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Winter Encampment at Valley Forge

In December of 1777, Joseph Hancock was in bitter cold weather like the rest of his fellow soldiers, without sufficient clothing, blankets, and perhaps without shoes. Rations were little to non-existent. In mid-December, he had again been prepared to fight the British but the battle dissolved. For unknown reasons, after marching his troops into position to form a battle line, Sir William Howe abruptly returned with his entire army to the comforts of Philadelphia. Although desertion and resignations were becoming more frequent Washington successfully prevailed on his patriotic army to join him in winter camp. Had these men faded away, there would have been no opposition to the British Military ending the conflict by default in favor of the British. The fact that the troops stayed with Washington at Valley Forge was implicit statement that spoke volumes about the strength of the American resolve for independence. Within the ranks Washington’s presence was palpable as he met with the troops one battalion at a time. Through his charisma the army held together. In a written General Order to the troops December on 17, 1777 Washington thanked the troops for their fortitude and patience in sustaining the recent campaigns:

“The Commander in Chief with the highest satisfaction expresses his thanks to the officers and soldiers for the fortitude and patience with which they have sustained the fatigues of the Campaign. Altho’ in some instances we unfortunately failed, yet upon the whole Heaven hath smiled on our Arms and crowned them with signal success; and we may upon the best grounds conclude, that by a spirited continuance of the measures necessary for our defence we shall finally obtain the end of our Warfare, Independence, Liberty and Peace. These are blessings worth contending for at every hazard. But we hazard nothing. The power of America alone duly exerted, would have nothing to dread from the force of Britain. Yet we stand not wholly upon our ground. France yields us every aid we ask, and there are reasons to believe the period is not very distant, when she will take a more active part, by declaring war against British Crown. Every motive therefore, irresistibly urges us, nay commands us, to a firm and manly perseverance in out opposition to our cruel oppressors, to slight difficulties, endure hardships, and contemn every danger. The General ardently wishes it were in his power to conduct the troops into the best winter quarters. But where are they to be found? Should we retire to the interior parts of the state, we would find them crowded with virtuous citizens, who sacrificing their all have left Philadelphia and fled thither for protection. To their distresses humanity forbids us to add. That is not all: we should leave a vast extent of fertile country to be despoiled and ravaged by the enemy from which they would draw vast supplies and where many of our firm friend would be exposed to all the miseries of the most insulting and wanton depredation. A train of evils might be enumerated but these will suffice. These considerations make it indispensably necessary for the army to take such a position as will enable it most effectually to prevent distress and to give the most extensive security, and in that position we must make ourselves the best shelter in our power. With activity and diligence Huts may be erected that will be warm and dry. In these the troops will be compact, more secure against surprises than if in a divided state and at hand to protect the country. These cogent reasons have determined the General to take post in the neighborhood of this camp; and influenced by them, he persuades himself that the officers and soldiers with one heart and one mind will resolve to surmount every difficulty with a fortitude and patience becoming their profession and the sacred cause in which they are engaged. He himself will share in the hardship and partake of every inconvenience.”

These were hardly encouraging words. The location was difficult to provision and Congress believed the first resort for food should come from the local inhabitants. Washington was reluctant to take these measures, wishing to avoid local enmity toward the Army. The site selection has been attributed to General Washington and to Brigadier General Anthony Wayne with a notion the location was an ideal choice. It was not. Washington preferred a more remote location and shortened lines of supply in an area that had not been recently scavenged for food and forage. Unfortunately, Washington had to accept the political realities of the moment contributing to a much harsher winter encampment for the American Army than might otherwise have been the case.

The Pennsylvania Executive Council sent a letter to the Continental Congress insisting the Army remain in the vicinity of Philadelphia to provide protection from British foraging parties that was (correctly) feared would ravage the citizens. The Executive Council made it clear that it would withdraw financial support and troops if Washington failed to remain in the area providing a deterrent to British activity. The Council’s threat was made public by the Continental Congress and resulted in Washington’s acquiescence to locating in the vicinity. The selection of Valley Forge was the best choice given the political limitations. The Executive Councils intervention in military affairs left two opposing armies to forage the area rather than one. This lead to many unintended consequences placing greater burden on the local populace than would otherwise have been the case. The American army, due to the lack of food and the consequent weakened physical condition of the men, proved of little value in deterring the British. The Pennsylvania Executive Council’s meddling in military affairs did little to avert the very conditions they were trying to avoid while assuring the impoverishment of the army during winter camp at Valley Forge.

