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The Winter at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, USA

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The American Revolutionary War in the Middle Atlantic States:
Battle of New York City | Washington's Retreat from New York City | Washington's Crossing of the Delaware River
Battles of Trenton and Princeton, New Jersey | British Capture of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania | Battle of Brandywine, Pennsylvania
The Paoli Massacre | Battle of Germantown, Pennsylvania | Battle of the Barrels | The Winter at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania
Battle of Monmouth, New Jersey | Battle of Stony Point, New York | Battle of Springfield, New Jersey | General 'Mad' Anthony Wayne
Molly Pitcher | General Lord Charles Cornwallis

British General William Howe's forces burned the iron forge located in a ravine between Mount Joy and Mount Misery in Chester County, Pennsylvania in September 1777. The forge of Isaac Potts and William Dewees was used to produce munitions for the Colonial army - it was also known as 'Valley Forge'.

In early December 1777, with the British in their winter camps in and around Philadelphia, General George Washington met with his commanders to decide where to set up their own winter quarters. After a few days of debate, Washington chose General 'Mad' Anthony Wayne's suggestion of Valley Forge for their winter camp1.

Valley Forge proved to be a good location that was easy to defend, and it was close enough for Washington to be able to spy on his counterparts throughout the winter. Once the Colonials were able to slightly fortify their position, Howe cancelled his plans to attack and quietly waited out the winter months.

No one knows for certain how many men Washington brought to Valley Forge, but it is said to have taken eight hours for the Colonials to march into camp on 19 December. A morning report on 23 December listed 8,200 men as being fit for duty and another 2,890 unfit because they were sick or improperly equipped.

One of the first tasks the Continental Army undertook was the construction of shelters for the soldiers who were living in tents at the time. Washington vowed to share the hardships of camp life with his men, planning to live in a tent until all the troops were sheltered in 12-man huts. However, a heavy snowfall on Christmas Day forced him to seek better shelter.

The extreme winter weather was only one of the hardships the Colonials endured. Lack of food, clothing and sanitation caused Washington's army to slowly dissolve. By June, 3,000 men were lost due to sickness, exposure and desertions. At no time during the winter were more than half of the men fit for active service.

Despite these hardships, Washington wanted to get the men trained to improve their abiliy to face the British on the battlefield, and he planned to use the army's time in winter quarters to effect this change.

An Army is Forged

Baron Friedrich von Steuben arrived at Valley Forge on 23 February as a volunteer to help drill and instruct the Continental army in the techniques of 18th Century warfare.

Von Steuben was a captain in the Prussian army of Frederick the Great, and when he explained his ideas for drill and discipline for the Colonials, Washington appointed him Inspector General in charge of a training program for the entire army.

During the winter and spring of 1778, von Steuben taught the Continental Army a simplified version of the formations and movements utilised by the European armies of the time. He taught them how to take care of their equipment and how to use the bayonet effectively. He also developed light infantry companies using chosen men to serve as the Colonials' elite forces.

It is said that von Steuben's command of English was limited to obscenities. Everything else had to be translated from French into English. However, his daily training sessions began to transform both the officers and the men. For the officers, he instilled in them a sense of responsibility for the men in their care. For the common soldiers, he recognised them as the volunteer force they were. He had to explain why they needed to do the things they were instructed to do.

During this time, more supplies, equipment and men began slowly to arrive at Valley Forge. On 23 April, it was announced to the army that France had entered into an alliance with the colonies and would send military aid in the struggle for independence.

While the Americans were becoming a more effective fighting force, the British remained relatively idle. General Howe petitioned to resign his command that winter. In May 1778, General Sir Henry Clinton replaced Howe as commander of the British forces.

With France's entry into the conflict, Clinton made preparations to abandon Philadelphia and consolidate his forces in New York. At the same time, Washington stepped up patrols surrounding Philadelphia to deny the British supplies from the countryside.

The War Begins Anew

On 18 May, Washington sent General Marquis de Lafayette and 2,100 men from his main army to take up a position at Barren Hill, which was about 10 miles from Philadelphia. Their mission was to spy on the British and continue to prevent the Redcoats from obtaining supplies from the countryside. The next day the British attacked Lafayette's men with the hope of cutting them off from the main body of Washington's army.

Lafayette's scouts were able to warn him in time of the impending attack. After bluffing a counter-attack, he was able to withdraw his men across the Schuylkill River. As the British pursued, Washington sent out a strong force to face the advancing foe, who then withdrew.

This incident served to bolster the American's confidence in their abilities and it dashed British morale. General Clinton withdrew his forces from Philadelphia a month later.

When word of the British departure from Philadelphia reached General Washington, he immediately sprang into action. Six months after their arrival at Valley Forge, the army was on the march, pursuing the British across New Jersey as they attempted to reach New York.

1The Pennsylvania Colonial government demanded that Washington's army position itself within 25 miles of Philadelphia to be able to react quickly to defend the Pennsylvania interior from the Redcoats. The government also threatened to withhold supplies and money from the army if these demands were not met.

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