Baron von Steuben at Valley Forge, 1777, by Augustus G. Heaton, 1907 / National War College
By Mrs. Harriet D. Eisenberg
I have chosen to look up particulars concerning the daily life of the soldier at Valley Forge in the awful winter of 1777-8. And as no historian can picture the life of any period so vividly as it may be described by those who were participants in that life, or eye witnesses of it, I have gathered the materials for this paper from diaries of those who were there, from accounts by men whose friends were in the camp, from letters sent to and from the camp, and from the orderly book of a general who kept a strict report of the daily orders issued by the Commander-in-chief, from the fall campaign of 1777, to the late spring of 1778.
It is unnecessary to reiterate what all of us know,–that the winter of ’77-8 was the blackest time of the war of Independence, and it was made so, not only by the machinations of the enemies of Washington who were striving to displace him as Commander-in-Chief, but by the unparalleled severity of the winter and the dearth of the commonest necessaries of life. The sombreness of the picture is emphasized by contrast with the brightness and gaiety that characterized the life in Philadelphia during that same winter when the British troops occupied the city. There a succession of brilliant festivities was going on, the gaieties culminating in the mischianza that most gorgeous spectacle ever given by an army to its retiring officer, when Peggy Shippen and Sallie Chew danced the night away with the scarlet-coated officers of the British army, while fathers and brothers were suffering on the hills above the Schuylkill.
Why did Washington elect to put his army in winter-quarters? He himself answers the question, which was asked by congress who objected to the army’s going into winter quarters at all. The campaign, which had seen the battles of the Brandywine and of Germantown, was over; the British were in possession of Philadelphia; the army was fatigued and there was little chance of recuperation from sources already heavily drained. Hence a winter’s rest was necessary. And Washington’s own words, as he issued the orders for the day on December 23d, tell us why Valley Forge was chosen.
“The General wishes it was in his power to conduct the troops into the best winter quarters; but where are those to be found? Should we retire into the interior portions of the country, we should find them crowded with virtuous citizens who, sacrificing their all, have left Philadelphia, and fled hither for protection. To their distress, humanity forbids us to add. This is not all. We should leave a vast extent of fertile country to be despoiled and ravaged by the enemy. These and other considerations make it necessary to take such a position (as this), and influenced by these considerations he persuades himself that officers and soldiers, with one heart and one mind, will resolve to surmount every difficulty with the fortitude and patience becoming their profession and the Sacred Cause in which they are engaged. He himself, will share in the hardships, and partake of every inconvenience.”
And with this resolve on his part, kept faithfully through the long weeks, the bitter winter was begun.
It was on December 12th that a bridge of wagons was made across the Schuylkill and the army, already sick and broken down, moved over. On that day, Dr. Waldo, a surgeon from Connecticut made this entry in his diary:
“Sunset. We are ordered to march over the river. I’m sick–eat nothing–no whiskey–no baggage. Lord-Lord-Lord.”
A few days later he makes this entry:
“The army, who have been surprisingly healthy hitherto, now begin to grow sickly. They still show alacrity and contentment not to be expected from so young troops.
“I am sick, discontented, out of humor. Poor food, hard lodging–cold weather–fatigue–nasty clothes–nasty cooking–smoked out of my senses, vomit half my time–the Devil’s in it. I can’t endure it.
“Here comes a bowl of soup–full of burnt leaves and dirt.–Away with it, boys. I’ll live like the chameleon upon air. ‘Pooh-pooh,’ says Patience. You talk like a fool.–See the poor soldier–with what cheerfulness he meets his foes and encounters hardships. If bare of foot he labors through mud and cold, with a song extolling war and Washington. If his food is bad he eats it with contentment and whistles it into digestion.–There comes a soldier–his bare feet are seen through his worn out shoes. His legs are nearly naked from his tattered remains of an old pair of stockings–his shirt hanging in strings,–his hair dishevelled–his face meagre–his whole appearance pictures a person forsaken and discouraged. He comes and cries with despair–I am sick. My feet are lame–my legs are sore–my body covered with tormenting itch–my clothes worn out–my constitution broken. I fail fast. I shall soon be no more. And all the reward I shall get will be–‘Poor Will is dead.'”
On the 21st of December this entry appears:
“A general cry through the camp this evening: ‘no meat–no meat.’ The distant vales echo back–‘no meat.’ ‘What have you for dinner, Boys?’ ‘Nothing but fire-cake and water, sir! At night. ‘Gentlemen, supper is ready.’ ‘What is your supper, lads?’ ‘Fire-cake and water Sir.'”
Again on December 22d:
“Lay excessive cold and uncomfortable last night. My eyes started out of their orbits like a rabbit’s eyes, occasioned by a great cold and smoke. Huts go slowly. Cold and smoke make us fret.–I don’t know anything that vexes a man’s soul more than hot smoke continually blowing into one’s eyes, and when he attempts to avoid it, he is met by a cold and freezing wind.”