The conditions of the soldier was clearly recalled by Martin:

“The army was now not only starved but naked. The greatest part were not only shirtless and barefoot, but destitute of all other clothing, especially blankets. I procured a small piece of cowhide and made myself a pair of moccasins, which kept my feet from the frozen ground, although, as I well remember, the hard edges so galled my ankles, while on a march, that it was with much difficulty and pain that I could wear them afterwards; but the only alternative I had was to endure this inconvenience or to go barefoot, as hundreds of my companions had to, till they might be tracked by their blood upon the rough frozen ground. But hunger, nakedness and sore shins were not the only difficulties we had at that time to encounter; we had hard duty to perform and little or no strength to perform it with.”

On December 18, 1777 the army was ordered to march to Valley Forge and make winter camp. General Washington had specified the design of wooden huts and gave orders to erect them. Winter had begun and without these huts, many more would have perished. The site for winter camp was heavily wooded and provided the necessary material for making these dwellings. When the men arrived cold and hungry they did the one thing they had control over and immediately began building fires, which, of course, were made of green wood. In short order the entire camp was smothered in smoke. In clouds of choking smoke, in winter weather, poorly fed, and hardly clothed, the troops were ordered to build their quarters. In the words of private Martin:

“We were now in truly forlorn condition, to go into the wild woods and build us habitations to stay in, in such a weak, starved and naked condition, was appalling in the highest degree….”

The oppressive winter thus began at Valley Forge.

John Marshall summed up the fighting condition of the army and Washington’s ability to disrupt Howe’s foraging parties as the Pennsylvania Executive Council had conceived:

“The army under the immediate command of General Washington was engaged through the winter in endeavoring to stop the intercourse between Philadelphia and the country. One of the first operations meditated after crossing the Schuykill, was the destruction of a large quantity of hay, on the islands above the mouth of Darby Creek, within the power of the British. Early in the morning, after orders for this purpose had been given, Sir William Howe marched out of Philadelphia, and encamped so as completely to cover the islands; while a foraging party removed the hay, Washington, with the intention of disturbing this operation, gave orders for putting his army in motion, when the alarming fact was disclosed that the commissary’s stores were exhausted, and that the last ration had been delivered and consumed.”

Light parties were dispatched to harass the enemy but Howe kept his army compact leaving little opportunity to annoy him during the ensuing winter months.

The commissary system was grossly incompetent and failed the army. The few provisions that made it were usually unfit to eat although they were eaten anyway. There was paper money available for local procurement but it was of dubious value as compared to British currency. The provisions carried into Philadelphia were paid for in specie (British currency which had stable value) at fair market price. The temptation by locals to profit from circumstance was too great for them to resist. Washington had no choice but to use what he considered his last resort, although Congress considered it his first, ordering the seizing of supplies from the farmers and merchants within reach of foraging parties that he ordered dispatched. It should be noted that the American seizure of necessary provisions from locals, although very infuriating, didn’t leave them destitute or result in capture, destruction of property, and rape as in the case of the British. Many of the British soldiers were conscripted criminals whose service was a punishment. Although Howe made many firm admonishments to his troops to properly conduct themselves, these elements, when opportunities arose, were not controllable. British behavior left an appalling impression on the local inhabitants that further weakened British support.

One of the privates selected for seizing provisions for the American Army turned out to be J.P. Martin. He related his story as follows:

“Our party consisted of a lieutenant, a sergeant, a corporal and eighteen Privates.”

