May 7, 2019
The story of Valley Forge and the formation of the Continental Army is far more complicated than I ever could have imagined. Today Pius App and I met our cousin, Debbie (App) Gadzicki and her husband Walt at Valley Forge, one of eight military encampments of the Continental Army.
Walt had arranged for the four of us to “rent a park ranger” for a few hours who would ride with us in the car and give special commentary about what happened there during the miserable winter of 1777-1778. Thank you, Walt, for this experience!
Without the ranger and his stories of George Washington and this encampment of the Continental Army here, we never would have known about the hardships of these 12,000 brave men (including 400 women and children) who immigrated to this new land. The encampment was on about 3,500 acres (14 square km) located about 20 miles (32 km) northwest of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
The location was chosen because of its high ground and distance enough from Philadelphia to have ample warning of any annoyance by the British. But there were other problems.
Because of supply problems, nearly 3,000 troops were without shoes or proper clothing causing them to be unfit for duty. Sometimes men were without food for several days at a time. Troops were to build the 1200-1500 log huts to house everyone, meaning that they were to cut down the trees and create and transport the lumber necessary for building the cabins… all in wintertime conditions without adequate food or clothing. Hut roofs were usually made of thatch found in the area.
A “luxury” cabin slept twelve people (no more than one woman per cabin) and if there was a space beneath the cabin door the woman was expected to sleep there to block the cold air. Women were required to be married, and were treated very harshly. In those days abusing one’s wife every few days in some way was expected in order to preserve the husband’s respect as a household leader in the eyes of his peers. However, for women to survive alone in the colonies was even worse, but generals encouraged their departure.
As if cold and starvation were not enough, disease killed one in six people. Influenza, typhus, typhoid fever, and dysentery were brought on by poor hygiene and sanitation in the camp. It was expected for everyone to use the camp latrines, but sometimes due to weather or weakness from disease they never made it outside the cabin. Bathing was all but impossible and the men smelled so badly that it was noticeable one mile away.
In February of 1778 General Washington appointed Prussian military officer Friedrich Wilhelm Baron von Steuben as temporary inspector general (to clean up the camp), but more importantly, he became the Continental Army’s chief drillmaster. He taught them to efficiently load, fire and reload weapons, charge with bayonets, and march in compact columns of four instead of miles-long single file lines. He transformed them into a unified, world-class fighting force capable of beating the British.
Without our tour guide we couldn’t have understood that in spite of what these people endured, they were never overcome with adversity. They were unified in spirit and our nation began with them hanging onto this single thread of hope and resolve. Britain was a world power at the time, and the American Revolution was a lot of trouble for them. When France decided to support the Americans, the British moved on to their other colonies throughout the world.
The birthing pains of our nation were certainly difficult, and our roots can easily become forgotten after nearly 250 years. Valley Forge and a visit to the “Old City” in Philadelphia are the reminders we need to appreciate the liberty and freedom that we have today. Never take patriotism lightly.