WHERE WASHINGTON LIVED DURING THE WINTER OF 1777-78
A few rods from the beautiful Schuylkill River, at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, twenty-four miles from Philadelphia, is the quaint stone house where Washington spent nearly six months of the most trying year of the Revolution.
While the British troops were occupying Philadelphia Congress was in session at York, Pennsylvania. Valley Forge was accordingly a strategic location, for from here it was comparatively simple to guard the roads leading out of Philadelphia, and to prevent both the exit of the British and the entrance of supplies designed for the enemy.
The eleven thousand men who marched to the site selected for the camp were miserably equipped for a winter in the open. Provisions were scarce, and clothing and shoes were even more scarce. But the men looked forward bravely to the months of exposure be-fore them.
Washington did everything possible to provide for their comfort. Realizing that the soldiers needed something more than the tents in which they were living at first, he gave orders that huts should be built for them. The commanding officers of the regiments were instructed to divide their soldiers into parties of twelve, to see that each party had the necessary tools, and to superintend the building of a hut for each group of twelve soldiers, according to carefully stated dimensions. A reward was offered to the party in each regiment which should complete its hut in the quickest and best manner. Since valuable time would be lost in preparing boards for the roofs, he promised a second sword to the officer or soldier who should devise a material for this purpose cheaper and more quickly made than boards.
Some of the first huts were covered with leaves, but it was necessary to provide a more lasting covering. After a few weeks fairly acceptable quarters were provided for the men, in spite of the scarcity of tools. Colonel Pickering, on January 5, wrote to Mrs. Pickering, ” The huts are very warm and comfortable, being very good log huts, pointed with clay, and the roof made tight with the same.”
At first, Washington sought to encourage his soldiers by assuring them that he would accept no better quarters than could be given them; he would set the example by passing the winter in a hut. But officers and men alike urged that it would be unwise to risk his health in this way, and he consented to seek quarters in a near-by house. However, he refused to make himself comfortable until the men were provided for.
His headquarters were finally fixed in the two-story stone house of Isaac Potts. There he met his officers, received visitors, planned for the welfare of the army, and parried the attacks of those who could not under-stand the difficulties of the situation. Once he wrote to Congress: ” Three days successively we have been destitute of bread. Two days we have been entirely without meat. The men must be supplied, or they cannot be commanded.”
To the objections of those who thought that the army should not be inactive during the winter weather, he wrote:
” I can assure these gentlemen, that it is a much easier and less distressing thing to draw remonstrances in a comfortable room by a good fireside, than to occupy a cold, bleak hill, and sleep under frost and snow, with-out clothes or blankets. However, although they seem to have little pity for the naked and distressed soldiers, I feel superabundantly for them, and, from my soul, I pity those miseries which it is neither in my power to relieve or prevent.”
The heavy hearts of Washington and his officers rejoiced when, on February 23, 1778, Baron Steuben and Peter S. Du Ponceau called at headquarters. Du Ponceau wrote later :
” I cannot describe the impression that the first sight of that great man made upon me. I could not keep my eyes from that imposing countenancegrave, yet not severe; affable, without familiarity. . . . I have never seen a picture that represents him to me as I saw him at Valley Forge. . . . I had frequent opportunities of seeing him, as it was my duty to accompany the Baron when he dined with him, which was sometimes twice or thrice in the same week. We visited him also in the evening, when Mrs. Washington was at head-quarters. We were in a manner domesticated in the family.”
An order was sent from headquarters, dated March 28, that Baron Steuben be respected and obeyed as Inspector General. The need of his services is revealed by his description of the condition of the army when he arrived in camp :
” The arms at Valley Forge were in a horrible condition, covered with rust, half of them without bayonets, many from which a single shot could not be fired. The pouches were quite as bad as the arms. A great many of the men had tin boxes instead of pouches, others had cow-horns ; and muskets, carbines, fowling-pieces, and rifles were to be seen in the same company. . . . The men were literally naked. . . . The officers who had coats, had them of every color and make. I saw officers, at a grand parade in Valley Forge, mounting guard in a sort of dressing-gown, made of an old blanket or woolen bed-cover. . . . ”
Mrs. Washington joined the circle at headquarters on February 10. She was not favorably impressed. ” The General’s apartment is very small,” she wrote. ” He has had a log cabin built to dine in, which has made our quarters much more tolerable than they were at first.”
The most joyful day at Valley Forge was May 7, 1778, when a fete was held to celebrate the conclusion of the treaty of alliance between France and the United States. After religious service, the army was reviewed, and Washington dined in public with his officers. ” When the General took his leave, there was a universal clap, with loud huzzas, which continued till he had proceeded a quarter of a mile.”
On June 18 the glad tidings came to headquarters that the British were evacuating Philadelphia. Next day the camp was left behind. Washington did not see it again for nine years.
In 1879 the Isaac Potts house was bought by the Continental Memorial Association of Valley Forge. And in 1893 the Pennsylvania Legislature created the Valley Forge Park Commission, which has since acquired the entire encampment, has laid it out as a park, and has arranged for the erection of many monuments and markers and a number of memorial structures. But the house in which Washington lived must always be the central feature of the grounds.