Pennsylvania: Valley Forge Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

This is the site of the historic encampment of General George Washington’s Continental army during the winter of 1777-1778. The park today covers about three thousand acres on both sides of the Schuylkill River.

Site Office

Valley Forge National Historical Park

P.O. Box 953

Valley Forge, PA 19482

ph.: (610) 783-1077

Web site: www.nps.gov/vafo/

Valley Forge, the winter quarters of General George Washington’s Continental army in 1777-1778, has been called the most celebrated encampment in the history of the world. It was there that Washington and his ragged and exhausted army of twelve thousand men lived for six months, enduring brutal cold and severe privation. Although no battles were fought there, several thousand men died of malnutrition, exposure, and disease. Despite that terrible winter of hardship, Valley Forge has been called the turning point of the Revolutionary War. It transformed Washington’s “rabble in arms” into a disciplined fighting force that in the spring emerged to win the key Battle of Monmouth Courthouse and went on to win several other important battles, culminating with the victory at Yorktown.

Although General Washington’s troops had achieved significant victories at Trenton and Princeton in the winter of 1776-1777, the fortunes of the American army took a turn for the worse after Sir William Howe, commander in chief of the British forces in North America, landed his experienced army at the upper end of the Chesapeake Bay. His objective was the capture of the American capital in Philadelphia.

Washington was able to maneuver his army into position to defend the city, but a combination of Howe’s skillful tactics and several blunders by Washington led to a British victory at Brandywine and a draw at Germantown. The Continental Congress fled Philadelphia, and the British occupied the city. With winter rapidly approaching and prospects of further military actions unpromising, Washington turned his attention to obtaining winter quarters for his men.

Selection of Valley Forge for Winter Quarters

Several sites were proposed, but his selection, Valley Forge, was perhaps the best of those considered. Named for an iron forge on Valley Creek, Valley Forge was close enough to the British to prevent their raiders from sweeping into the Pennsylvania interior, yet far enough away to prevent surprise attacks. The area’s high ground between Mount Joy and Mount Misery, with the Schuylkill River to the north, made it easily defensible.

It was snowing on the day Washington led his twelve thousand exhausted men up Guelph Road into the encampment. Included in the ranks were boys as young as twelve and men in their fifties and sixties. Some of the soldiers were blacks; others, Indians. They presented a truly sorry picture as they trudged wearily into camp. According to historian Joan Marshall-Dutcher, “Many a soldier’s shoes had been destroyed by the long marches, and clothing and blankets were tattered almost beyond serviceability. Hundreds of men were declared unfit for duty. . . . ”

Conditions in the Camp

The most pressing problem was shelter for the men. Brigadier General Louis du Portail, chief of the French engineers, was assigned the monumental task of building approximately one thousand cabins or huts for the troops as quickly as possible. The huts were to measure fourteen by sixteen feet, to house twelve men each, and to be grouped by military unit into streets and sections. Although hampered by several shortages, including nails, tools, and boards for doors and roofs, du Portail and his units had built nearly all the huts by the third day in camp, a feat undoubtedly helped by Washington’s having offered several prizes to the units that finished their huts first.

Although very cramped, and with roofs that leaked more or less constantly, the huts were nevertheless satisfactory for men accustomed to the hardships of army life. Even so, after months of sheltering unwashed men and food waste, these huts were major sources of disease and contagion. Soldiers, frequently ill and inadequately dressed for the cold, were not inclined to trek all the way to the camp latrines. Small wonder that General Anthony Wayne reportedly said he would rather go into battle than on an inspection tour of the huts.

One of the greatest problems was the acute shortage of food and supplies. According to the rations determined by the Continental Congress for the troops, the men were to receive daily “a pound and a half of flour or bread, a pound of pork, and a gill [four ounces] of spirits, with an occasional half pint of peas or beans in place of flour . . . ”

The disparity between these generous rations and what the men actually received was shocking and a source of great dissension among the troops. When the army arrived at Valley Forge, they had had no fresh food for several days, and none would arrive for several days thereafter. Although foraging parties had found enough mutton and rum for all in limited quantities on Christmas Day, shortages continued for most of the winter and often left the men near starvation. On some days, many of the troops had no rations at all. At other times they had nothing but flour, to which they added water before roasting it over the coals to create “firecake.”

These shortages were the result of poor organization, limited forage for the horses, devaluation of the Continental currency, and the behavior of the wagoners. According to historian Noel F. Busch, the wagoners charged high wages but did little to earn them. For example, they emptied flour barrels into open carts and poured the brine off of salt meat, causing it to spoil. Washington was moved to write, “To see men without clothes to cover their nakedness, without blankets to lie on, without shoes . . . without a house or hut to cover them until those could be built, and submitting without a murmur, is a proof of the patience and obedience, which in my opinion, can scarcely be paralleled.”

Even so, desertions ran into the thousands–many men returned home only to rejoin under another name and secure the bounty for enlistment. Worse, an estimated one thousand men joined the British at Philadelphia of their own free will. Many of them were so-called Old-country men, English immigrants less dedicated to the rebel cause than native-born Americans.

