The Evacuation of Valley Forge
By Lillian Cronise Lutes
Published in the Journal of American History in 1908
Winter Encampment of American Army Where The Sufferings of the Soldiers Tested the Patriotism and Loyalty of the Coming Citizens of the Republic Washington’s Correspondence in 1777-1778. One of the Most Critical Periods in Our Struggle for Independence
ONE hundred and thirty four-years ago, on June 19, 1778, the American Army marched out of its winter quarters on the hills of Valley Forge.
Throughout the winter of 1777-78, when our army, sick, starving, and destitute, lay almost helpless in its bleak hillside barracks, at the mercy of the enemy, a bare twenty-four miles away, the British remained strangely blind to their opportunity. Philadelphia had cast over them, as it were, the spell of a siren. Her warm hearthstones and gay social gatherings, her beautiful women and brilliant entertainments held the hostile army in thrall. Lieutenant-General Sir William Howe, in defense of his conduct of the campaign during this period, says:
“I did not attack the entrenched position at Valley Forge, a strong point, during the severe season, although everything was prepared with that intention, judging it imprudent until the season should afford a prospect of reaping the advantages that ought to have resulted in success in that measure; but having good information in the spring that the enemy had strengthened his camp by additional works and being certain of moving him from thence when the campaign should open, I dropped all thoughts of attack.”
A mid-winter attack on “the entrenched position at Valley Forge” would, doubtless, have occasioned the British army some three or four days of hardship and suffering, but, in neglecting to make such an attack upon Valley Forge, “during the severe season,” Sir William Howe neglected one of the best opportunities the British ever had to strike a death blow to the infant Republic and to put a speedy termination to the war, for no season, however favorable, could have afforded so great “a prospect of reaping the advantages that ought to have resulted from success in that measure,” as did the internal conditions of the American camp itself “during the severe season.”
On February 12, 1778, General Varnum wrote to General Greene: “In all human probability the army must dissolve. Many of the troops are destitute of meat and are several days in arrears. The horses are dying for want of forage. The country in the vicinity of the camp is exhausted.”
On February 16, 1778,. General Washington wrote to Governor Clinton: “For some days past there has been little less than a famine in camp. A part of the army has been a week without any kind of flesh, and the rest three or four days.”
In a letter to the President of Congress, Washington expressly stated what in his opinion would have been the issue, had an attack upon the camp been made:
“I do not know from what cause this alarming deficiency, or rather total failure of supplies, arises, but unless more vigorous exertions and better regulations take place in that line immediately this army must dissolve. I have done all in my power by remonstrating, by writing, by ordering the commissaries on this head from time to time, but without any good effect or obtaining more than a present scanty relief. Owing to this the march of the army has been delayed on more than one interesting occasion in the course of the present campaign, and had a body of the enemy crossed the Schuylkill this morning (as I had reason to expect from the intelligence I received at four o’clock last night), the Divisions which I had ordered to be in readiness to march and meet them could not have moved.”
Hardly was this written when the news did come that the enemy had come out to Darby, and the troops were ordered under arms.
“Fighting,” responded General Huntingdon, when he got the order, “will be far preferable to starving. My brigade is out of provisions nor can the Commissary obtain any meat.”
On the same occasion General Varnum wrote to General Washington, saying that his division had been two days without meat and three days without bread and that the men must be supplied or they could not be commanded. It was impossible to stir and all that saved the American army from annihilation was the fact that the British party coming out to Darby were only foragers and that the main army, following in the footsteps of their ancestors, the Crusaders, lay in their fenced city, intent on mimic war and tourneys, social extravagance ‘and michianza, instead of going out to battle, till their opportunities were lost.
Meanwhile, the American soldiers were not passing their time in idleness. As Sir William Howe, himself, gives testimony, “The engineers were busily engaged in strengthening the defences.” The “Conway Cabal,” which had long been festering in the army and exerting an evil influence on Congress, had come to a head, and under the wise treatment of the Congressional Committee, its poison had been successfully extracted from the vitals of the nation. As the result of this, the inefficient Mifflin had been replaced as Quartermaster-General in March by skillful, wise Nathaniel Greene, second only to the Commander-in-Chief in prudent foresight and disinterested zeal. This change did much toward providing proper food and clothing for the men.
Conway, the idle, self-seeking adventurer, who had made use of his office as Inspector-General to break up discipline, foment strife, and undermine Washington as Commander-in-Chief, was supplanted by the whole-hearted and self-sacrificing Steuben, who brought to his work as Drill Master and Inspector-General the best military skill and training of Europe; who toiled from earliest dawn till midnight training, drilling, and reorganizing the army; who shared the hardships of his men, and who labored on untiringly until the war was won, asking nothing but the necessary authority to do his work and an opportunity to spend his declining years in the country he had labored to set free. In course of time, the ordinary changes of the seasons helped contribute to the betterment of conditions and to the alleviation of the soldiers’ sufferings.
Nor was the beneficial activity of the Americans confined to the army at Valley Forge. Far away, in France, under the wise and tactful representations of the American Commissioners, Dean and Franklin, the independence of the American Colonies was at last recognized and the long-drawn-out negotiations for the French Alliance were successfully concluded. By neglecting to make a mid-winter attack on Valley Forge Howe had let pass the time when famine, pestilence, and the very elements themselves would have acted as his allies and sped him on to victory; by waiting until the consummation of the French Alliance he had waited until Philadelphia was no longer tenable as a British post and until, as Stedman, the famous British historian, has bitterly observed, he had forfeited all the military advantage he had gained by the hard-won battles of the preceding campaign, and the housing of the army for tl-ie winter was all the benefit the British gained from Brandywine and Germantown.
