This past month we in the Northeast have dealt with the challenges of repeated snow storms. When I woke up to energetic flurries on Palm Sunday, well, that just didn’t seem right! Our weather, as well as the 240th anniversary of Valley Forge, have led me to reflect upon the patriots’ ordeal during the miserable winter of 1777-1778. As promised, here is part two of my account:
The soldiers at Valley Forge endured the crucible of that terrible winter and emerged stronger, more tempered and ready to face an enemy soft from cozy nights before fires in homes they had commandeered from Philadelphians. The American patriots even made sport of their conditions: “A French volunteer remembered a dinner party to which no one was admitted who possessed a whole pair of trousers.”
Still, when conditions reached an intolerable peak in February, the long, dark shadow of despair stretched over the pinnacle of their suffering. Washington that something had to give or the fight for independence would be irretrievably lost. What kept the situation from completely deteriorating? Washington’s inspired leadership, grounded in a strong Christian faith, was a critical factor.
Many historians contend he was a deist who believed in a “clockmaker God,” one who created the mechanism of the universe, wound it up, then put it exclusively in the hands of men and women. Yet stories about Washington during that winter portray a man who believed in a God who actively intervened in human affairs. According to one, Isaac Potts, whose home Washington rented at Valley Forge, saw the general’s horse tired in an isolated thicket and stopped to investigate. While at a distance, Potts noticed Washington on his knees in prayer. The Quaker didn’t want to disturb him, so he waited to leave until Washington finished and rode off on his horse. Potts returned to his wife, telling her, “If George Washington be not a man of God, I am greatly deceived—and still more shall I be deceived if God do not, through him, work out a great salvation for America.”
In addition to Washington, God used another person to lift the soldiers’ spirits and make them into a top-flight army. Friedrich Wilhelm Augustus Baron von Steuben arrived at the end of February at the recommendation of Benjamin Franklin. The colorful von Steuben was the son of a Prussian army officer and had enlisted at the age of sixteen. In America he became the Continental Army’s inspector general and quickly rose to the rank of major general.
The intrepid con Steuben spoke little English and had no training manuals with which to work, but that didn’t slow him down. His aides worked late for many nights translating into English a manual von Steuben wrote as he went, then made sure each regiment and company had copies by the following day’s drill. The Prussian required the soldiers to get into their formations by sunrise each day, teaching them how to use bayonets and maneuver in ranks.
Von Steuben won the men’s hearts with his faulty English and his unfailing sense of humor. “Drilling with (him) became the favorite sport at Valley Forge.” He brought “vigor and humor to the thinning and hungry ranks.”
Another break came for the patriots as the spring thaw allowed more supplies of food, clothing and weapons to get to Valley Forge. Other regiments joined them, and new recruits arrived. Morale rose. By May the French had rallied to the American cause, joining them in the battle against the British.
In mid-June the continental army successfully engaged the British at the Battle of Monmouth in New Jersey. Washington remarked on the transformation:
“It having pleased the Almighty Ruler of the universe to defend the cause of the United American States, and finally to raise up a powerful friend among the princes of the earth, to establish our liberty and independence upon a lasting foundation, it becomes us to set apart a day for gratefully acknowledging the divine goodness, and celebrating the important event, which we owe to His divine interposition.”
(Excerpted from Great Stories in American History, Rebecca Price Janney, 1998)