Valley Forge: George Washington and the Crucible of Victory, page 1
There is only one dedication that is fitting for this work: for George Washington and those who endured the winter at Valley Forge. May the sacrifices they made forever be a guide and inspiration to us, the inheritors of their dreams.
Why George Washington, Valley Forge, and the Making of the American Army Matter to Americans Today
At a time when many Americans despair over their country’s future, worry about their political leaders, and find themselves looking to the Founding Fathers for guidance, there is a lot to learn from the difficult challenges that faced Americans in the fall of 1777.
The ordeal of Valley Forge in the winter of 1777–1778 and the emergence of an American Army trained to stand up to veteran British professionals was in many ways the crucible in which American freedom and the American tradition of self-government were forged.
The leadership of George Washington was so central to this process that it is hard to imagine how America could have either won the war or created a free country without him.
The challenges Washington faced should make present-day Americans ashamed of any complaints we have about the difficulties of self-government and the problems of big government, big deficits, high taxes, and arrogant politicians.
Washington and his colleagues were taking on the most powerful empire in the world.
They had substantial opposition from those colonists who remained loyal to the British king and helped the British military. For more Americans remained loyal to the Crown than Americans today realize.
In many ways American politicians in revolutionary times were as big a challenge as were the British. The Continental Congress routinely failed to meet its obligations. Politicians were eager to meddle, interfere, and demand, but they seldom took the time to learn about reality and seldom provided needed help to Washington and his army.
Much of the historic importance of Washington comes from his determined commitment to the rule of law and to the principle that the army must be subordinated to civilian authority. No matter how incompetent, meddling, or infuriating the members of the Continental Congress were, Washington insisted on treating them courteously and respectfully and obeying their instructions, even if at times he deeply disagreed with them.
The principle of civilian control remains to this day one of the greatest bulwarks of the American system of self-government.
Washington did not just have political meddling on the civilian side. What came to be called the Conway Cabal was a serious effort to undermine Washington and replace him with General Horatio Gates.
While we look back and see Washington as the father of his country and the man upon whom our traditions rest, it was not nearly so clear in the winter of 1777–1778. Even though Washington had managed Boston well (maneuvering to force the British to withdraw), he had then suffered defeat after defeat, from Brooklyn across Manhattan and White Plains to the Palisades and down through New Jersey.
In To Try Men’s Souls, we captured the story of the desperate, bold attack designed to turn the war around on Christmas Day 1776. General Washington’s courage in deciding to gamble everything was one of the most important building blocks of America.
Without Washington’s courage in crossing the river at night and marching nine miles in a blinding snowstorm, the American Revolution might well have collapsed at the end of 1776.
Without the courage of the men who served in the army, Washington’s courage would have been to no avail. By himself, George Washington could not have created a free country. As a leader with thousands of dedicated followers, he had a chance.
Over the last year, audience after audience has responded emotionally to the story of a small group of dedicated patriots changing the course of history by their devotion, their dedication, and their endurance.
When audiences learn that fewer than one out of every thousand Americans was with Washington during that desperate time, they are amazed. Even more they learn that one-third of the 2,500 men who crossed the Delaware at night on an icy river during a blinding snowstorm had no shoes, they are astounded.
When they learn that these men left a trail of blood on the icy, stony road to Trenton, they have tears in their eyes.
For all of our complaints and all of our problems, THIS is the cost of freedom, and THIS is the courage, determination, and persistence that made America a free country.
Washington’s great victory at Trenton was followed by another great victory at Princeton two weeks later. Then he drove the British from most of New Jersey back toward New York City and their naval base.
After that exciting winter campaign, most Americans believed they were on the edge of winning the revolution. Freedom seemed to be at their fingertips. Yet the greatest empire in the world was far from done with its efforts to reconquer the Americans. After all, the British Empire had put down rebellions in Ireland and Scotland, and peasant uprisings in rural England. Such policing was just a necessary part of running an empire.
Throughout 1777 Washington found himself on the defensive, and when the British used their command of the sea to move the army from New York City to Philadelphia, he found that his undertrained army was incapable of staying in the field against British and German professional soldiers. At Brandywine and Germantown the Americans came tantalizingly close to winning and then fell apart. The sheer discipline and routine competence of British and German professionals outlasted the enthusiasm and energy of the American amateurs. At Paoli an American unit was surprised at night, and (at least in the American view) many of its men were massacred by British troops using bayonets.
