In the first episode of our miniseries on the Heroes of Valley Forge, we learn that it was during the Valley Forge encampment that Washington was first called the “Father of His Country.” It was there he embodied both the American government and the fight for independence.
It was on Christmas Day that Washington learned of the first death in camp. A black man named Jethro in a Connecticut regiment had died of exposure and malnutrition. Soon, many more joined him. Through the rest of December and January Continental Army soldiers died by the twos and three per day and then by the dozens. They died of disease, thanks to a combination of low resistance to various diseases and the lack of any medical care and medicines. They died of starvation, as the flow of supplies to Valley Forge slowed to barely a trickle. They died of exposure to the cold and snow and freezing rains. Some, exhausted and made hopeless by the horrid conditions, simply gave up.
A Continental Army surgeon summed up the situation: "'I am sick—discontented—and out of humour. Poor food—hard loding—cold weather—fatigue—nasty cloathes—nasty cookery-—vomit half my time—smoak'd out my senses—the devil's in't—I can't Endure it—why are we sent here to starve and Freeze—Here all Confusion—smoke and cold—hunger and filthyness. A pox on my bad luck'" (pg 104).
It should be pointed out that one of the major myths about Valley Forge is that men died because it was the worst winter of the Revolutionary War. It was not. The weather that winter was typical for southeast Pennsylvania, no better and no worse. But the nightmarish conditions Washington and his soldiers experienced was because the supply system had completely broken down because of lack of wagons and horses, corruption by government officials, and attacks by the British. Worse, many farmers surrounding Valley Forge chose to sell their harvest to the British in Philadelphia because they paid real money as opposed to worthless Continental scrip. American soldiers starved while the British soldiers were warm and well-fed.
The depth of Washington’s despair was reached in mid-February, when he did not know if he or his army could survive another day.
"One legendary tale in particular limns Washington's emotional state during that February, petically throwing his near despair into relief. Perhaps, skeptics charge, a bit too poetically. As the story is told, one night the young Quaker Issac Potts was riding near the house his sister-in-law had rented to Washington, when we spied a solitary figure kneeling in a glade of crooked timber. Potts dismounted, tied his horse to a sapling, and quietly appraoched the scene. In the pale moonlight he recognized the obeisant man as Washington. The general's sword lay in the snow to one side, his cocked hat to another. He was praying aloud, Potts reported 'to the God of the Armies, beseeching [him] to interpose with his Divine aid, as it was ye Crisis, & the cause of the country, humanity & of the world.'
"The scene so struck the Tory-leaning Potts that he galloped home and told his wife that if the Continental Army's commander in chief could conduct himself as both a soldier and a Christian, he could too. He declared for the Whig cause on the spot. The fact that Pott's revelation came to light only some 38 years after the fact, when his family's pastor passed on the description of the incident to Washington's biographer Parson Mason Weems, has led most historians to view the recollection with with suspicion. It was Weems, after all, who invented the fable of a young Washington unable to lie about chopping down a cherry tree" (pg 239-240).
How did the Continental Army survive? A combination of factors. One was Washington appointed Nathanael Greene, his most trusted and experienced general, to command the supply system, and his integrity and energy transformed it. In March, finally, adequate food began to arrive. The softening temperatures of spring cracked the ice and melted the snow and gave the soldiers hope. And we can’t underestimate the phrase, “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” The soldiers who emerged from the encampment at Valley Forge had a newfound confidence that they could not be defeated, and that included facing the British in a new military campaign. And they would be successful.