Thursday, July 10, 2008

Valley Forge - Getting the Story Right

To me, Valley Forge meant the Continental Army in miserable winter quarters and rags, with insufficient supplies, licking its wounds after some defeats. This was the terrible nadir in the American Revolutionary story.

We toured Valley Forge during a visit with family in PA, and I found out that those six months were more important than I learned in school (the student might be at fault - I don't remember). Washington had indeed been unable to retake Philadelphia, which was held by the largest expeditionary force the British had ever put in the field - about 30000 men (so much for my impression that the British hadn't given proper attention to retaking the colonies). Washington had 12,000 troops, who were all trained in different ways in their individual colonies, and served under their individual brigadier generals. So the Continental Army did, indeed, lose at Germantown, outside Philly, because the British had superior position, force of men at arms, and training.

But Washington didn't retreat ignominiously - the army merely moved to somewhere safe for the winter, where they could still keep tabs on British movements in Philadelphia. Valley Forge was the selected location. The men divided into small squads of 12, built snug huts for their winter dwellings, and were relatively comfortable. They built earth forts at key points around the encampment, strategically placed their pooled artillery in a central area (now preserved as the Artillery Park - see photo below) so they could be rapidly deployed to any side that might be attacked, stood guard, and sent men regularly to observe the British, who were also mostly inactive during the winter months.

It is true that boredom, dampness, disease (most people still didn't understand about dysentery and the spread of disease - though they did inoculate the soldiers against small pox), ragged clothing, and low supplies took a heavy toll, along with soldier term expirations and desertion. The army shrank that winter from 12,000 to 6000. Almost no shots were fired at Valley Forge, and no real battle took place there, but thousands were lost to disease and exposure. This is the part of the story I think we all know.

What we don't hear as often, I think, is that Major General Baron Van Steuben, of Prussia, volunteered to join Washington's staff that winter and told Washington he could turn his troops into a real army in nine months. Washington told him he had three. Von Steuben wrote a new American military training manual, trained Washington's personal guard (expanded to 150 men for this purpose) and used them as trainers to train the rest of the troops, which by June of the following year had expanded to 20,000. The rewrite and retraining were essential, to create a unified set of procedures for loading, fighting, and moving in the field. Without these things, the different regiments and brigades would still have been unable to operate as a large army, and could not have resisted the large, well trained British force in battle. Von Steuben trained the new army in large maneuvers in the Grand Parade Ground, which I photographed in the panorama at the start of this post. Click to view it large, and scroll across it to get some sense of the size of this space.

Valley Forge is the story of the successful recruiting, equipping and training of the first unified American fighting force - the army that eventually won the war against tough odds. What we don't hear is this success story, which is as much the legacy of Valley Forge as are the hardships and loses of the winter. Von Steuben has a prominently placed statue in the park, and we should all know him and his story better than we do. He pulled off an amazing feat and did it in a ridiculously short time. General Nathaniel Greene is another hero of Valley Forge. He's famous for his battles, but just as important was his nearly magical ability with supplies once he was (reluctantly) put in charge of the commissary in February. Supplies began to get to the troops, who would otherwise have disbanded, ending the conflict in Britain's favor.

And speaking of unsung heroes, we also learned that about 400 of the 20,000 listed army personnel at Valley Forge were women, some of whom stayed with the army for the entire eight years of conflict and earned their own pensions after the war. They did the endless laundry, mended clothing, cooked, and in battlefields would scavenge the dead and wounded British for supplies and clothes for their men (a red coat could be easily dyed brown), and even sometimes went into battle in their men's clothes when their men were too sick to fight.

Martha Washington also played a role, visiting George in all eight of his winter encampments, traveling at considerable risk from Virginia each year, as far as Massachusetts. She entertained the officer's wives, was a good influence on the troops in general, and helped maintain social normalcy in the camps.

See Moomin Light's post on our trip and on Valley Forge, here. Learn about women's "stays."

No comments: