The Autumn of 1777 was a strange period of brilliant success and bitter failure in our Revolutionary War. The Battles of Saratoga are regarded as the turning point in the War, as they induced the French to recognize American independence and give us open military assistance. On the other hand, to the south, things were not going quite as well.
General Washington’s Continental Army of about 11,000 faced Sir William Howe’s 15,000 troops at Brandywine Creek, 25 miles southwest of Philadelphia, then the capital. While the British took over the battlefield, they did not destroy our Army, nor cut it off from the capital. Still, it was a defeat.
For his part, though, Washington was not discouraged, and a few weeks later embarked upon an elaborate plan—too elaborate by half some would say—to attack Germantown (now part of Philadelphia) simultaneously from four different directions. But, hampered by a dense fog and logistical confusion that had the Americans fire on one of their own columns, the attack failed. We lost about 1000 men, twice the number of British who fell.
It was coming off these two failures that the Continental Army encamped at Valley Forge, on the west bank of the Schulylkill River, 22 miles northwest of Philadelphia, held by the British at that point. Arguably, Valley Forge was a good strategic choice, being located on major trade routes and near farm supplies. But then, Pennsylvanians demanded the army camp close to Philadelphia in order to prevent the British from raiding that state’s inland farms. If they did not, Pennsylvania vowed to stop sending troops, supplies and money.
Much has been written about the how the troops suffered lack of food and proper clothing, not to mention the unusually harsh winter conditions, with temperatures dipping into the single digits—never mind the wind chill. Sadly, most of this deprivation had to do with bureaucratic mismanagement, Congressional neglect, public criticism (“War is not the answer” even then), and the simple greed of many in Pennsylvania’s ruling elite.
10,000 or so troops arrived at Valley Forge on December 19, and the morning report of December 23 listed 8,200 men as fit for duty and a few thousand others sick. Many more were to sicken and die, owing to poor sanitation and unspeakable personal hygiene habits that would have soldiers relieving themselves where they felt like, including upstream from where drinking water was drawn. Finally, Washington issued orders that soldiers who relieved themselves anywhere but in “a proper Necessary” were to receive five lashes. It was a winter like no other in American military history.
The troops that did survive this ordeal were to receive exceptional training under Friedrich Wilhem von Steuben, who came to the camp in February of 1778 from Prussia, where he had been a captain under Frederick the Great. Drilled by the best, and hardened through bad times, the army that left Valley Forge on June 19, 1778 was now a well-disciplined and efficient fighting force.
With heroic times and heroic men come legends. Historians have argued for decades if George Washington really did compose and recite a prayer on December 25, 1777 at Valley Forge. Given the conditions and his undeniably religious nature, it’s difficult to think that he did not. Here then, is the famous prayer.
Father of All Men:
To Thee we raise thankful hearts for deliverance from forces of evil…
Deliver us also, we beseech Thee, from the greater danger of ourselves,
Have mercy upon us and forgive us for our part in the present desolation of the world.
Awake us each time to a sense of our responsibility in saving the world from ruin.
Open our minds and eyes and hearts to the desperate plight of millions.
Arouse us from indifference into action.
Let none of us fail to give his utmost in sympathy, understanding, thought, and effort.
Fulfill in us and through us
Thy glorious intention: that Thy peace,
Thy love, and Thy justice may enter into the regeneration of the world.
I can think of no more appropriate sentiment for this year’s or any other Christmas—all the better coming from our greatest president.