The Winds of Change
by Mort Kunstler

Washington at Valley Forge, March 4, 1778

     The soldiers serving under General George Washington in December 1777 could not understand his decision to move them into winter quarters in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. While General Washington believed the site an ideal location to allow him to continue to contest the British for control of the countryside around Philadelphia, the Continental army saw nothing except trees, open fields, and a few farmhouses. Traditionally armies spent the winter in towns, where they could find food, shelter, and civilian companionship. But this would become a winter of crisis, with food supplies running out, snow falling, freezing rain turning roads to slush, and overflowing rivers washing out bridges, fords, and ferries that prevented supplies from reaching camp.
     While Washington promised to tend to his soldiers’ needs, he feared their trust and obedience would not last long without some change. He warned Congress, ”this army must inevitably be reduced to one or other of these three things: starve — dissolve — or disperse.” The crisis peaked in mid-February when food ran out completely and famine threatened. But Washington, a combat veteran, knew nothing mattered to soldiers more than the fundamental necessities: food, drink, clothing, shelter, sanitation, sleep — and hope in the future. While ordering his troops to build huts to establish a reasonable degree of shelter, Washington worked like an ox to secure the other necessities for his men. The Continentals saw him working, day and night, on their behalf. Valley Forge transformed the relationship between the general and his soldiers. After that terrible winter was over, they would follow Washington anywhere.
     Washington had help at Valley Forge. An important — if unlikely — hero was Friedrich Steuben, often called the Baron von Steuben. Although he barely spoke a word of English, Steuben’s talents were substantial. As the new inspector general of the army, he arrived at Valley Forge on February 23 and proceeded to draw up and enforce a new manual of drill training for the entire Continental army. The troops at Valley Forge eventually became well fed and more cheerful as they were drilled efficiently under Steuben’s direction.

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