To deal with this problem, Washington, like other commanders of the time, relied on corporal punishment. For instance, the original punishment for desertion was thirty-nine lashes on the bare back, but by 1776 Congress had lifted the limit to one hundred, and it was soon increased. Other harsh penalties were meted out for trading with the enemy, embezzling, theft, dueling, drunkenness, and gambling.

Disease Takes a Heavy Toll

By far the worst scourge to face the soldiers was death from disease, which during the encampment took an estimated 2,500 lives, or 25 percent of the force that had arrived at Valley Forge in December. One of the worst killers was typhus, or “camp fever,” spread mainly by body lice. The remedy was to burn a spoonful of sulfur or gunpowder in the hut of the stricken man every day. Needless to say, few were saved by this treatment. Another devastating disease was smallpox. Although the benefits of inoculation were understood at the time (if only imprecisely), there were also chronic shortages of medical supplies, and it took months to treat the entire camp. Typhus and smallpox were often mistaken for one another in their early stages of development, and sufferers of the two diseases were not separated, so that those who caught the one disease were likely to catch the other as well.

Most of the afflicted were quartered at hospitals in or near camp. The biggest one, at Yellow Springs, had formerly been a local health spa. Each row of huts in camp was equipped with its own sick bay. These bays were frequently the site of amputations necessitated by frostbite. Other common ailments were “the itch,” a type of scabies that often led to serious infection, and, of course, the common cold, which could lead to pneumonia. The unsanitary conditions at camp contributed to a high rate of food poisoning and dysentery.

Unsanitary conditions were the result not only of the soldiers’ behavior, but of the rotting bodies of horses that had died of exposure or starvation. “Removing their carcasses was obviously a task of the first magnitude,” writes historian Noel F. Busch, “but burying them in the frozen ground was even more difficult, and the graves were often shallow. After a heavy rain or thaw, the rotting remains would then be exposed so that the job had to be done a second or third time.”

Von Steuben Takes Charge of Discipline

On February 23, Friedrich Wilhelm Ludolf Gerhard Augustin von Steuben, formerly a captain in the Prussian army, arrived in Valley Forge. Von Steuben was a drillmaster without peer, and he was able to transform the ragtag forces he found into a disciplined army. Upon his arrival, he had been given the task of creating, from scratch, a practical training program. Von Steuben began by training a core group of soldiers selected from various state armies. Once trained, these men would themselves teach what they had learned to the other troops in their units. To aid in the training von Steuben wrote a manual eventually published as Regulations for the Order and Discipline of the Troops of the United States (but better known as the Blue Book), which would be used as the basic training guide for the U.S. Army for more than fifty years. Each night he wrote a training plan in French; it was immediately translated into English and copied for all the individual regiments and companies.

The men learned to march, charge with bayonets, and load and fire muskets. Von Steuben also introduced the latest European maneuvers, designed to allow regiments to move rapidly and to develop maximum firepower. but perhaps his greatest accomplishment was to instill in the Continental officers a new spirit of military discipline based, in the Prussian manner, on mutual trust–a spirit of respect that held a company, a regiment, or an army together.

Spring’s arrival saw a decided uplift in the spirit of the men encamped at Valley Forge. Under Von Steuben, the army had gained a new sense of unity. There were new arrivals almost daily from South Carolina, Maryland, and New York. General Nathanael Greene, one of of Washington’s most trusted lieutenants, was appointed quartermaster general and began to remedy supply problems. Morale grew steadily. Then on May 5, 1778, the government announced a formal alliance with France.

Washington’s Army Moves Out

On June 19, 1778, six months to the day after it had marched into Valley Forge, the newly resolute Continental army, led by its commander, General Washington, moved out of Valley Forge. Washington led his troops to Monmouth Courthouse, where just nine days later they won a significant victory against the British. The newly forged army then marched on to eventual victory at Yorktown.

Today Valley Forge and the surrounding area, consisting of several thousand acres of rolling hills and forest overlooking the Schuylkill River, is known as Valley Forge National Historical Park and is administered by the federal government. Several of the original huts and buildings are still intact. Also on view at the park are the Memorial Arch, a 1917 replica of the Arch of Triumph in Paris; a bronze equestrian statue of General Anthony Wayne; General Washington’s headquarters, located in the Isaac Potts House; several redoubts important in the defense of the area; and Washington Memorial Chapel.

For Further Information
  • Busch, Noel F. Winter Quarters: George Washington and the Continental Army at Valley Forge. New York: Liveright, 1974. Provides a detailed look at the incredible privations and suffering of the men at Valley Forge, and how Washington and Von Steuben managed to convert this demoralized group into an effective fighting force.
  • Eastby, Allen G. “The Baron.” American History Illustrated, November/December, 1990. Presents an insightful and fascinating picture of the man entrusted by General Washington to instill discipline into the Continental army.
  • Marshall-Dutcher, Joan. “Winter at Valley Forge.” American History Illustrated, November/December, 1990. Marshall-Dutcher, official historian at the park, presents a concise and stirring description of the events there.
  • Treese, Lorett. Valley Forge: Making and Remaking a National Symbol. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1995. Discusses the history of Valley Forge and recent efforts toward restoration and conservation.
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