On December 19, 1777, General George Washington and his Continental Army set up camp in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania for the winter ahead. Having just fought the Battle of White Marsh, the troops were weary and weak, and many traveled without shoes. That winter of 1777-1778 would live in infamy, as the troops suffered awful conditions.
According to Russel Freedman, author of Washington at Valley Forge, there were inadequate food and water supplies, rampant disease, and freezing conditions. General Washington petitioned the Continental Congress for more supplies, but they were unable to provide anything for months. Though these conditions may seem unlivable, the Valley Forge National Park argues that they may have been expected:
As wintry weather approached, armies often withdrew to fixed camps. Transportation problems made large-scale winter operations infeasible. In choosing a site for quarters, Washington had to balance the Continental Congress’s wish for some type of winter campaign aimed at dislodging the British from the capital [at Philadelphia] against the needs of his weary and poorly supplied army. By mid-December he had decided to encamp at Valley Forge.
From this location, twenty miles northwest of Philadelphia, the army was close enough to maintain pressure on the British yet far enough away to prevent a surprise attack. While the soldiers who entered camp on December 19, 1777, were not well-supplied, they were not downtrodden. This is attested to by an anonymous observer who recounted his visit to Valley Forge in the New Jersey Gazette on December 25:
“I have just returned from spending a few days with the army. I found them employed in building little huts for their winter quarters. It was natural to expect that they wished for more comfortable accommodations, after the hardships of a most severe campaign; but I could discover nothing like a sigh of discontent at their situation…On the contrary, my ears were agreeably struck every evening, in riding through the camp, with a variety of military and patriotic songs and every countenance I saw, wore the appearance of cheerfulness or satisfaction.”
Still, sleeping must have been rough, as evidenced by this item in the New-York Historical Society’s collection: George Washington’s Camp Bed. Made of three folding stools, it stretched six-and-a-half feet long, which barely fit the 6’2″ General Washington. You can listen to our audio guide of the object