Washington lost the Battle of Brandywine on Sept. 11, 1777, and was force to retreat toward Philadelphia. British General Burgoyne’s troops marched down from Canada through New York, but were amazingly forced to surrender to the Americans at the Battle of Saratoga, Oct. 7, 1777.
British General Howe struck back in a fury, driving the patriots out of Philadelphia – America’s largest city and busiest port. Philadelphia was effectively the capital of the United States. In European warfare, when an army captured its enemy’s capital, the war was considered over. Rather than surrender, the Continental Congress quickly evacuated Philadelphia. They even took the down the Liberty Bell and carried it with them so the British could not melt it into musket balls.
Congress’ last order, Dec. 12, 1776, was: “… until Congress shall otherwise order, General Washington shall be possessed of full power to order and direct all things relative to … the operations of the war.”
The 11,000 American soldiers were forced to retreat 25 miles from Philadelphia and set up camp at Valley Forge on Dec. 19, 1777.
Meanwhile, another 11,000 Americans were dying on British starving ships. Yale President Ezra Stiles recounted May 8, 1783: “‘O that my head were waters, and my eyes a fountain of tears,’ that I might weep the thousands of our brethren that have perished in prison ships … in one of which, the Jersey, then lying at New York, perished above eleven thousand the last three years – while others have been barbarously exiled to the East Indies for life.”
Soldiers at Valley Forge were from every state in the new union, some as young as 12 and others as old as 60. Though most were of European descent, some were African-American and American Indian.
Among them were:
- Marquis de Lafayette
- Colonel “Mad Anthony” Wayne
- future Chief Justice John Marshall
- Lutheran pastor turned Major-General John Peter Muhlenberg
- George Washington’s Jewish physician, Dr. Philip Moses Russell
Lacking food and supplies, soldiers died at the rate of twelve per day. Over 2,500 froze to death in bitter cold, or perished from hunger, typhoid, jaundice, dysentery, and pneumonia. In addition, hundreds of horses perished in the freezing weather.
A Committee from Congress reported on the soldiers: “Feet and legs froze till they became black, and it was often necessary to amputate them.”
Of the wives and children who followed the army, mending clothes, doing laundry and scavenging for food, an estimated 500 died.
President Calvin Coolidge told the Daughters of the American Revolution, April 19, 1926: “We have been told of the unselfish devotion of the women who gave their own warm garments to fashion clothing for the suffering Continental Army during that bitter winter at Valley Forge. The burdens of the war were not all borne by the men.”
Dr. Benjamin Rush, Surgeon General of the Continental Army, was tending wounds and treating soldiers at Valley Forge. Two days before Christmas, George Washington wrote: “We have this day no less than 2,873 men in camp unfit for duty because they are barefooted and otherwise naked. …”
Washington wrote: “… that unless some great and capital change suddenly takes place … this Army must inevitably … starve, dissolve, or disperse, in order to obtain subsistence in the best manner they can.”
The Continental Congress talked of replacing General George Washington with General Horatio Gates, but the Maryland delegate Charles Carroll, the only Catholic to sign the Declaration, helped persuade Congress not to.
Hessian Major Carl Leopold Baurmeister noted the only thing that kept the American army from disintegrating was their “spirit of liberty.” A farmer reportedly observed General Washington kneeling in prayer in the snow.
President Ronald Reagan stated in a radio address, Dec. 24, 1983: “The image of George Washington kneeling in prayer in the snow is one of the most famous in American history.”
The Boy Scout Handbook, Fifth edition (1948), in the section “Duty to God”: “You worship God regularly with your family in your church or synagogue … faithful to Almighty God’s Commandments. Most great men in history have been men of deep religious faith. Washington knelt in the snow to pray at Valley Forge.”
President Dwight Eisenhower broadcast from the White House for the American Legion’s Back-to-God Program, Feb. 7, 1954: “We remember the picture of the Father of our Country, on his knees at Valley Forge seeking divine guidance in the cold gloom of a bitter winter. Thus Washington gained strength to lead to independence a nation dedicated to the belief that each of us is divinely endowed with indestructible rights.”
