Driven into Pennsylvania by the British, the Continental Army set up camp at Valley Forge, DECEMBER 19, 1777, just 25 miles from British occupied Philadelphia. Lacking food and supplies, soldiers died at the rate of twelve per day.
Of 12,000 soldiers, 2,500 died of bitter cold, hunger, typhoid, jaundice, dysentery, and pneumonia, in addition to hundreds of horses freezing to death. A Committee from Congress reported “feet and legs froze till they became black, and it was often necessary to amputate them.”
Soldiers were there from every State in the new union, some as young as 12, others as old as 60, and though most were white, some were African American and American Indians. Included there were Marquis de Lafayette and John Marshall, the future Chief Justice.
Washington wrote “that unless some great and capital change suddenly takes place . . . this Army must inevitably . . . Starve, dissolve, or disperse, in order to obtain subsistence in the best manner they can.”
Wives and children followed the army, mending clothes, doing laundry, and scavenging for food. An estimated 500 women died. Quaker farmer Isaac Potts observed General Washington kneeling in prayer in the snow.
Despite these conditions, soldiers prepared to fight. They were drilled daily by Prussian drill master Baron Friedrich von Steuben, a former member of the elite General Staff of Frederick the Great, King of Prussia, sent to Washington on recommendation of Ben Franklin.
Two days before Christmas, George Washington wrote:
“We have this day no less than 2,873 men in camp unfit for duty because they are barefooted and otherwise naked.”
Hessian Major Carl Leopold Baurmeister noted the only thing that kept the American army from disintegrating was their “spirit of liberty.” The Continental Congress declared a day of Fasting, Humiliation and Prayer:
“. . . that at one time, and with one voice, the righteous dispensations of Providence may be acknowledged, and His . . . mercy towards our arms supplicated and implored:
The General directs that the day shall be most religiously observed in the Army . . . and that the several chaplains do prepare discourses.”
In a letter written to John Banister, Washington recorded:
“To see men without clothes to cover their nakedness, without blankets to lay on, without shoes, by which their marches might be traced by the blood from their feet . . . and at Christmas taking up their . . . quarters within a day’s march of the enemy . . . is a mark of patience and obedience which in my opinion can scarce be paralleled.”
The Moral Liberal contributing editor, William J. Federer, is the bestselling author of “Backfired: A Nation Born for Religious Tolerance no Longer Tolerates Religion,” and numerous other books. A frequent radio and television guest, his daily American Minute is broadcast nationally via radio, television, and Internet. Check out all of Bill’s books here.
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