Winter at Valley Forge By John Tebbel
Private Joseph Martin remembered his first sight of Valley Forge. It was dark, there was no water," and I was perishing with thirst. I searched for water till I was weary, and came to my tent without finding any. Fatigue and thirst, joined with hunger, almost made me desperate. I felt at that instant as if I would have taken victuals or drink from the best friend I had on earth by force."
Two soldiers passed by him with full canteens, but they wouldn't give him any and it was so dark they couldn't tell him where they got it. He begged for a swallow, offered them a threepence, all he had in the world, and got his grudging drink. "I lay there two nights and one day." he wrote later, and had not a morsel of anything to eat all the time, save half of a small pumpkin, which I cooked by placing it upon a rock, the skin side uppermost and making a fire upon it. By the time it was heated through I devoured it with as keen an appetite as I should a pie made of it at some other time."
Martin was one of the more fortunate who didn't spend the whole winter at Valley Forge. His regiment went on to Milltown, now Downingtown, halfway between Philadelphia and Lancaster, where he became a part of a more or less permanent foraging party.
In our national memory, perpetuated by artists, Valley Forge is an image of snow and bitter cold, and we think of Washington, kneeling in what looks like a snowdrift, asking God to ease the burden, something he would never have thought of doing. In fact, it's one of the mildest winters on record there, no more than two inches of snow. The enemies are rain and mud, and the chill that goes with them-these and, of course, the lack of almost everything that human beings need to live. The other enemies include hunger, disease, and constant choking smoke of greenwood fires that make the soldiers' huts habitable. Many of these men haven't been paid for a year. Many others have not much more than a torn blanket with which to protect themselves. And there will be three periods during the winter when there's no food of any kind.
How can this be, in the heart of an agricultural country which has just produced one of its best fall harvests, war or no war? There's an abundance of beef in Connecticut, and plenty of pork in New Jersey. Boston warehouses are filled with cloth. New York reports surpluses of wheat, barley, and rye. So why are we starving and aching with misery in Valley Forge?
Greed and profiteering, also plain old human meanness. Even if these didn't exit, however, it's a country with such appalling roads and too few wheeled vehicles to travel them that moving supplies from one place to another is a logistical nightmare. General Mifflin, who's been serving as quartermaster, resigns the job in November 1777, and for three months Congress doesn't appoint a successor. These, of course, are the worst months in winter quarters.
The nearest sources of supply for Valley Forge are the abundant Pennsylvania farms, but the farmers won't sell to their fellow Americans if they can get higher prices from the British in Philadelphia. William Ellery, who signed the Declaration for Rhode Island, looks about him in the Continental Congress and at the burgeoning states and writes, with disgust: "The love of country and public virtues are annihilated. If Diogenes were alive and were to search America with candles, would he find an honest man?"
A colonel from New York writes to his governor, George Clinton, pleading for supplies from the stores of his home state: "I have upwards of seventy men unfit for duty only for the want of clothing, twenty of which have no breeches at all, so that they are obliged to take their blankets to cover their nakedness and as many without a single shirt, stocking, or shoe, about thirty fit for duty, the rest sick or lame, and, God knows, it won't be long before they will all be laid up, as the poor fellows are obliged to fetch wood and water on their backs half a mile with bare legs in snow or mud."
The men live in a city of log huts, twelve to a hut. Officers of the company share a hut. They're claustrophobic, these quarters, only fourteen by sixteen feet, reeking with smoke from round-the-clock fires. Before real deprivation sets in, flour or some other kind of ground grains is the primary--and sometimes the only-food. Soldiers mix water with it and bake it in pans over the coals. Fire cakes, they're called. One officer ha a cherished recipe for cooking spoiled pork and hog fodder when it's available. Company-grade officers share the general misery, but the field-grade and general officers are much better supplied.
It's not a place where men sit huddled up and miserable, although they do that too. The camp is always bustling, with civilians coming and going on vista, and soldiers leaving and departing on furloughs. Nor are the food shortages common to all; some units fare better than others. Shortage of clothing is more prevalent and there are even some officers who wear blankets instead of overcoats, and apparently think nothing of standing next to men in rags. It isn't that no clothing is available, but civilians are competing for it and frequently get there first. Soldiers desperate for money are willing to break all the laws and sell what clothing they do have, even their muskets, for money to buy food and liquor. They have their own priorities. So have the civilians. Connecticut's beef supply disappears because the state puts a ceiling on the exorbitant prices farmers are getting for it, so they refuse to sell. Boston merchants have plenty of clothing on their shelves but they won't sell it, even at outrageous prices, for anything but cash. Private contractors are getting rich. They load yup Pennsylvania wagons with flour and iron and send them north, while New Jersey pork rots for lack of transport. It's graft, the winter-that hr money is very little consequence to her-that she begs of him to consider that charity begins at home, and not suffer his family to perish with want in the midst of plenty."
No wonder more than fifty officers of General Greene's division resign their commissions in a single day, and six or seven more the next day. Washington remarks grimly that in the end he may be left alone with the soldiers. Waldo himself, in ill health and the recipient of the same kind of letters from home that he's been writing about in his diary, resigns in October 1779.
As for the other ranks, they write home too and exchange miseries, but somehow the public doesn't really understand what's happening at Valley Forge, because Washington makes every effort to keep the desperate condition of the army a secret from the general public, which wants to hear only good news, as though he had any to give them.
1. Why is there a shortage of food at Valley Forge?