On December 25th, Xmas, this entry:
“Still in tents. The sick suffer much in tents. We give them mutton and grog and capital medicine it is once in a while.”
“I am alive. I am well. Huts go on briskly.”
I have quoted thus lengthily from this diary, which gives, perhaps, the most vivid picture we possess of that dark period, simply because it touches upon almost all that concerns the life of the soldiers that winter,–upon their dwellings, their food, their health, their courage.
Valley Forge Huts / Wikimedia Commons
The Doctor repeatedly speaks of the huts which were to shelter the men. In the order issued by Washington to his generals early in December, directions were given concerning the construction of these dwellings. According to these directions, the major-generals, accompanied by the engineers, were to fix on the proper spot for hutting. The sunside of the hills was chosen, and here they constructed long rows of log huts, and made numerous stockades and bristling pikes for defence along the line of the trench. For these purposes and for their fuel they cut off an entire forest of timber. Can’t you hear the steady crash of the ax held by hands benumbed with the cold, as blow, by blow, they felled the trees on the hillside, eager to erect the crude huts which were to give better shelter than the tents in which they were yet shivering and choking? In cutting their firewood, the soldiers were directed to save such parts of each tree as would do for building, reserving 16 or 18 feet of trunk for logs to rear their huts. “The quartermaster-general, (so says the order of December 20th) is to delay no time, but procure large quantities of straw, either for covering the huts or for beds.” This last item would suggest the meagreness of the furnishing. Throughout the entire winter the soldier could look for few of the barest necessities of life. An order from headquarters directed that each hut should be provided with a pail. Dishes were a rarity. Each soldier carried his knife in his pocket, while one horn spoon, a pewter dish, and a horn tumbler into which whiskey rarely entered, did duty for a whole mess. The eagerness to possess a single dish is illustrated by an anecdote which has come down in my own family, if I may presume to narrate it. My Revolutionary ancestor was a manufacturer of pottery. In the leisure hours of this bitter time at Valley Forge, he built a kiln and burnt some pottery. Just as it was time to open the ovens, a band of soldiers rushed upon them, tearing them down, and triumphantly marched off with their prize, leaving Captain Piercy as destitute of dishes as before.
As for the food that was meant to sustain the defenders of our liberty, the diary I have quoted, together with Washington’s daily orders, gives us sufficient information to enable us to judge of its meagreness. Often their food was salted herring so decayed that it had to be dug ‘en masse’ from the barrels. Du Poncean, a young officer, aid to Baron Steuben, related to a friend, a few years after the war, some facts of stirring interest. “They bore,” he says, “with fortitude and patience. Sometimes, you might see the soldiers pop their heads out from their huts and call in an undertone–‘no bread, no soldier;’ but a single word from their officer would still their complaint.” Baron Steuben’s cook left him at Valley Forge, saying that when there was nothing to cook, any one might turn the spit.
The commander-in-chief, partaking of the hardships of his brave men, was accustomed to sit down with his invited officers to a scanty piece of meat, with some hard bread and a few potatoes. At his house, called Moore Hall, they drank the prosperity of the nation in humble toddy, and the luxurious dessert consisted of a dish of hazel nuts.
Even in those scenes, Mrs. Washington, as was her practice in the winter campaign, had joined her husband, and always at the head of the table maintained a mild and dignified, yet cheerful manner. She busied herself all day long, with errands of grace, and when she passed along the lines, she would hear the fervent cry,–“God bless Lady Washington.”
I need not go into details concerning the lack of clothing–the diary I have quoted is sufficiently suggestive. An officer said, some years after the war, that many were without shoes, and while acting as sentinels, had doffed their hats to stand in, to save their feet from freezing. Deserters to the British army–for even among the loyal American troops there were some to be found who could not stand up against cold and hunger and disease and the inducement held out by the enemy to deserters–would enter Philadelphia shoeless and almost naked–around their body an old, dirty blanket, fastened by a leather belt around the waist.
One does not wonder that disease was rampant, that orders had to be issued from headquarters for the proper treatment of the itch; for inoculation against smallpox, for the care of those suffering from dysentery which was widespread in the camp. On January 8, an order was issued from the commander-in-chief to the effect that men rendered unfit for duty by the itch be looked after by the surgeon and properly disposed in huts where they could be anointed for the disease. Hospital provisions were made for the sick. Huts, 15 by 25 and 9 feet high, with windows in each end, were built, two for each brigade. They were placed at or near the center, and not more than 100 yards from the bridge. But such were the ravages of the disease that long trenches in the vale below the hill were dug, and filled in with the dead.
To turn to the activities of the camp,–its duties, privileges, and amusements, and even its crimes. Until somewhat late in the spring, when Baron Steuben arrived at Valley Forge, there was little system observed in the drilling of the several brigades. Yet each day’s military duty was religiously attended to, that there might, at least, be some preparation for defence in case of an attack from the superior force at Philadelphia. The duties of both rank and file were strictly laid down by Washington, and any dereliction was punished with military strictness.
