Bruce's History Lesson: Why Valley Forge?
This week (Dec. 19) in 1777, George Washington led his beleaguered Continental Army into winter's quarters in Valley Forge, Pa., where they would endure the harshest winter in memory with little food, clothing or shelter. The stories about "Blood on the snow" and cries of "No meat!" were actually quite true. By contrast, just 18 miles away in Philadelphia, British General William Howe and his warm, well-fed troops were settling into quarters, happy to wait out a winter they were sure would be the last for the rebellious Americans.
But the question arises: Why Valley Forge, a hard-to-supply camp so close to Philadelphia and Howe's more powerful army? Why not larger, more comfortable winter headquarters farther away — in Reading or Lancaster, Pa., as some had suggested? Why suffer such deprivation and be so near a dangerous enemy?
The answer is mostly politics. Recall that the decision to break with Great Britain, then the world's most powerful military force, was not universally supported in America. In many areas, Loyalists — those who preferred to remain part of the British Empire — outnumbered rebels, and fence-sitters — those waiting to see how things turned out — were also in abundance. And in December of 1777, things were not going well for America, meaning the people were growing increasingly tired of the war. That was especially true in Pennsylvania with its large population of Quaker pacifists.
Thus was Washington reluctant to "leave the field" for the hinterlands. He worried that giving up any presence near Philadelphia, back then the most important city in America, would leave native Philadelphians who supported the revolution defenseless against British reprisals and Loyalist retribution. Part of Washington's genius as a commander was his understanding that the American Revolution was as much a battle for the "hearts and minds" of the populace as it was a battle of soldiers and equipment. The decision to winter at Valley Forge, which at least was a militarily defensible position, was made partly to buck up the morale of the rebels in and around Philadelphia, thus ensuring that they remained loyal to the revolution.
Even so, in hindsight the decision to winter at Valley Forge is easy to criticize. It was very difficult to resupply, especially when winter storms made roads and rivers impassable. Couple that with Washington's "hearts and minds" reluctance to "requisition" (confiscate) foodstuffs and other necessities from the local population, and one can see why deprivation was so widespread at Valley Forge.
Granted, come the spring, Washington's army — although depleted — was stronger, better trained, more united and more cohesive. In hindsight, "That which doesn't kill me only makes me stronger," may have been one argument for choosing Valley Forge.