Valley Forge: A book review by Bob Morris

Valley Forge
Bob Drury and Tom Clavin
Simon & Schuster (October 2018)

A crucible during which no battles were fought but winning a war for independence became possible

According to my preliminary research among several complementary sources, no battle was fought at Valley Forge (December 9, 1777-June 19, 1778) but a ragtag army was transformed, the French Alliance was consummated, and the complexion of the Revolutionary War was changed forever. The troops arrived at Valley Forge in time for Christmas, but there was no holiday feast. Already the men’s diaries spoke bitterly of a diet of “fire cakes and cold water.” (A fire cake was simply a flour and water batter fried on a griddle or on a large rock within a campfire.) The morning after Christmas, the men awoke to find four additional inches of snow on the ground. Many had no shoes to wear. Most had no food in their stomach. The situation seemed hopeless.

Also of special interest to me, contrary to popular perceptions, Valley Forge had a high percentage of racial and ethnic diversity, since Washington’s army comprised individuals from all thirteen states, many of them immigrants. About thirty percent of Continental soldiers at Valley Forge did not speak English as their first language. Many soldiers and commanders hailed from German-speaking communities, as did Pennsylvania-born Brigadier General Peter Muhlenberg. It is doubtful that the Continental forces could have won the independence declared had it not been for Friedrich Wilhelm Ludolf Gerhard Augustin, Baron von Steuben, and Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette.

Still others spoke Scottish- or Irish-Gaelic, and a few descended from French-speaking Huguenot and Dutch-speaking communities in New York State. Local residents sometimes conversed in Welsh. Several senior officers in the Continental Army originally came from France, Prussia, Poland, Ireland, and Hungary.

With consummate skill, Bob Drury and Tom Clavin examine that severe winter encampment, suggesting that it enabled General Washington and his staff to convert thousands of amateurs, citizen-soldiers, “commoners,” into a professional army that could — and did — eventually defeat “the most disciplined and confident armed forces in the world.”

Steuben made contributions of incalculable value to the creation of a lethal fighting force. He arrived at Valley Forge on February 22, described by one young Colonial private as “the very personification of Mars.” Be that as it may, he had been recruited by Benjamin Franklin as a volunteer and was soon regarded by the officers and troops as a remarkably popular drillmaster and disciplinarian. “One of Washington’s treasured books was Frederick the Great’s Instructions to His Generals, a detailed manual admired the world over. If the baron could replicate on the Valley Forge parade grounds even a semblance of the guidance sprung from the plains of Mecklunberg, there was hope for a successful spring campaign.”

Drury and Clavin observe, “It was during the Valley Forge encampment that Washington was first referred to as the ‘Father of Our Country.’ It was an apt epithet, as his charges included young immigrants from all points of Europe, American Indians, and not least, a substantial contingent of freed black men — the last time the United States would field a fully-integrated force until, the Korean War.”

As I worked my way through  their lively narrative, I was again reminded of a phrase — “the fog of war” — that was introduced by Carl von Clauswitz in his posthumous unfinished classic, On War (1832). It was first published in English in 1873. So many of the decisions and plans that Continental and British generals and their staff members made were on the basis of incomplete or inaccurate information. The Paoli Massacre (September 20-21, 1777) and the Burgoyne’s surrender to Gates (October 17, 1777) offer excellent cases in point.

Here is an excerpt from a letter from Washington to John Banister, April 21, 1778: “That no history now extant can furnish an instance of an army’s suffering such uncommon hardships as ours has done, and bearing them with the same patience and fortitude. To see men, without clothes to cover their nakedness, without blankets to lie on, without shoes, by which their marches might be traced by the blood from their feet, and almost as often without provisions as with them, marching through the frost and snow, and at Christmas taking up their winter-quarters within a day’s march of the enemy, without a house or hut to cover them, till they could be built, and submitting to it without a murmur, is a proof of patience and obedience, which in my opinion can scarce be paralleled.”

Yes, the men who survived Valley Forge played a key role in the eventual defeat of the British but it is also true that General Washington, a survivor of politics as well as deprivation, was much better prepared to lead the Continental forces to victory, then lead the new nation as its first President. The Winter of 1777-1778 seems to have been the “darkest hour” for those who suffered together at Valley Forge. It was a crucible of possibilities, for better or worse.



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