In the commands issued on February 8, the order of the day is plainly indicated. I give the words from Orderly book:
“Reveille sounded at daybreak–troop at 8–retreat at sunset–tattoo at 9. Drummers call to beat at the right of first line and answer through that line. Then through the second and corp of artillery, beginning at the left. Reserve shall follow the second line immediately upon this. Three rolls, to begin, and run through in like manner as the call. Then all the drums of the army at the heads of their respective corps shall go through the regular beats, ceasing upon the right which will be a sign for the whole to cease.”
Don’t you imagine that you hear the rise and fall of the notes as they echoed and re-echoed over the frozen hills and thrilled the hearts that beat beneath the rags in the cold winter morning?
The daily drill on parade, the picket duty, the domestic duties incumbent upon the men in the absence of the women, the leisure hours, then taps, and the day’s tale was told.
I should like to tell you of the markets established, for two days each, at three separate points on the outskirts of the camp, where for prices fixed by a schedule to prevent extortion, the soldiers, fortunate enough to possess some money might add to their meagre supplies some comforts in food or clothing. I should like to tell of the sutlers that followed each brigade, and the strict rules that governed their dealings with the army,–of the funerals, the simple ceremonies of which were fixed by orders from headquarters; of the gaming among the soldiers, which vice Washington so thoroughly abhorred that he forbade, under strictest penalties, indulgence in even harmless games of cards and dice. I should like to tell of the thanksgiving days appointed by congress for some signal victory of the northern army, or for the blessing of the French alliance, on which days the camp was exempt from ordinary duty and after divine service the day was given over to the men. Or I should like to tell of Friday the “Flag day” when a flag of truce was carried into Philadelphia and letters were sent to loved ones, and answers brought back containing disheartening news of the gaieties then going on, or encouraging accounts of the sacrifices of mothers and daughters in the cause of liberty. And finally I should like to tell you of the court martials, through the reports of which we get such a vivid picture of the intimate life of the time: of the trial by court martial of Anthony Wayne, who was acquitted of the charge of conduct unbecoming an officer; of the trial of a common soldier for stealing a blanket from a fellow soldier, and the punishment by 100 lashes on his bare back; of the trial of a Mary Johnson who plotted to desert the camp and who, between the lined up ranks of the brigade, was drummed out of camp; of the trial of John Riley for desertion, and his execution on parade ground, with the full brigade in attendance; of the dramatic punishment of an officer found guilty of robbery and absenting himself, with a private, without leave, and who was sentenced to have his sword broken over his head on grand parade at guard mount. I should like to tell, too, of the foraging parties sent out to scour the country for food and straw; and the frequent skirmishes with detachments of the enemy; of the depredations made by the soldiers on the surrounding farmers, which depredations were so deplored by Washington and which tried so his great soul I wanted to speak of the greatness of the Commander-in-Chief in the face of all he had to contend with–the continued depredations of his men; the repeated abuse of privilege; the frequent disobedience of orders; the unavoidably filthy condition of the camp; the suffering of the soldiers; the peril from a powerful enemy,–all sufficient to make a soul of less generous mould succumb to fate, yet serving only in Washington’s case to make him put firmer trust in an Almighty Power and in the justice of his cause.
At the opening of the spring a greater activity prevailed in the camp. With the coming of Baron Steuben, the army was uniformly drilled in the tactics of European warfare. With the new appropriation of congress, new uniforms were possible and gave a more military appearance to the army. It was no longer necessary, therefore, for Washington to issue orders that the men must appear on parade with beards shaven and faces clean, though their garments were of great variety and ragged. And with the coming of the spring, and of greater comforts in consequence, Washington, in recognition of the suffering, fidelity and patriotism of his troops took occasion to commend them in these words:
“The Commander-in-Chief takes this occasion to return his thanks to the officers and soldiers of this army for that persevering fidelity and zeal which they have uniformly manifested in all their conduct. Their fortitude not only under the common hardships incident to a military life, but also, under the additional suffering to which the peculiar situation of these states has exposed them, clearly proves them to be men worthy the enviable privilege of contending for the rights of human nature–the freedom and independence of the country. The recent instance of uncomplaining patience during the late scarcity of provisions in camp is a fresh proof that they possess in eminent degree the spirits of soldiers and the magnanimity of patriots. The few who disgraced themselves by murmuring, it is hoped, have repented such unmanly behaviour and have resolved to emulate the noble example of their associates–Soldiers, American Soldiers, will despise the meanness of repining at such trifling strokes of adversity, trifling indeed when compared with the transcendent prize which will undoubtedly crown their patience and perseverance.
“Glory and freedom, peace and plenty, the admiration of the world, the love of their country and the gratitude of posterity.” — American Monthly Magazine