On this day in 1777, Gen. George Washington and his ill-equipped, poorly fed and largely shoe-less army stagger into Valley Forge, weary from long marches and a string of defeats. Winds howled and temperatures plummeted as the 12,000 Continentals prepared for winter’s fury, leaving a trail of bloody footprints in the snow behind them.
During the previous year, Patriot forces under Washington suffered major defeats against the British at the battles of Brandywine and Germantown; Philadelphia, the capital of the United States, fell into British hands. In tactical retreat, Washington chose a site on the west bank of the Schuylkill River that could be effectively defended in the event of an attack from the Brits, just 18 miles away.
The particularly savage winter of 1777-78 proved to be a great trial for the American army, and of the 11,000 soldiers stationed at Valley Forge, not less than 2,500 perished from disease and exposure. Undaunted, the suffering troops were held together by loyalty to the Patriot cause and to Washington, who stayed with his men. As the winter stretched on, Prussian military adviser Frederick von Steuben kept the soldiers busy with drills and training in modern military strategy.
When Washington’s army marched out of Valley Forge on June 19, 1778, the men were far better disciplined and stronger in spirit than when they had entered. Nine days later, they won a stunning victory against the British under Lord Cornwallis at the Battle of Monmouth in New Jersey.
And here the lesson endeth.