On December 19, 1777, Washington led his army to a high plateau 20 miles northwest of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. It was not the coldest winter during the Revolutionary War. However, soldiers lacked shoes and clothes. The army was ravaged by diseases like yellow fever, typhus, scabies, and smallpox. Desertion was high. Men were not getting paid. Soldiers shouted, “No meat! No soldier!” The army was on the brink of dissolution.
Over the next six months, General Washington did everything in his power to hold the army together. George Washington’s leadership held the army together. It was a testament to his strength as a commanding officer and a leader. The challenges piled up from day one in camp.
At Valley Forge, the army established an area defense. The primary orientation was southeast toward Philadelphia. The terrain was high with good visibility, which made it easily defensible. The drawbacks of the terrain included no natural shelter. The army had to build 2,000 huts to house up to 12,000 soldiers.
Valley Forge was a good position where the army could monitor the British in Philadelphia and also protect Congress located in York, PA. The Continental Congress fled Philadelphia after the British threatened the city. British forces invaded and occupied Philadelphia on September 26, 1777.
Five Paragraph Order
In this podcast, I decided to think about what order Washington would have issued to his commanders. What would the planning process have looked like using O-SMEAC? How would Washington think through key strengths and weaknesses?
The orders process is known as O-SMEAC. This stands for “orientation, situation, mission, execution, administration and logistics, and command and signal.” Here is a simple overview of each paragraph.
Orientation: The orientation provides a high level snapshot of the area of operations (AO). It is a detailed overview of the key terrain features and orients everyone to the important points in the AO.
Situation: The situation provides an overview of the enemy and friendly situation. This will analyze the enemies key strengths and weaknesses. It will also analyze the enemies most likely course of action (EMLCOA).
Mission: Contains the mission statement. Within the mission statement is a tactical task as well as the “why” behind the mission. It typically includes the 5 W’s of “who, what, when, where, and why.” For example, a mission statement for Valley Forge might have read as follows, “On December 19, 1777, the Continental Army will defend at Valley Forge in order to prevent the British from attacking Congress.”
Execution: Includes the Commander’s Intent, Concept of Operations, Tasks, and Coordinating Instructions. There are a lot more details in execution and this is just an overview of the major items.
Administration & Logistics: Includes the casualty evacuation (CASEVAC) plan and enemy prisoners of war (EPW) plan. It also discusses plans for resupply of food, water, and ammunition.
Command & Signal: Discusses a signal plan for communication. The command lists a succession of command plus location of key leaders such as the commanding officer.
Housing at Valley Forge
Washington’s army worked hard to build housing for 12,000 soldiers. Washington’s orders on December 18, 1777 provided detailed instructions on how the huts were supposed to be built. The orders also incentivized soldiers to build their huts quickly. The fastest party in each regiment was awarded $12 for the quickest and most “workmanlike” hut construction.
Valley Forge Defenses
The defenses included a system of trenches and redoubts. Redoubts integrated indirect fires from artillery cannons. Furthermore, they were located along key terrain features with good visibility.
Below are pictures showing engineering tools. Also, there is a view from Redoubt 5 and looking up at Redoubt 5. Looking southeast toward Philadelphia, Redoubt 5 was on the left most flank of the defense. Today it looks out on Valley Forge Casino and a Top Golf driving range.
The Grand Parade and Von Steuben
An unlikely resource entered camp to help Washington’s army to serve as Inspector General. An unemployed Prussian Captain, Friedrich Wilhelm Baron Von Steuben, whipped the soldiers into shape on a drill field known as the Grand Parade. He might not have been a Baron. His background was less impressive in fact. But, the man clearly knew what he was doing.
Von Steuben authored one of the first army training manuals called the “blue book.” His influence was important to standardize soldiers movements in and out of formations. Additionally, Von Steuben brought discipline to the army in terms of hygiene and camp conditions. Soldiers could no longer pee wherever they felt like it. As Inspector General, Von Steuben’s job was to assess the conditions in camp and the state of the army.
George Washington’s Leadership Challenges at Valley Forge
Washington faced a challenge to his command from within the army and from parts of Congress. There was an effort to undermine him and replace him with Horatio Gates. However, Washington kept his cool and moved deliberately to let the conspirators follies and loose lips work against them.
As he rode through camp, Washington was greeted with cries of “No meat! No soldier!” He had to deal with soldiers stealing from the local population. Up to three quarters of the army attempted desertion. The orders of the day included the details of court-martials. Soldiers were put on trial for crimes ranging from assault, desertion, theft, and cowardice. Punishments included lashes on the “naked back” ranging from 30 to 100.
