life, some mild, some harsh. That winter at Valley Forge was neither. Typical of a Philadelphia winter, there were occasional snowstorms, followed by thawing, rain, and then refreezing. The resulting mud and ice interfered greatly with supply shipments. Heavy snow in February was followed immediately by heavy rain, and mud made roads impassable for a time.
This was the real hardship the troops faced; not the weather, but the lack of supplies, particularly clothing adequate to the winter conditions. The lack of a true Quartermaster made the situation worse. Sanitation was also an issue. Springs and streams provided water, but were frequently fouled.
Relief arrived with better weather, an early shad run on the Schuylkill, and the appointment of General Nathanael Greene as Quartermaster.
When they weren’t building, serving as sentries, or hunting for wood and food, they were engaged in military drill on the Grand Parade. In February, Baron Friedrich von Steuben arrived in camp, and was given the job of reforming the Army’s training and discipline. He began with the Commander-in-Chief’s Guards, and quickly won them over with his methods. The enthusiasm spread outward as ever large groups of men drilled and maneuvered skillfully. He also greatly improved the sanitation in camp.
After France entered into an alliance with the United States, the British would abandon Philadelphia for New York. On June 19, 1778, Washington would lead the Continental Army out of the camp in pursuit. My valley returned to a place of peaceful farmsteads.
Not a shot fired was fired at Valley Forge in battle. Yet the encampment marked a turning point in the war. France threw in its lot with the Americans. Conditions hardened the men. Von Steuben molded a skilled but inconsistently-trained army into a cohesive professional fighting force. Truly the Army that left Valley Forge was not the Army that arrived six months prior.
Many generations have come and gone. Yet I stand here still, my old limbs weary, honored to be a silent sentinel watching over the valley that forged a nation.