While Washington was fighting a frustrating series of losing battles, the one glorious bright spot was in the north, where General Gates was winning. Gates was born in England and had served in the British Army, but he had lived in America for a long time. He saw himself as a professional soldier and had contempt for Washington, whom he saw as an incompetent amateur in over his head.
Washington sent forces to help Gates contain General John Burgoyne at Saratoga in the fall of 1777 and then force his surrender. This was an extraordinary moment of optimism. An entire British Army surrendered. It proved to be the key event in convincing the French to enter into an alliance with the Americans. Every American was impressed with this great victory, and it contrasted vividly with Washington’s failure to win in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
Washington loyalists knew that General Washington had generously sent some of his best troops to help Gates. They also knew that at the key moment in the campaign, Benedict Arnold had provided leadership when Gates faltered. Finally, they knew that Washington had kept the vast bulk of the British Army facing him instead of marching north to rescue Burgoyne.
Nonetheless, to much
Washington’s genius as a leader and as a politician is at the heart of the survival of the American system of self-government in the winter of 1777–1778. Faced with a terrible lack of supplies (the Congress, as it so often has, talked a lot and achieved virtually nothing despite its promises), a treacherous plot inside the army, and overt questioning of his authority in the Congress, Washington calmly and steadily focused on first the survival and then the rebuilding of his army.
There is no episode of American history more poignant, more painful, and more difficult than Valley Forge in that terrible winter. Thousands of the twelve thousand men who entered camp died. The lack of shelter, lack of food, malnourishment, and collapsing morale all plagued the army and threatened to dissolve it, leaving the revolution lost and the British victorious.
Not least of the keys to the survival of the army were the five hundred women who helped with cooking, cleaning, sewing, nursing, and a host of other noncombat duties. Washington thought so highly of them that he gave them half pay and a 50 percent pension. They were the unsung in the survival of the American Revolution and are a key part of our history. Martha Washington spent February to June 1778 at Valley Forge with her husband, and, in providing leadership alongside him, she was far from unique among wives.
The agony of the American forces seeking simply to survive contrasted painfully with the situation of the British eighteen miles away in Philadelphia. Having occupied the largest city in North America (where the Declaration of Independence had been written and proclaimed), the British Army spent the winter in comfort.
In contrast to the desperate conditions at Valley Forge—muddy streets, drafty log cabins, and limited food—the British Army officers and men lived in fine houses in a comfortable city with plenty of food and drink. The difference between the conditions experienced by the two forces was so great that it is little wonder the British high command fully expected the American Army to simply disintegrate through desertion.
Washington, in fact, was worried that the British would prove to be correct and that the American Army would collapse. He himself warned 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.”
The real problem was not desertion, although some did desert. The real problem was the legitimate refusal of units to reenlist. Men who had served their time felt that they had every legal right to go home with honor. As much as he needed them, Washington agreed they could legally exercise the right not to reenlist without its reflecting poorly on their character.
Once again, Washington’s insistence on the rule of law and following the rules, even when it was to his disadvantage, was a key part of the moral leadership on which the American system of freedom came to be built.
Those men who did stay were deeply committed to the cause and were determined to learn how to defeat the British. The arrogance of the British in living well and holding parties and dances in Philadelphia did not demoralize these Americans as much as it infuriated them. A deep determination to learn how to win began to take hold in that painful winter.
Just as the role of women at Valley Forge is often understated, so, too, is the role of people from other nations in the survival and ultimate success of the American Revolution is often understated or simply ignored.
At a time when we are trying to think through our immigration predicament, it is useful to remember that, without foreign help and foreigners themselves coming to Washington’s assistance, we might never have won the war with Great Britain.
In many ways these foreign volunteers were the freedom fighters of their generation. They saw the Americans fighting what they believed was a universal fight for freedom from tyranny and monarchy. In our earlier To Try Men’s Souls we note the importance of Englishman Tom Paine, whose pamphlets were vital in winning the intellectual argument for freedom and in sustaining the morale of the revolutionaries during dark periods of defeat and deprivation.
Among military figures, the Marquis de Lafayette and Baron Friedrich von Steuben were the two most prominent European supporters, but there were dozens more who came to America to fight for freedom, like the Polish revolutionary hero Casimir Pulaski.