On April 21, 1778, General Washington wrote to Lt. Col. John Banister: “No history … can furnish an instance of an army’s suffering such uncommon hardships as ours has done, and bearing them with the same patience and fortitude. … To see men without clothes to cover their nakedness, without blankets to lay on, without shoes, by which their marches might be traced by the blood from their feet, and almost as often without provisions … marching through frost and snow, and at Christmas taking up their winter quarters within a day’s march of the enemy, without a house or hut to cover them and submitting to it without a murmur, is a mark of patience and obedience which in my opinion can scarce be paralleled.”
Despite these conditions, soldiers prepared to fight.
A Christmas carol that would have lifted country’s spirits at this time was “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen,” first published in 1760 on a broadsheet in London as a “New Christmas carol.”
It was “the most common and generally popular of all carol tunes”:
God rest ye merry, gentlemen,
Let nothing you dismay.
For Jesus Christ our Savior,
Was born on Christmas Day;
To save us all from Satan’s power,
When we were gone astray. (Chorus)
O tidings of comfort and joy,
Comfort and joy,
O tidings of comfort and joy.
In February 1778, there arrived in the camp a Prussian drill master, Baron Friedrich von Steuben, who had been a member of the elite General Staff of Frederick the Great, King of Prussia. Baron von Steuben, who was sent with the recommendation of Ben Franklin, drilled the soldiers daily, transforming them from volunteers into a disciplined army.
Lutheran Pastor Henry Muhlenberg, whose sons Peter and Frederick served in the First U.S. Congress, wrote in “The Notebook of a Colonial Clergyman”: “I heard a fine example today, namely that His Excellency General Washington rode around among his army yesterday and admonished each to fear God, to put away wickedness … and to practice Christian virtues.”
Rev. Muhlenberg continued: “From all appearances General Washington does not belong to the so-called world of society, for he respects God’s Word, believes in the atonement through Christ, and bears himself in humility and gentleness. Therefore, the Lord God has also singularly, yea, marvelously preserved him from harm in the midst of countless perils, ambuscades, fatigues, etc., and has hitherto graciously held him in his hand as a chosen vessel.”
Washington successfully kept the army intact through the devastating winter, and gave the order at Valley Forge, April 12, 1778: “The Honorable Congress having thought proper to recommend to the United States of America to set apart Wednesday, the 22nd inst., to be observed as a day of Fasting, Humiliation and Prayer, that at one time, and with one voice, the righteous dispensations of Providence may be acknowledged, and His goodness and mercy towards our arms supplicated and implored: The General directs that the day shall be most religiously observed in the Army; that no work shall be done thereon, and that the several chaplains do prepare discourses.”
On May 2, 1778, Washington ordered: “The Commander-in-Chief directs that Divine service be performed every Sunday. … While we are zealously performing the duties of good citizens and soldiers, we certainly ought not to be inattentive to the higher duties of religion. To the distinguished character of Patriot, it should be our highest Glory to laud the more distinguished Character of Christian.”
President Dwight Eisenhower stated Dec. 24, 1953, lighting the National Christmas Tree: “George Washington long ago rejected exclusive dependence upon mere materialistic values. In the bitter and critical winter at Valley Forge, when the cause of liberty was so near defeat, his recourse was sincere and earnest prayer. … As religious faith is the foundation of free government, so is prayer an indispensable part of that faith.”
During the crisis of the Great Depression, President Herbert Hoover stated at Valley Forge, May 30, 1931: “If, by the grace of God, we stand steadfast in our great traditions through this time of stress, we shall insure that we and our sons and daughters shall see these fruits increased many fold. … If those few thousand men endured that long winter of privation and suffering … held their countrymen to the faith, and by that holding held fast the freedom of America, what right have we to be of little faith?”
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