I can assure these Gentlemen that it is a much easier and less distressing thing to draw remonstrances in a comfortable room by a good fire side than to occupy a cold bleak hill and sleep under frost and Snow without Cloathes or Blankets.
–George Washington, in a letter to Congress
The road from Washington’s lines at Whitemarsh to Valley Forge up the Schuylkill was just a dozen miles. Still, it took his bone-weary army a full week to cover the ground in the last days of December, 1777. It was light rations and heavy weather now, as sleety rain turned to snow and bottomless mud froze into sharp-edged ruts. It was literally true, as Washington said, that “you might have tracked the army… to Valley Forge by the blood of their feet.” As they came into camp, Washington counted 11,000 on his rolls, but fully a quarter of these were not fit for duty of any kind and still more were half-starved and half-naked, without shoes, stockings, breeches or blankets. The plateau above little Valley Creek and hard by an abandoned iron forge was, Washington admitted, “a dreary place and uncomfortably provided,” but it was wooded, and the general set them to work logging the hillsides and constructing rough huts. By the middle of January some 900 log huts were up, roofed with split slabs and chinked with mud against the scouring wind. They were not much in the way of shelter, but the men had a roof of some kind overhead. Washington, who had promised to “share [their] hardships and partake of every inconvenience,” felt he could now in good conscience leave his tent and shift his headquarters to a stone house nearby.
The chief “inconvenience” of this hard winter encampment was hunger pure and simple. A surgeon of the Connecticut line, Albigence Waldo, remembered the mournful cry of the men in the huts after dark: “No meat! No meat!” In fact, the men were surviving mainly–and just barely–on “firecake,” a thin bread of flour and water baked over a campfire. For weeks it was firecake and water, breakfast, dinner, and supper. Waldo lifted up a grim prayer: “The Lord send that our Commissary of Purchases may live [on] fire cake and water till their glutted gutts are turned to pasteboard.” And conditions grew worse: at least three times that winter there was no food at all; the army was literally starving. Congress off in York did little to alleviate its suffering, and Washington sent a rare angry letter. Not only did Congress seem to fault his army for not winning great victories over a superior enemy, they apparently also thought “the soldiers were made of stocks and stones and equally insensible of frost and snow… I can assure these Gentlemen that it is a much easier and less distressing thing to draw remonstrances in a comfortable room by a good fireside than to occupy a cold bleak hill and sleep under frost and Snow without Cloathes or Blankets… I feel superabundantly for them, and from my soul pity those miseries, [which] it is neither in my power to prevent or relieve.” As Waldo put it with grim and vivid economy: “poor food–hard lodging–Cold Weather–fatigue–Nasty Cloathes–nasty Cookery–Vomit half my time–smoak’d out of my senses–the Devil’s in it.”
The sufferings of Valley Forge have since passed into American mythology. Indeed, well into the nineteenth century the image of Washington kneeling piously in prayer in the snows of Valley Forge–like the cherry-tree fable, an invention of Parson Mason Weems, his earliest biographer–had a special hold on the American mind. The reality of that suffering, however, was both more mundane and harder-edged. The fall of 1777 saw a fine harvest; America did not lack for grain or meat–or clothing for that matter. As one student of the Revolution has written, the suffering at Valley Forge was “an old tale, one of graft, speculation, meanness, selfishness, and gross mismanagement.” Pennsylvania farmers, for example, much preferred to sell their grain to the British for hard cash than to the Continentals for paper. Grain surpluses in New York went to New England civilians and New York redcoats. When Connecticut imposed a ceiling on beef prices, farmers simply refused to put beef on the market. Pork in New Jersey, already purchased, simply rotted for lack of transport south. The government wagons that might have shipped the meat to Valley Forge were even then carrying Pennsylvania grain and iron north at a tidy profit. Boston merchants had plenty of clothes and blankets on their shelves, but they too held out for hard cash and high profits. In fact, private contractors and commissary and quartermaster agents did a brisk business that winter. The men at Valley Forge shivered and went without.
