- Last Updated on Wednesday, 17 December 2008 17:00
- Published on Wednesday, 17 December 2008 17:00
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During its long history the American military has celebrated many wartime Christmases. Often, these are in difficult circumstances a long ways from home. At this very moment our men and women in uniform are doing the same in Iraq and Afghanistan.
However, perhaps the most desperate Christmas ever celebrated by members of the armed forces occurred early in our history. In December of 1778 the Continental Army was retreating in the face of a British advance on Philadelphia, but they also needed a place, as armies did back then, to make winter quarters. The army’s commanding general, George Washington, chose a spot on the Skuylkill River called Valley Forge. It was a hamlet and hardly anyone lived there, but it was defensible, and there were lots of trees to build winter huts and fortifications.
It was also strategically located. In the unlikely event the British broke winter quarters and began to move, the Continentals, from Valley Forge, were well positioned to intercept them. However, given the poor state of the Army, this was something Washington hoped didn’t happen.
Pennsylvania winters are harsh and the army was tired. They had neither winter clothing nor a regular supply of food. Most of the soldiers lived on near starvation rations. When Washington arrived at Valley Forge, just days before Christmas, his army numbered about 10,000 and his situation was desperate. But his objective that winter was to keep the Army together. As the military strategists say today, he wanted to maintain a “force in being,” and thereby keep the dream of American independence alive.
However, as desperate as the situation was the army still celebrated Christmas. Washington considered this important. There was heavy snow on Christmas Day and since they were still working on building cabins, most of the men were still in tents. They hadn’t been paid, didn’t have enough food, and many had no shoes, but Washington did his best to see that the men had some kind of Christmas.
He hosted a somewhat meager dinner for his officers, and then saw to it that each soldier had an allotment of rum, very important in those days, and something to eat. Both the General and Mrs. Washington did their best to visit each encampment.
It was also at Valley Forge that Washington is said, on Christmas Day, to have ridden into the woods to pray. It’s presumed that the General prayed for strength and guidance, but no one really knows. Besides, what he prayed about is his business, but his need to find some time to be alone and to talk to God suggests the spiritual side of this remarkable individual. It could also be argued, given what followed, that God was giving a little extra attention to the General’s prayers.
Amazingly enough and this was recorded by several of the foreign officers, including the Marquis De Lafayette, the morale of the Continental Army at Christmastime revived. Even without adequate rations and amid appalling living conditions, the men sang, told stories, and enjoyed their Christmas.
But Christmas in Valley Forge was also a dramatic turning point for the army. It gave them the lift in spirits, and by shared hardship, a camaraderie that started a transformation. Those that remained were committed to the cause of independence and most, if not all, were willing to see it through.
There was also an almost miraculous early running of the Shad, a fish well known to local fisherman here in Stafford that is high in protein; that saved them from an even more desperate food shortage.
As the winter continued, under the direction of Baron Von Steuben, a former Prussian officer, the Continental Army remade itself. Baron Von Steuben wasn’t really the Baron he made himself out to be, but he was an experienced soldier and he knew a lot about training. The men drilled each day and began regular field exercises.
The officers, under Von Steuben’s direction, got experience in handling their men. This hard work, even while done under the worst of conditions, would bear fruit. Just a few months later, at the Battle of Monmouth, the British saw for the first time, not a ragtag collection of continentals and militias, but a real Army that would fight them to a standstill.
Christmas at Valley Forge may have been harsh, the conditions may have been grim, but it was also a time that began a transformation. One that helped build the Army that would win the war.