Shocking details of starvation, disease, lack of clothing as troops emerge from Valley Forge

Shocking details of starvation, disease, lack of clothing as troops emerge from Valley Forge
The winter at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, in 1778 proved to be a long and costly one for Gen. George Washington's army during the American Revolutionary War. (Three Lions/Getty Images)

VALLEY FORGE, PENNSYLVANIA (MARCH 1, 1778) — Winters in Pennsylvania tend to be cold, and this past winter has been no different with its blowing wind and plentiful snow. It appears that a warmer winter could have been wished for by Gen. George Washington and his troops, who have spent this past winter in Valley Forge.

Washington chose the location to settle his troops for the winter because it was only 18 miles northwest of Philadelphia, where the British were stationed. A fairly secure location and defensible, it was close enough to keep tabs on their enemy.

It was soon discovered, however, that given the lack of any existing shelter, the lack of food, money, or, in many cases, clothing for the soldiers, the cold Pennsylvania winter would prove to be a long and costly one.

It has been well documented that the Continental Army has been accustomed to being ill-provisioned, frequently lacking food and often not being paid by the Continental Congress, which claims to lack the funds. This winter, however, privation entered an entirely new dimension with multiple sources coming forward to paint a picture of truly bleak circumstances.

The regiment arrived at Valley Forge knowing their only shelter would be ones in which they themselves constructed. Harvesting timber from miles away, the undernourished troops hauled the logs back to the camp to construct rustic cabins that did little more than protect them from the elements.

Healthy soldiers would have found such conditions difficult. The soldiers in this encampment, however, were far from healthy. Lack of food was a continual issue; the soldiers’ primary staple were “firecakes,” which is a tasteless mixture of flour and water. Food from the surrounding farms was sparse, as the farmers were far more eager to sell to the British regiments, knowing they would get a good price for their crops, as opposed to being paid in Continental dollars, which are known to hold far less value. That is if the Congress issued any funds at all. And unlike the British, Gen. Washington was adamantly opposed to his troops simply taking what they needed from farms in the area.

In addition to being malnourished, a large percentage of the troops had shockingly little clothing. Only one in four had shoes, and many had no coats or blankets. It was not uncommon to see men with pants in tatters or clothes in the process of rotting off of their bodies. Many were prevented from doing their duties due to their nakedness, being embarrassed to be seen with so little clothing.

Connecticut soldier James Martin shared his experience as he began the winter:

“The army was now not only starved but naked; the greatest part were not only shirtless and barefoot, but destitute of all other clothing, especially blankets. I procured a small piece of raw cowhide and made myself a pair of moccasins, which kept my feet, while they lasted, from the frozen ground, although, as I well remember, the hard edges so galled my ankles while on a march that it was with much difficulty and pain that I could wear them afterward. But the only alternative I had was to endure this inconvenience or go barefoot, as hundreds of my companions had to, till they might be tracked by their blood upon the rough, frozen ground.”

Gen. Washington, while lamenting the deplorable conditions he and his soldiers were in, couldn’t help but praise them for the character they displayed under such circumstances:

“No history now extant can furnish an instance of an army’s suffering such uncommon hardships as ours has done. To see men without clothes to cover their nakedness, without blankets to lie on, without shoes (for the want of which their marches might be traced by the blood from their feet), and almost as often without provision as with them, marching through the frost and snow, and at Christmas taking up their winter quarters within a day’s march from the enemy, without a house or hut to cover them till they could be built, and submitting to it without a murmur is proof of patience and obedience which in my opinion can scarce be paralleled.”

Washington pleaded repeatedly with the Continental Congress for funds for his troops, but that availed him little. Additionally, America’s loosely coordinated national government places much of the responsibility for funding on the states, and many of them have not followed through on their agreement, claiming lack of funds themselves.

He was also forced repeatedly to seek provision from quartermaster general Thomas Mifflin, who was ineffectual. Circumstances grew to such a dire state that he demanded Gen. Nathanael Greene replace Mifflin, which Greene was hesitant to do, due to the enormity of the task. Once Greene was in place in March 1778, however, things began to improve for Washington and his men.

Of the 12,000 troops that entered Valley Forge in December 1777, an estimated 2,500 died of starvation, disease, malnutrition, or exposure by the spring.

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