Valley Forge, Pennsylvania – A Patriotic Symbol of Perseverance

By Richard W. Stewart

George Washington in military uniform, by Rembrandt Peale

George Washington in military uniform, by Rembrandt Peale.

The name of Valley Forge has come to stand, and rightly so, as a patriotic symbol of suffering, courage, and perseverance. The hardcore continentals who stayed with General George Washington during that bitter winter of 1777–1778 suffered much. Supply problems caused some men to go without shoes, pants, and blankets. Weeks passed when there was no meat, and men were reduced to boiling and eating their shoes. It was no place for “summer soldiers and sunshine patriots.”

The symbolism of Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, should not be allowed to obscure that the suffering was largely unnecessary. While the soldiers shivered and went hungry, food rotted, and clothing lay unused in depots throughout the country. True, access to Valley Forge was challenging but made a little determined effort to get supplies into the area. The supply and transport system had broken down. In mid-1777, the Quartermaster and Commissary Generals resigned, and numerous subordinate officials in both departments, primarily merchants, found private trade more lucrative. In refuge at York, Pennsylvania, and split into factions, Congress found it difficult to find replacements. As most historians now believe, if there was not an organized unit seeking to replace Washington with General Horatio Gates, many, both in and out of the Army, were dissatisfied with the Commander in Chief, and much intrigue went on. Gates was made President of the new Board of War set up that winter and at least two of its members were Washington’s enemies. There was no functioning Quartermaster General in the administrative chaos at the height of the Valley Forge crisis.

Nathanael Green, by John Fielding, 1785

Nathanael Green, by John Fielding, 1785

Washington weathered the storm, and the Continental Army would emerge as a more effective force from Valley Forge. With his advice, Congress instituted reforms in the Quartermaster and Commissary Departments that temporarily restored the effectiveness of both agencies. Washington’s ablest subordinate, General Nathanael Greene, reluctantly accepted the post of Quartermaster General. The Continental Army itself gained a new professional competence from the training given by Friedrich von Steuben. Steuben appeared at Valley Forge in February 1778. He represented himself as a baron, a title of dubious validity, and as a former lieutenant general on the staff of Frederick the Great. (In reality, he had been only a captain. The fraud was harmless, for Steuben had a broad knowledge of military affairs and could communicate with the American soldiers and teach them the basics of their new craft.) Appointed by Washington as Inspector General in charge of a training program, Steuben vigorously drilled the troops that remained under arms during the winter of 1777–1778 at Valley Forge. He taught the Continental Army a simplified but effective version of European armies’ drill formations and movements and the proper care of equipment. He supplemented American marksmanship with instruction on using the bayonet, a weapon in which British superiority had previously been marked. Throughout the training, Steuben never lost sight of a significant difference between the American citizen-soldier and the European professional.

He noted early that American soldiers had to be told why they did things before doing them well, and he applied this philosophy in his training program. His trenchant good humor and strong profanity delighted the Continental soldiers and made the rigorous drill more palatable. After Valley Forge, continentals would fight on equal terms with British regulars in the open field.

The prayer at Valley Forge, by H. Brueckner.

The prayer at Valley Forge, by H. Brueckner.

After a disappointing fall campaign ended with a British army occupying Philadelphia, George Washington cast about for winter quarters for his troops. He found a site among the thickly wooded hills around Valley Forge. The American camp lay somewhat to the north but within easy striking distance of the main road from Philadelphia to York, where the Continental Congress had taken refuge. This allowed his army to protect the revolution’s governing body. Valley Forge lay in a rich agricultural region that the contending armies had picked over extensively during the previous year. Dependent almost entirely on a wretchedly mismanaged supply system, the Americans were chronically short of food and clothing through much of the winter until General Nathanael Greene, one of America’s ablest commanders, took over as Quartermaster General. Steuben’s drill instruction has received comprehensive credit for bolstering American morale, but Greene’s efficiency proved equally noteworthy. In June 1778, the Continental Army finally marched out of Valley Forge to face the British again; it was well prepared in mind and body for what would follow.

By Richard W. Stewart; American Military History, Volume I, Center of Military History, 2009. Compiled and edited by Kathy Alexander/Legends of America, updated February 2024.

Also See:

Declaration of Independence

American Revolution

Heroes and Patriots in American History

Pennsylvania Legends