On this day in 1777, General George Washington begins marching 12,000 soldiers of his Continental Army from Whitemarsh to Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, for the winter. As Washington’s men began crossing the Schuylkill River, they were surprised by a regiment of several thousand British troops led by General Charles Cornwallis. Cornwallis came across the continental forces by chance as he followed General William Howe’s orders to forage for supplies in the hills outside Philadelphia.
Upon spotting General Cornwallis and the British troops, General Washington ordered his soldiers to retreat across the Schuylkill River, where they destroyed the bridge to prevent the British from pursuing them. After engaging the British for a short time from the opposite side of the river, Washington and the Continental Army retreated back to Whitemarsh, delaying their march to Valley Forge for several days.
The Continental Army finally arrived safely at Valley Forge on December 19, where they would face a winter of starvation, disease and death. While they suffered, the Prussian military advisor Frederich Wilhelm Augustus Steuben, also known as Baron von Steuben, drilled the miserable men in proper military discipline. Von Steuben joined the French-born Marquis de Lafayette and Baron Johann de Kalb as well as Thaddeus Kosciuszko and Count Casimir Pulaski from Poland in the effort to turn the rag-tag rebels into a well-trained regiment. Come spring, Washington would have a professional army with which to fight the British.
General Howe chose to enjoy the comparative luxury and civility of winter in Philadelphia instead of engaging Washington’s forces at Valley Forge, despite their weakened and ill-defended state. His decision to cease fire during the winter months combined with the shocking news of America’s new alliance with France led to his recall. General Henry Clinton took over command of the British army with orders to leave Philadelphia immediately for New York and the British reworked their strategy to confront a transatlantic war with France.