Washington petitioned Congress for more troops and supplies. He also took his appeal directly to the states. Furthermore, a Congressional Committee arrived in January. Washington was ready to receive them with a 13,000 word report written by Alexander Hamilton. Francis Dana from Massachusetts led the committee. This was an opportunity for congressional representatives to see first-hand the hardships that the army endured at Valley Forge.
As the committee inspected camp. They witnessed the dysfunction that Washington had been writing about. They also recognized the need to recommend several of the changes that Washington was advocating in terms of pay and promotions.
Furthermore, the Committee recommended that the quartermaster position be immediately filled. This position had been vacated by Thomas Mifflin in October 1777. Congress allowed Washington to fill the position. Washington appointed one of his best field commanders, General Nathanael Greene. Greene wasted little time implementing necessary changes.
The state of medicine was rough. Like many aspects of the army, there was little standardization in terms of care. Most doctors did not have formal training and education. Hygienic practices were not common. The hospital conditions were unsanitary.
There were three echelons of care. There were flying hospitals, regimental hospitals, and general hospitals. During the winter at Valley Forge, Washington’s medical department continued to build a network of 30 general hospitals from Lititz to Bethlehem, PA. The main hospital for Valley Forge was at Yellow Springs.
Smallpox continued to be a problem. A year prior Washington had authorized a plan to inoculate all soldiers that had not been exposed to smallpox. The inoculation process carried a lot of risk too.
The Continental Army broke camp on June 19, 1778. Washington held a council of war to determine whether the army should attack the rearguard of General Clinton’s forces marching overland to New York City from Philadelphia.
Despite most of the officers being against the plan, Washington decided to attack. The battle occurred on June 28 near Monmouth Courthouse in New Jersey. A series of human factors made the battle exceptionally difficult. The temperatures swelled above 100 degrees. Both British and American soldiers passed out and even died from overheating.
Washington ordered General Charles Lee to lead the attack. Lee had been recently released from British captivity. He was not a supporter of the attack. During the attack, he ordered his division to retreat. Washington fired him on the spot.
Ultimately, the Battle of Monmouth ended in a draw. It was not the overwhelming victory that Washington hoped for. But, it was a strategic victory due to the fact that it boosted morale and proved the army was capable of fighting the British as equals.
Washington stayed at the home of Isaac Potts. His HQs was located near the intersection of Valley Creek and the Schuylkill River. While he was in camp, Washington’s wife, Martha, came to stay with him in February 1778. Many wives of officers stayed in camp. When the army first marched into Valley Forge, there were at least 400 women and children with them. Valley Forge became the fourth largest city in Colonial America.
Here is a picture of the HQs and the Schuylkill River behind it.
Visiting Valley Forge
Valley Forge is operated by the National Park Service. It is on the outskirts of Philadelphia, PA near King of Prussia. Despite the malls and trappings of modernity in the area, the experience inside the park is great. There are several miles of trails to hike, bike, and run. The visitor center at the park is well done and helps provide an excellent introduction to what happened at Valley Forge. Additionally, the park is set up for a self-guided driving tour. At each stop on the tour, you can listen to what happened at the different locations.
Sources and Additional Resources:
- Library of Congress
- American Battlefield Trust
- Founders Online
- Von Steuben, F.W. (1985). Baron von Steuben’s Revolutionary War Drill Manual: A Facsimile Reprint of the 1794 Edition. Dover Publications. Garden City, NY. Get the Book
- Greenwalt, Phillip S. (2021). The Winter that Won the War. Savas Beatie LLC. El Dorado Hills, CA. Get the book Book
- Stewart, David O. (2021). George Washington: The Political Rise of America’s Founding Father. Dutton. Get the Book
- Chernow, R. (2010). Washington: A life. Allen Lane. Get the Book
- Martin, J.P. (1962). Private Yankee Doodle. George F. Scheer. Get the Book
- Langguth, A.J. (1988). Patriots: The Men Who Started the American Revolution. Simon & Schuster. New York, NY. Get the Book
- Chadwick, Bruce. (2004). George Washington’s War. Sourcebooks, Inc. Naperville, Illinois. Get the Book
- Ellis, Joseph J. (2004). His Excellency: George Washington. Vintage Books. New York. Get the Book
- My latest essay called “How Would George Washington Approach the Russia-Ukraine War”