Sometime during the spring of 1778 Sir William Howe was, at his own request, recalled and his successor, Sir Henry Clinton, together with his commission as Commander-in-Chief, received peremptory orders for the immediate evacuation of Philadelphia. These orders were in consequence of the apprehension of the British ministry that the fleet, then fitting out at Toulon, was destined for the Delaware and to co-operate with Washington in an attack upon Philadelphia, and the fear that, should a French fleet blockade the British squadron in the Delaware, while Washington attacked Philadelphia upon land, Howe would share the fate of Burgoyne, who had been so signally defeated in October of the year preceding.
At Valley Forge news of the French Alliance spread the greatest joy conceivable. The material advantages resulting from the alliance were of great value in deciding the final issue of the war, but the revived hope and increased confidence which the announcement of the alliance infused into the minds of the American nation, both soldiers and statesmen, were of no less real value.
General Washington realized immediately on receiving news of the alliance that the evacuation of Philadelphia would speedily follow, and began at once his preparations to profit by the same. As word soon came that British transports were being loaded in the Delaware, there was some doubt for a time as to whether the evacuation would be made by land or sea. Washington, however, inclined to the belief that the British departure would be made through Jersey, rightly judging that the same influence which had made necessary the evacuation of Philadelphia, viz., the danger of a surprise by the French fleet under D’Estaing, would deter Sir Henry from risking the capture of so large a proportion of his army while loaded on unwieldy and ill-defended transports. Acting on this belief, he therefore dispatched Maxwell with the Jersey Brigade over the Delaware to take post at Mount Holly and, together with General Dickinson, commanding the Jersey Militia, to retard the progress of the enemy through New Jersey. They were directed to fell trees, break up bridges, and hang upon the flanks of the enemy. Meanwhile, on the seventeenth of June, he called a council of war, when the opinion of all his general officers was required on the proper course to be pursued. These all concurred in the sentiment that it would not be advisable to disturb the British while crossing the Delaware, nor to enter the works about Philadelphia until the city should be entirely evacuated. On the subject of a general or even partial action, while the enemy should be on their march through Jersey, a diversity of opinion existed. Out of seventeen general officers, only two, Wayne and Cadwalader, were decidedly in favor of attacking the enemy. Lafayette inclined to this opinion without positively adopting it. Greene was disposed for something more than the Council were willing to concur in.
On the 18th of June George Roberts, a courier, arrived post from Philadelphia, bearing the welcome intelligence that Clinton’s forces were crossing the Delaware into Jersey, eighteen thousand strong, and Morgan with his six hundred chosen riflemen, Scott, and Cadwalader were at once rushed in pursuit. Already, on May 3oth, in anticipation of this move, the Commander-in-Chief had issued the following order to Major-General Charles Lee, which is taken from the Lee papers, New York Historical Society, Vol. 2, P. 406:
“Headquarters, 30th May, 1778.
“Sir:-Poor’s, Varnum’s, and Huntingdon’s brigades are to march in one division under your command to North River. The Quartermaster-General will give you the route, encampment, and halting places, to which you will conform as strictly as possible, to prevent interfering with other troops, and that I may know your situation every day. Leave as few sick and lame on the road as possible. Such as are absolutely incapable of marching with you are to be committed to the care of proper officers, with directions to follow as fast as their condition will allow.
“Be strict in your discipline, suffer no rambling, keep men in their ranks and officers with their divisions, avoid pressing horses as much as possible, and punish severely every officer and soldier who shall presume to press without authority. Prohibit the burning of fence. In a word, you are to protect the persons and property of the inhabitants from every kind of insult and abuse.
“Begin your march at four o’clock in the morning at the latest, that it may be over before the heat of the day, and that the soldiers may have time to cook, refresh, and prepare for the following day. I am, etc.,
This order, held in abeyance pending the actual evacuation of the city, was now amended by the following postscripts:
“P. S., June 18.-The foregoing instructions may serve you for general directions, but circumstances have varied since they were written. You are to halt on the first strong ground after passing the Delaware at Coryell’s ferry ’till further orders, unless you should receive authentic intelligence that the enemy have proceeded by a direct route to South Amboy or still lower. In this case you will continue your march to the North River, agreeably to former orders, and by the route already given you. If my memory does not deceive me, there is an advantageous spot of ground at the ferry, to the right of the road leading from the water.
“The detachment under Col. Jackson to move and take possession of Philadelphia, and to prevent plundering and abuse of persons. Van Scoick’s regiment to replace the Eighth Pennsylvania Regiment in the Pennsylvania Brigade. The Second State Regiment of Virginia to replace the Thirteenth Regiment in Scott’s Brigade. Park of artillery to the several divisions equally, and march with them.
“The First and Second Divisions to move the morning after intelligence is received of the enemy’s evacuation of the city.
“The Third and Fourth Divisions, the morning after these, and the Fifth Division the morning succeeding; every day’s march to be given at four o’clock a. m. at furthest.
“The disposition for the baggage of the army to be as follows: The Commander-in-Chief’s baggage is to march in the front of the column of wagons. The Adjutant-General’s, Paymaster-General’s, Engineer’s Muster Master, Auditor of Accounts, the baggage of the Marquis de Lafayette and De Kalb’s Division, the baggage of Lord Stirling’s Division, and then the wagons of the Quartermaster-General’s department, Flying Hospital, and lastly the Commissary and Foragemaster-General’s wagons. The whole baggage to fall in rear of the column of troops.