“This day we arrived at Milltown, or Downingstown, a small village halfway between Philadelphia and Lancaster, which was to be our quarters for the winter. It was dark when we had finished our day’s march. There was a commissary and a wagon master general stationed here, the commissary to take into custody the provisions and forage that we collected, and the wagon master general to regulate the conduct of the wagoners and direct their motions. The next day after our arrival at this place we were put into a small house in which was only one room, in the center of the village. We were immediately furnished with rations of good and wholesome beef and flour, built us up some berths to sleep in, and filled them with straw, and felt as happy as any other pigs that were no better off than ourselves.”

Martin spent the winter well fed and much more comfortably housed than those at Valley Forge. By comparison, Joseph Hancock, under the direction of General Wayne, had it much worse. Wayne was determined to get his men into winter quarters, the prescribed wooden huts, as soon as possible. He believed that keeping his men active was essential to their moral and moreover wanted them out of tents as soon as possible with the onset of winter. His command was the first to have their huts completed. Of course Joseph, with his regiment and the rest of Wayne’s division, had the “honor” of being stationed at the first line of defense in the event of a British attack. From their location, the slope in front of them descended gracefully for several miles. From this high perch the Americans had an excellent defensive position.

Had the British attacked, however, it is questionable whether the number of men fit for duty could have put up an effective resistance, given their weak and destitute condition. In customary British tradition winter campaigns were rarely undertaken. Fortunately, the British did not discover the unfit condition of the American Army otherwise they might have made an exception to the rule. More to the point, the delights of Philadelphia kept the British officers entertained and distracted. Contrary to Howe’s disposition toward winter engagements, General Washington had planned a Christmas attack on Philadelphia but had to abandon the idea when he discovered the troops were unfit for duty. He was unable to mount anything more than light skirmishes during the winter while the British lived in relative comfort enjoying the good food, amenities and diversions of the city.

The citizens, unaware or unwilling to appreciate the deplorable condition of the troops, complained bitterly that Washington lacked concern about their trepidations and hardships. The seizing of provisions by both armies didn’t help matters. They pitilessly claimed the encamped troops were spending the winter in amusements, drinking, gambling, and carousing instead of defending their property and personal safety. Disgust and even hostility toward the Continental Army generally prevailed during and after the war.

While trying to keep the army together, Washington was fighting a battle on two fronts, both political. In the first instance, certain officers with access to Congressional members began plotting to replace Washington with General Gates, who had recently been successful in defeating British General Burgoyne in the North. The intrigue wasted a great deal of Washington’s time. He was at a particular disadvantage by insisting that he stay with his troops, as he had promised in his General Orders of December 17, 1777. He was often the last to receive letters involving him due to the difficulty of carrying letters a formidable distance in the middle of winter. In the end, Washington prevailed and over a short period of time, those that were inciting the matter were cowed into more respectful behavior. The rank and file likely never knew their Commander in Chief was subtly rebuking General Gates for his duplicitous behavior in the matter and thereby containing the political ambitions of others hoping to profit from General Gates proposed ascendancy to Commander in Chief. In the second instance, Washington did not resolve the commissary shortfall.

As spring began, Washington was pleased to receive a new officer from Prussia recommended by Benjamin Franklin, ambassador to France. He was an oddity, arriving with his small entourage and clothed in a brilliant new blue uniform. He was Frederick William Augustus Henry Ferdinand, Baron von Stuben who claimed to be a Lieutenant General with many years of experience. He misrepresented himself both as to rank and service, and likely was no more than a captain. Nonetheless he was widely read, and an army-trained officer who was the son of an accomplished high-ranking Prussian Officer. He had the requisite skills Washington needed regardless of his true background, and was willing to work temporarily without commission or pay. He was ordered to begin immediately.

Von Stuben toured the troops and talked to the officers of all the brigades through interpreters. He spoke initially in French and German and knew few English words. He found an army in shambles. He determined the first order of business was to compose uniform rules that became the Continental Army Regulations. The army had used a mixture of French, Prussian, and English tradition commands, formations, and marches depending on the background of the officers. Von Stuben wrote the new regulations in French, modifying the Prussian system. They were immediately translated to English and published in what became “The Blue Book” which standardized military regulations. It should be noted that Washington had developed the company size, officer rankings, regiment size and command structure prior to Von Stuben, but the detailed commands had not been completed and various maneuvers, formations and marching cadences had not been drilled into the men. The commands were simplified to ten such as Poise Firelock, Fix Bayonet, Make Ready, Fire, etc. Although there were a number of sub commands within each of the ten commands, the reduction in the number of commands reduced to ten made it much less baffling to the ordinary soldier. Von Stuben began with teaching the position of each soldier, the facings, the steps, file marching, and wheeling by the individual, company, regiment and brigade. He drilled the troops to march in formation compactly so they could immediately form a line of battle. Previously the army marched strung out and had to scramble to get into position to form a line. Von Stuben succeeded in implementing the formal training and discipline necessary to make the American troops a much more formidable force.

