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Washington Arrives at Valley Forge - This Day in History - December 19th

Posted on Monday, December 27, 2021

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On This Day in History, December 19th, General Washington and his army arrived at Valley Forge in 1777.

Valley Forge National Historical Park

George Washington and the Continental Army marched into Valley Forge on December 19th, 1777 to camp for the winter. Morale was incredibly low as Washington's Army had recently lost the Battle of Brandywine, which had left the colonial Capital of Philadelphia undefended and caused the Continental Congress to flee the city as the British took over Philadelphia. Washington and his Army made an attempt to win the capital city back in the Battle of Germantown, but the battle marked another disastrous loss for Washington in one of the bloodiest battles of the Revolution. These military losses were part of string of military setbacks that spanned the fall of 1777, which included American losses in and around Philadelphia at Fort Miflin, Paoli and an inconclusive battle at White Marsh, where Washington and his army narrowly avoided total destruction at the hands of the Brittish. 

In the midst of these losses, General Gates and thousands of Continental Army soldiers up in Northeast New York were successful in the Battles of Saratoga where they scored a decisive victory that proved to be a turning point in the war. But at the time, these victories hundreds of miles away must have been cold comfort to Washington's army as they retreated into the Philadelphia countryside, fearful of another British attack and facing major supply shortages as they braced for brutal winter. Washington wrote about the abysmal condition of his Army as they marched into Valley Forge, noting that many soldiers did not have clothing to suitably protect them from the weather. Many of his soldiers no longer even had suitable footwear and Washington described the sight of the tracks of blood in snow as they marched. Worse still, Valley Forge was chosen out of necessity for its defensive position high above the Schuylkill River, there was no existing infrastructure at the site to house Washington's Army who had to immediately set to work constructing hundreds of huts to protect themselves from the elements. Over the course of the winter, thousands of soldiers died of disease, exposure, and malnutrition.

Washington's Headquarters at Valley Forge

But out of these bleak conditions, Washington's Army was reborn. An effort to retrain Washington's troops, many of whom lacked any formal military training was led by Baron von Steuben, a former elite General in the Prussian Army, who had recently offered his services to General Washington.  Despite his inability to speak English, von Steuben drilled the inexperienced Continental Army into skilled soldiers. Von Steuben instructed soldiers on the proper techniques used in aiming muskets, charging with bayonets, and moving together in ranks.  

While von Steuben trained Washington's soldiers, Washington worked furiously along with top aids like a young Alexander Hamilton to resolve supply chain issues and get his soldiers the supplies they needed. Meanwhile, Washington's wife Martha Washington joined George at Valley Forge and along with the wives of other officers, who tried their best to improve the morale of the soldiers. When the news arrived at Valley Forge that the Americans had negotiated an alliance with the French, Martha helped to organize an enormous celebration.

When Washington and his Army finally marched out of Valley Forge half a year later in June of 1778, they were an entirely different Army. Washington would later credit the mental toughness that his army gained by surviving the harsh winter at Valley Forge as a crucial step in shaping the force that would go on to win American Independence.

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