Valley Forge: A Place of Transformation for the Continental Army
By Donna K. Keesling
In Dember of 1777, the Continental Army established its winter encampment in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. Historian and author Phillip S. Greenwalt refers to Valley Forge as “the winter that won the war.” What transpired during the six months they spent in Valley Forge that transformed the beleaguered men into a disciplined fighting force? And who were the key men that contributed to this unlikely transformation?
After battles in the Brandywine Valley and at Paoli, the British army under General Sir William Howe marched unopposed into the American capital of Philadelphia in September of 1777. The Continental army attacked the British again in October of 1777 at Germantown but were unsuccessful in their efforts. According to historian Joseph J. Ellis, “the inability of American troops to move in disciplined formations amidst the smoke and confusion had a decisive impact on the outcome” of the battle at Germantown.
In the eighteenth century, there was an “agreed-upon understanding” that armies did not fight in winter. After spending most of November in Whitemarsh, approximately thirteen miles north of Philadelphia, General George Washington settled on Valley Forge as the location for the Continental Army’s winter encampment. Valley Forge, with its densely wooded hillsides, provided cover for the encampment. The location, eighteen miles from Philadelphia, also enabled the Continental Army to monitor the British army’s actions in an effort to prevent a surprise attack.
On December 19, 1777, approximately 12,000 soldiers and 400 women and children arrived in the area commonly known as Valley Forge and began to establish it as their winter home. The landscape that greeted them included small crop fields and pastures divided by fences, woodlands and charcoal hearths on the surrounding mountains, and the ruins of forges and other structures in the village. The encampment was composed of “free and enslaved African American soldiers and civilians, Indigenous people, wealthy officers, impoverished enlisted men, European immigrants, speakers of several languages, and adherents of multiple religions.”
General Washington took up residence in a brick house built by Isaac Potts, possibly as early as the late 1750s. Mrs. Deborah Hughes, Isaac Potts’ aunt, was living in the house when the Continental Army arrived. Washington rented the house and its furnishings to use as his headquarters.
The soldiers were instructed to build winter huts. According to Greenwalt, the “wooden abodes would be 14 by 16 feet, each with a fireplace, and lined with 18 inches of clay for insulation.” However, there were no sawmills in the area and according to at least one soldier’s report, axes were scarce. Despite the scarcity of tools, within a month of their arrival at Valley Forge, the men had built over 2,000 huts with each housing eight to twelve soldiers.
Before the Continental Army arrived in Valley Forge, General Washington was concerned about obtaining supplies for the soldiers. He wrote to the Continental Congress stating that he was “now convinced beyond a doubt, that unless some great and capital change suddenly takes place in that line this Army must inevitably be reduced to one or other of these three things. Starve – dissolve – or disperse, in order to obtain subsistence in the best manner they can.”
Despite Washington’s order for a sufficient ration of meat and other foodstuffs for his men, the reality was that the demand far exceeded the supply. The issue was not with a lack of supplies – there were plenty in the nearby countryside and supply depots – but supplies were not reaching the encampment on a regular basis. In mid-February, the flow of supplies to the camp was completely disrupted by rain which washed out roads and swelled nearby rivers.
Supplies, such as food, were obtained by the Quartermaster Department of the army. The first quartermaster general, Thomas Mifflin, had resigned in October 1777. He had agreed to continue with his duties until a replacement was named – but did so from his home in Reading, Pennsylvania. The department was effectively without supervision for five months. In early March of 1778, Major General Nathanael Greene was appointed quartermaster general. Through an audit, he discovered how corrupted the supply system had become. He negotiated with unpaid creditors and retrieved supplies from forgotten barns and warehouses. Greene brought active oversight and implemented advance planning and tighter control of record-keeping to the Quartermaster Department.
Although the inhabitants of the encampment suffered from a lack of supplies, it was disease that took the most lives. During the six months of the encampment, approximately 2,000 people died – many of illnesses that were typical of a military encampment including influenza, typhus, and dysentery.
As the battle at Germantown demonstrated, the Continental Army lacked discipline and professionalism. This deficiency would be remedied in Valley Forge by a Prussian military officer named Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben. Baron von Steuben traveled to Paris in June of 1777 where he met with Benjamin Franklin and Silas Deane, a member of the Continental Congress. Authors Drury and Clavin state that Franklin wrote that it was a “Zeal for our good cause” not fame or fortune that was driving Steuben to America. Franklin and Deane secured his transport to America and introduction to the Continental Congress. In late February, Steuben arrived in Valley Forge with a letter of introduction, intending to gain a commission as a major general. With his background of training with the Prussian military, he was named the acting inspector general and became the Continental Army’s drillmaster.
In past battles, the Continental army struggled with moving in a disciplined way because there were no uniform standards for maneuvers. Steuben selected a group of twenty men to serve as a model company and taught the men the proper attention pose – known as the “position of the soldier.” He also taught them how to march in what was called the “common step” – 75 steps per minute, covering 28 inches of ground. In late March, the entire army began drilling under Steuben and his designated assistants. The goal of the training and drilling was “to have the entire army able to maneuver and form for combat as a single entity.”
On June 18, Captain Allen McLane’s cavalry overwhelmed a British patrol. From these British soldiers, McLane learned that the British were evacuating Philadelphia. Within 24 hours, General Washington led the Continental Army out of Valley Forge. By June 22, the final regiments had left Valley Forge and were assembled near Trenton, New Jersey. After advancing across New Jersey, the Continental Army engaged in a day-long battle with the British near Monmouth Court House. During this engagement, the Continental Army would demonstrate its transformation from the disorganized band of men that arrived in Valley Forge in December 1777 into a disciplined fighting force capable of holding its own against the British.
 Phillip S. Greenwalt, The Winter that Won the War: The Winter Encampment at Valley Forge, 1777 – 1778 (California: Savas Beatie, 2021), 39.
 Joseph J. Ellis, American Creation (New York: Vintage Books, 2007), 68.
 Ellis, 78.
 “What Happened at Valley Forge,” Valley Forge National Historical Park, last updated October 17, 2022, https://www.nps.gov/vafo/learn/historyculture/valley-forge-history-and-significance.htm.
 Greenwalt, The Winter that Won the War, 32.
 Greenwalt, 61.
 Bob Drury and Tom Clavin, Valley Forge (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018), 249.
 Greenwalt, The Winter that Won the War, 80.
 Greenwalt, 83.