A Ghost of an Army

By Antonia Petrash
Washington and Lafayette visiting the troops at Valley Forge Library of Congress

“Valley Forge”
Bob Drury and Tom Clavin
Simon & Schuster, $30

If you think you know anything about Valley Forge and have not read Bob Drury and Tom Clavin’s new account of that calamitous winter, think again. That small tract of land nestled in the southeastern corner of Pennsylvania, just 23 miles north of Philadelphia, is usually remembered for the cruel winter of 1777-78 when George Washington billeted his Continental Army there, and starvation and exposure to cold threatened to destroy our fledgling nation’s dreams of liberty. 

But Mr. Drury and Mr. Clavin show us that Valley Forge is so much more than that — it is the crucible through which Washington metamorphosed from a hesitant, insecure farmer into a decisive and courageous leader. 

In August of 1777, with the war not going well, General Washington led a showy parade of his ragtag Continental Army through Philadelphia astride his impressive white Arabian horse. But this image of strength belied the general’s insecurities. He had always been self-conscious about his lack of higher education. He knew that many considered him a poor choice to be commander in chief of the army of the united colonies, a “tomahawk-wielding bumpkin” from Virginia, a wealthy Southern plantation owner “tabbed to lead a revolution.”

Eventually he came to worry that perhaps his detractors were right. By the end of September, after disastrous defeats at Brandywine Creek and Paoli, Philadelphia fell to the British under the command of Gen. Sir William Howe, and Washington was driven to find an encampment for his troops where they could rest and regroup through the winter. After another defeat in October at Germantown, on Dec. 19, 1777, his “ghost of an army,” 11,000 to 14,000 men, many without the simplest of supplies — even shoes — limped into Valley Forge like a “line of tattered scarecrows.”

The men settled in, and things got worse. There were precious little supplies. Clothes were in tatters, leaving bodies exposed to the cold. Fatigue, hunger, and disease were their constant companions. 

Washington was charged with forming a new nation on the backs of untrained farmers, blacksmiths, fishermen — men deprived of the comforts of home and family, and with no clear-cut view of what victory would look like. Desertions were rampant, among the officers as well as enlisted men. Deserters who were captured by the British faced even worse conditions; viewed with disdain, they were thrown into filthy dungeons with only rats for company.

Fortunately, Washington was not alone, and had some dedicated advisers on whom he came to depend: Alexander Hamilton, whose youth belied a shrewd political instinct; Horatio Gates, who successfully blocked the British path to Albany, but later attempted a coup against Washington; Nathaniel Greene, the “fighting Quaker,” who would eventually assume the vital but thankless role of quartermaster; the Marquis de Lafayette, whose resentment of the British for killing his father made him a fiercely devoted American ally, and Prussian Baron Friedrich von Steuben, whose intense training in basic military skills transformed a “crude material for soldiers” into a disciplined fighting unit. 

The suffering at Valley Forge had myriad causes; blame is usually assigned to the fact that it was winter, and the surrounding fields and farms had been stripped of their crops and livestock by both armies. (Circumstances may have been exacerbated by Washington’s reluctance to confiscate supplies from civilians loyal to the cause, fearing it would “undercut the very ideals for which the Americans were fighting,” the authors write.)

But here we find other, perhaps equal forces at play: the army’s broken supply system, riddled by mismanagement, graft, and corruption; marauding bands of gangsters who would sell stolen goods to the highest bidder, and perhaps the most difficult to accept, mismanagement of resources by an ignorant and indifferent Continental Congress. It is only when a fact-finding commission from the fledgling Congress visited Valley Forge and saw firsthand the horror and deprivation that things began to change.

After a torturous six months and over 2,000 deaths, spring finally arrived with new supplies and renewed hope. Washington led his troops to a stunning triumph at the Battle of Monmouth Court House in New Jersey, a significant turning point in the war. His firm confidence under pressure and his determination to persevere despite so many failures inspired his men and led them on to a victory that probably would not have happened without Valley Forge, a victory that would transform them all.

George Washington would not take part in any other military engagements until three years later, when Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown.

“Valley Forge” offers an eminently readable, in-depth account of one vital page in the history of our nation. In a small criticism, the authors’ use of obscure terms at times detracts from the flow of the story line, causing the average reader too many trips to the dictionary. Readers who are familiar with military terms might know that a “sapper” is a military combat engineer, and a “remuda” is a herd of horses that have been saddle-broken; most readers would not.

Still, a minor criticism of a towering and important work.

Antonia Petrash, a former library director, is the author of “Long Island and the Woman Suffrage Movement,” from the History Press.

Tom Clavin lives in Sag Harbor. He and Bob Drury also wrote “The Heart of Everything That Is,” the story of Red Cloud.

Bob Drury, left, and Tom ClavinAnne Drager Photos