American Generals previously recommended and Washington approved the template for regimental command structure and company size in early 1776. This provided for fewer officers and larger companies. Expense for officers was reduced, while at the same time the responsiveness of the troops was improved. The British deployed companies in three ranks to achieve the density needed for a bayonet charge in keeping with their experience in the Seven Years’ War (French Indian War). The Americans, from lessons learned in the same war, formed only two ranks of aimed fire. The American approach provided more than twice the battalion firepower of the British. The Americans presented 320 men as opposed to the British 150 men and delivered 640 accurate shots as opposed to the British delivery of 300 (the 3rd rank being ineffective) not well-aimed shots. Von Stuben inherited the superior American firepower, forming it into a well-disciplined fighting force that had nothing to fear from the legendary British.

According to a few prominent sources, the Pennsylvania 8th Regiment – including Joseph Hancock- were ordered to the frontier in March 1778. Stronger evidence indicates the orders were not issued until June 1778. The significance of the date of departure determines whether Joseph Hancock received Baron Von Stuben’s drill instruction. The entire army was under drill by March 25th and completed by the June departure. Most assuredly, Joseph Hancock was one of many to receive Von Stuben’s training.

Von Stuben’s training was very uncharacteristic of an officer in the American Army. He personally trained 100 men that became drillmasters to train the rest of the army. By British and American tradition, it was beneath the dignity of a commissioned officer to drill men. There were few sergeants with sufficient training to effectively drill the troops. Lack of proper formation was part of the problem at the Battle of Germantown as well as other battles. The troops had not been drilled and disciplined to form or reform properly. This resulted in uneven battle lines, precipitated disorder and the tendency, when lines were broken, to end in disorderly retreat.

Von Stuben’s drilling of the first 100 men made an exceptional impression on the private soldiers as well as the officers. It was not only highly unusual for a commissioned officer to drill but also in Van Stuben’s case, the training was an instructive and colorful event to watch. At first the Baron could not speak English and his commands had to be translated. The translators were not acquainted with military drills and had difficulty in translating properly the Baron’s commands. While still learning the soldiers would occasionally not perform the commands as instructed causing the Baron to roar with curses in French, then German, and then in both languages. He would order his translators to translate his invectives but the translators most often refused. The men were amused by this behavior but respected Von Stuben for his earnest and sincere efforts to train them. In short order, he had these first 100 soldiers ready to drill and train the rest of the American Army.

The drilling of the entire army began in late March 1778. The Baron rode from parade ground to parade ground supervising the instruction at the brigade level. Despite the desperate condition of the Army, it was at Valley Forge that the Baron instilled a new spirit in the Army. For Joseph Hancock, the training would have much less consequence. The type of fighting he was about to engage in was not battle line to battle line, but tree to tree. The frontier had an entirely different way of fighting, the nature of which he would become very familiar. In a few months, encouraged by the improving weather and the recent training, he would part with the company of the Main Army and its officers, including the Commander in Chief. Redirected the previous winter from the frontier at Kittanning to New Jersey, and then on to the Philadelphia campaigns culminating in the winter at Valley Forge, Joseph was now a seasoned and well-trained soldier who had been in the company of some of the most famous officers of the Revolutionary War. During Joseph’s frontier assignment, Washington and his staff continued to be apprised of his most esteemed regiment’s activities, but Joseph would never again during his military service be in the presence of these revered men. The 8th Pennsylvania became part of the first Continental forces to be sent to the Western Department under General McIntosh and Colonel Brodhead.