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This Day in History, Dec 19 – Winter at Valley Forge

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It was 241 years ago today the rag-tagged army of Continentals settled into their winter camp at a little place called Valley Forge, near the city of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. On December 19, 1777, George Washington and his army bivouacked here, as most fighting halted during the harsh weather conditions. As we too prepare for harsh conditions, though nothing like that on the east coast, its interesting to look back on how our founding fathers endured during a desperate time in our young nation’s history.

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Valley Forge was a good position for the army to camp. Commanding the high ground, and close to the British positions in Philadelphia, it allowed Washington to shadow any movement by the enemy. Valley Forge also marked the first real attempt by the army to construct solid wooden structures for the winter, instead of tents and makeshift huts. However, at Valley Forge, the enemy was not the only worry. Disease was rampant in the encampment, claiming many lives. Resources were scarce, problems with food and even water supplies occurred throughout the winter. Snow fell in heaps, but with everything aforementioned, it was the least of their worries. Despite preventative measures towards some diseases, such as smallpox, they still claimed the lives of several men. Desertion was also rampant, even the execution of some of the men that were caught.

It was not a total disaster for the Americans as foreign help finally arrived. The Marquis de Lafayette helped to negotiate French aid during the war. Though conditions were bad at Valley Forge, the Americans also learned from this, by improving organizational methods which led to the reduction of disease, food and water supplies improved as well. The quote “necessity is the mother of invention” was true at Valley Forge. Former Prussian officer Baron Friedrich von Steuben, also arrived to help discipline the men, giving them the ability to fight the British as professional soldiers. The Continental Army was made up of several different units from the northern colonies, each had their own officers who drilled their men in different ways, causing several mishaps against an experienced and ruthless enemy like the British Army. Steuben trained the entire army into one cohesive fighting machine; the American Army was being formed.

The Continental Army left their winter camp a better fighting force. Though the war was not over, and the British would still claim many more victories, out of hardship came a new Army, that learned from its mistakes and gained valuable experience. Today at Valley Forge Americans can get a glimpse of how life was in 1777. Cannons still dot the terrain, and recreated huts are available for visitors, as well as the stone houses that Washington and others used as their headquarters. They stand as a testament of what our founders suffered through and persevered. May we never find ourselves in such a situation again, but if we do, let Valley Forge stand as a beacon, and that through our determination, America will still win the day.

Source: Patriots, The Men who started the American Revolution. By A.J. Langguth

About the Author

Ronald G. Mayer Jr. is a Native of Arizona and a graduate of the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College at Arizona State University. He teaches history at Liberty Traditional School in Prescott Valley where he resides. He looks forward to a career as a Professor of History.

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