Lafayette mattered because he validated the American cause for the French Court. While Benjamin Franklin and John Adams were busy trying to convince the French that they should support the revolution, they had an uphill struggle. The French monarchy was burdened with debt and had been defeated by Britain too frequently to enter into a war lightly. Lafayette’s eyewitness accounts in letters to Paris played a major role in convincing the French government that Washington and his cause could win.
Lafayette was also important to Washington as the son he never had. Washington was deeply fond of the young man and was sustained emotionally by his enthusiasm and his commitment and courage. Lafayette was a significant factor in convincing the Continental Congress that Washington was indeed, as the scholar James Thomas Flexner has called him, “the indispensable man.”
Lafayette’s importance is signified by his portrait in the U.S. House of Representatives, hung in the chamber in 1824. A decade later, George Washington joined him on the wall on the other side of the speaker’s chair. To this day they are the only two people thus honored.
As we deal with immigration issues, it is helpful for our congressmen to look to the wall and realize just how vital foreigners have been in the making of America.
Baron von Steuben played an equally important role in creating the American Army. Washington knew that he needed a disciplined, trained, full-time army if he was to stand toe-to-toe with the British professional forces. He had spent years in the wilderness during the French and Indian War and understood guerrilla warfare as well as anyone in his generation. He also knew that the militia around Boston had played a decisive role in driving the British into abandoning that city.
However, the simple reality was that the center of power in America rested on a coastal plain from New York to Virginia. Only when an American army could defeat a British army in an open battle on that plain would it be possible to win independence.
Washington understood that modern warfare required very steady infantry, disciplined volley fire, and strong artillery support. That combination required training and more training.
While Washington understood the need, he lacked the principles for training and the ability to train. That is where von Steuben became invaluable. There is a remarkable subtlety in what von Steuben did. He did not try to transfer rigid European systems designed for conscript armies. He intuitively understood that Americans had to learn faster and had to understand and participate instead of being coerced. The result was an approach that was learnable and which combined intense training with realistic goals.
By Monmouth, Washington’s army had survived the crucible of Valley Forge and emerged with a level of training that enabled them for once to fight the British Army in the open and win.
The French entry into the war forced the British government in London to reinforce their troops in the sugar colonies in the Caribbean (which were far more profitable and, to the British, more important than the American mainland). That transfer of troops from Philadelphia to the West Indies forced the British Army to abandon Philadelphia and retreat to New York.
During their retreat, the unthinkable happened. They collided with a disciplined and determined American Army. At Monmouth, the survivors of the long Valley Forge winter got their revenge against the troops who had enjoyed Philadelphia comforts throughout the winter. The result was a decisive British defeat and a huge increase in American morale and in Washington’s personal prestige.
Washington is at the heart of America’s success and of our definition of ourselves as a country of freedo
Through defeat, despair, deprivation, political intrigue, endless frustrations, and a host of problems we can barely imagine in our modern, comfortable world, Washington behaved as the leader of freedom’s cause. His being—not his intellect, not his speechmaking, not his personality—but, rather, his very being as a force of disciplined righteous patriotism made success possible.
There was no doubt in Washington’s mind what the struggle was all about. It was about freedom under the rule of law.
Washington’s favorite play was Joseph Addison’s Cato. It is the story of a man who loves freedom so much that he sacrifices his son and himself rather than bend to Caesar’s will. Washington never tired of the play. It was also clear that he saw himself in that tradition. He would rather have died than given in to British tyranny.
It is our hope that this story of freedom emerging from difficult times will inspire our generation to do our duty to protect the rule of law and reassert the classic provisions of American liberty.
Nothing we face is as difficult as Valley Forge. We have no excuse for not serving our country and dedicating ourselves to the cause of freedom. That is the real message of this book.
Near Paoli, PA
10:00 PM, September 20, 1777
Battle of Paoli
The order was whispered hoarsely. Lieutenant Allen van Dorn, a Loyalist from Trenton, of the rebellious colony of New Jersey, was in a column of more than a thousand British light infantry, arrayed in a formation of company front by column. He could hear the order echoing softly behind him, followed by the cold, chilling sound of long bayonets pulled from scabbards, then locked on to the muzzles of Brown Bess muskets.
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