The main mischief lay with Congress, which had done little to improve the often corrupt and always inefficient operation of the commissary and quartermaster departments. Congress had run through several commissaries and quartermaster generals and a series of reforms that only made a bad system worse. In desperation, they passed a bill empowering Washington simply to seize what he needed from the countryside in exchange for receipts. Washington, realizing that such an act betrayed the very principles of a republican cause, was reluctant to do so, though he did send Anthony Wayne north and Henry Lee south to forage from the countryside. Not until Congress appointed Jeremiah Wadsworth as commissary general and gave him broad powers in late winter did affairs in that department improve. By way of incentive, he paid his agents a percentage of their cash disbursement; hence, the more food they delivered to the army, the more money they made. At length, Nathanael Greene was prevailed upon to take the quartermaster general’s job. He likewise offered incentives while establishing clear and simple lines of authority and accountability. By the end of March Washington’s men had some gristle back on their bones, shirts on their backs, and shoes on their feet. They had stuck it out, and if they cherished no particular gratitude for Congress, they cannot be much blamed.
As food and clothing began to trickle into camp, there also came reinforcement in the form of a remarkable Prussian volunteer: Lieutenant General Frederick William Augustus Henry Ferdinand, Baron von Steuben. He was not and had never been a lieutenant general, and he was not properly a baron either. At the time he met Doctor Franklin in Paris he was in fact a half-pay former captain whose last service was as aide-to-camp to Frederick the Great fourteen years earlier. But no matter: Franklin was ever a shrewd judge of character. He had urged another ne’er-do-well, Thomas Paine, to try his fortunes in America in the last year of peace. Franklin saw in Steuben energy and ability and urged him to join the cause (and may even have helped him inflate his resume). In the winter of ’78 Steuben–now a legitimate inspector general–set to work making soldiers of Washington’s hungry and ragged men company by company. He began with a model company, just a hundred men, and he drilled them himself, no matter how deep the snow or thick the mire. Steuben’s initial difficulty was linguistic. A German speaker with no command of English, he gave his instructions in French, which Captain Benjamin Walker translated into English. It was an awkward system, but the baron soon had his charges fluent in the manual of the musket and close-order drill.
Steuben’s tutelage was simple, straightforward, and effective. It rested on an understanding of three crucial points. First, the American army operated under no one system, even in something as basic as the manual of the musket. Steuben simplified the Prussian system, and in the end the American army developed a uniformity of operation it had sorely lacked. Second, he understood that making the most of the Americans’ fighting ability demanded the development of a capable officer corps, especially line officers. American outfits had adopted the English system of allowing sergeants to drill the troops. Steuben insisted that officers take direct command of the men. More than that, he insisted that officers look closely and consistently to every aspect of the care of their men–of their food, shelter, clothing, equipment, morale. Third, Steuben understood that the American soldier was also a citizen, not the offscouring of Europe’s underclass, and must be treated as such. As he wrote to an old comrade, in France or Austria or Prussia, you tell “your soldier, ‘Do this,’ and he doeth it, but I am obliged to say, ‘This is the reason why you ought to do that,’ and he does it.” This independence of mind was, Steuben realized, “the genius of this nation.” Of course, this understanding did not mean that his foot soldiers were handled gently. Indeed, they suffered the choleric browbeatings recruits have suffered from drill instructors from the time the first recruit learned the difference between hay-foot and straw-foot. It is interesting to note that Steuben’s parade-ground wrath seems to have increased the Americans’ respect for their new comrade-in-arms. On one occasion he blew up in a storm of German and French profanity laced with his only English (“goddamn”) before finally turning to Walker for help: “Viens, Walker, mon ami, mon bon ami! Sacre! Goddamn des gaucheries of dese badouts. Je ne puis plus. I can curse dem no more.” But by the time spring came to Valley Forge, Washington’s army had learned how to handle a musket crisply and to use the bayonet for something more than roasting meat on a campfire. It had mastered close-order drill and become fluent in the movement from column into line and back into column. In time Steuben’s system of infantry drill was published as The Blue Book and adopted throughout the Continental Line. When the Americans next met the British at the point of the bayonet, they would owe a great deal to the hard-headed and hot-tempered Prussian who taught them how to use it.