On December 19, 1777, commander of the Continental Army George Washington, the future first president of the United States, leads his beleaguered troops into winter quarters at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania.
Things could hardly have looked bleaker for Washington and the Continental Army as 1777 came to a close. The British had successfully occupied Philadelphia, leading some members of Congress to question Washington’s leadership abilities. No one knew better than Washington that the army was on the brink of collapse—in fact, he had defied Congress’ demand that he launch a mid-winter attack against the British at Philadelphia and instead fell back to Valley Forge to rest and refit his troops.
Though he had hoped to provide his weary men with more nutritious food and badly needed winter clothing, Congress had been unable to provide money for fresh supplies. That Christmas Eve, the troops dined on a meal of rice and vinegar, and were forced to bind their bleeding frost-bitten feet with rags. “We have experienced little less than a famine in camp,” Washington wrote to Patrick Henry the following February.
Desperate to keep the army intact, Washington tried to stem desertion by resorting to lashings as punishment and then threatening to shoot deserters on sight. For those soldiers who remained with him, Washington expressed deep gratitude and awe. He described men marching without clothes, blankets or shoes—leaving bloody trails in the snow—who displayed “patience and obedience which in my opinion can scarce be paralel’d.”
Meanwhile Washington faced the displeasure of Congress and rumors of plots to replace him with his typical stoicism and composure. On December 31, he wrote to the Marquis de Lafayette that he would continue “to observe one steady and uniform conduct, which I shall invariably pursue, while I have the honour to command, regardless of the Tongue of slander or the powers of detraction.” Furthermore, he told the press that if Congress could find someone better suited to lead the army that he would be more than happy to resign and return to private life at his Mount Vernon estate.
The winter at Valley Forge might have signaled the end of the American Revolution. Fortunately for the Continentals, Washington did not give up. During this time Washington made several key additions to his officer corps, such as the Prussian General Friedrich von Steuben, who was tasked with implementing a new training regimen, and Nathanael Greene, who served as quartermaster general, relieving Washington of the duty of supply procurement. Washington, supported by a loyal officer corps, was now free to focus on strategies to beat the British.
He was further buoyed by France’s agreement to join the revolutionaries in February 1778. Washington was so happy with the news from his “powerful friend” France that, upon hearing the news, he pardoned two of his own soldiers who were awaiting execution for desertion.
Once Washington’s detractors in Congress realized they could not sway his troops’ loyalty, they gave up on any secret plans to replace him. In March 1778, Washington led his troops, their bodies and supplies replenished and their confidence restored, out of Valley Forge to face the British again.