On December 19, 1777 General George Washington arrived with the Continental army to Valley Forge. Located 18 miles from Philadelphia, Valley Forge would serve as the winter encampment for American forces during the hard winter of 1777-78. The army would see its darkest days there, as well as the first glimmer of hope that victory was possible.
The Continental Army was battered and bruised after a summer full of defeat. British forces had come ashore at the northern end of Chesapeake Bay in August with the intention of taking Philadelphia, the rebellion’s capital. Washington set up a defense of the city, but the tactics of British General Sir William Howe won the day. In the end, the Continental Army lost battles at Brandywine and Germantown; the British gained Philadelphia.
With cold weather drawing near, Washington began to consider locations for winter encampment. Valley Forge was selected for its proximity to Philadelphia and for its topography—Mount Joy and Mount Misery offered high ground while the Schuylkill River to the north marked a clear line of defense. Upon arriving at Valley Forge the Continentals began to prepare for the weather ahead.
Conditions were terrible. Food of all types was scarce. Most meals consisted of what was called “firecake”, a mixture of flour and water that was then cooked over an open fire. It was essentially tasteless. The men had worn the same clothes for most of the year and had marched the soles off their boots. Blankets were worth their weight in gold. The shelters in which the soldiers slept were damp and crowded, which led to outbreaks of pneumonia, dysentery and typhus. At any one time, nearly twenty percent of the force was unfit for duty. It is estimated that nearly 2,000 men died before spring came. The Continental Army, far from a world-class force under the best of circumstances, was at its breaking point.
Morale was understandably low, given the dire conditions the troops endured. Thousands of soldiers were without shoes and tied rags to their feet to protect them from the frozen earth. The path to Valley Forge was streaked with blood as the icy path slashed into exposed flesh on their feet.
Washington continually requested from Congress supplies for his troops, which were slow to materialize. On December 19, Thomas Paine published a new pamphlet, titled The American Crisis. Paine wrote the words which most Americans have at least read or heard once in their life.
“These are the times that try men’s souls; the summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.”
Within days of its publication, General Washington ordered it read to his troops. While the words could not supply the much needed clothing, food or shelter, it did serve to improve moral and assist in firming the resolve of the Continental troops. On Christmas Eve, some provisions did arrive at Valley Forge for the troops.
During the night of December 25, Washington led his troops across the ice-swollen Delaware about 9 miles north of Trenton. The weather was horrendous and the river treacherous. Raging winds combined with snow, sleet and rain to produce almost impossible conditions. To add to the difficulties, a significant number of Washington’s force marched through the snow without shoes.
The next morning they attacked to the south, taking the Hessian garrison by surprise and over-running the town. After fierce fighting, and the loss of their commander, the Hessians surrendered.
Although not known at the time, this battle was a turning point in the war, it galvanized support in the colonies, shocked the British and convinced allies such as Spain, France and Holland that the Continental Army was a force to be reckoned with.