After years of growing tension between Great Britain and the 13 North American colonies, war officially broke out between the British troops and the colonial militia in the Massachusetts battles of Lexington and Concord in April 1775. That June, the revolutionary rebels were gaining traction, and the Second Continental Congress convened in Philadelphia to vote in favor of forming the Continental Army, which would be fronted by George Washington as the commander in chief. However, British Redcoats soon descended in the tens of thousands upon Washington’s humble forces, and a series of losses at battles such as Brandywine and Paoli brought the Continental Army to the brink of collapse.
General George Washington and his ramshackle army arrived in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania on December 19, 1777. As the British had taken the rebel capital of Philadelphia, the Valley Forge camp sat roughly twenty miles northwest in a wide open agricultural landscape. The six months that the General and his men spent there would turn out to be some of the most demoralizing—and revitalizing—periods of the Revolutionary War.
Around 12,000 people including soldiers, artificers, women, and children set up camp at Valley Forge. They constructed small wooden huts that would be inhabited by a dozen soldiers at once. Inside the cramped quarters, the soldiers used straw for their bedding and went without the comfort of blankets.
Though the winter of 1777 to 1778 wasn’t particularly harsh, the typical conditions overwhelmed the poorly supplied soldiers. Many of Washington’s men lacked proper attire—boots in particular—which rendered them unfit for service. As the men froze, their limbs would blacken. Often, there was no choice but to submit to amputations.
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Worse yet, food stocks were quickly depleting, and there were stretches of time where troops went without meat for days. Diseases like influenza, typhoid, and dysentery ravaged the camp, thanks in part to poor hygiene practices, reportedly resulting in the death of one in six soldiers. Conditions were so bad, and the efforts of the troops so pitiable that George Washington was almost relieved of his command.
However, despite the distressed conditions that Washington's army was experiencing, their time at Valley Forge would soon prove to be an incredible tactical opportunity with the assistance of one immigrant.
Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben, often called Baron von Steuben, had been a military officer in the Prussian army since the age of 17. The Prussian army was a force widely considered one of the most formidable in Europe at the time, and von Steuben had made the most of his time with the army. The baron was a well-trained soldier with a clever mind for military strategy. On February 23, 1776, he rode into Valley Forge to turn the tides of war.
Upon his arrival, General George Washington was quick to appoint von Steuben as a temporary inspector general. Thanks to his impressive experience overseas, von Steuben was knowledgeable not just in drills, but also in maintaining a sanitary camp. He began redirecting the latrines to a location far away from the kitchens—and facing downhill.
More notably, Steuben was also appointed as the chief drillmaster for Washington’s Continental Army, even though he knew very little English upon his arrival. The main problem with the Continental Army was that, while they had first-hand combat experience, most of its members had never been formally trained. What training the soldiers had received at this point varied based on which militia or regiment they originated from, resulting in little to no uniformity during battle. Steuben was resolved to remedy this.
Steuben began to run the troops through a series of strict Prussian drills. He taught them how to quickly and efficiently load and fire their weapons, and they practiced volley fire as well as skirmish operations. Steuben then tackled their issues with maneuverability by standardizing their marching paces and organizing them into tight four-man columns as opposed to the endless single file lines they’d been trudging into battle. He also taught the soldiers how to proficiently charge with bayonets.
The impact made by Steuben’s efforts was not contained merely to those soldiers who spent six months at Valley Forge. The drillmaster was instrumental in the creation of an American military manual, “Regulations for the Order and Discipline of the Troops of the United States”, often simply referred to as the “Blue Book”. This work would stand as the official training resource for the U.S. Army for decades to come.
The Continental Army was in fighting form like never before. Not only were they armed with expert combat skills, but Steuben’s training had effected a sharp incline in morale across the camp. It was with this sharpened tactics and heightened confidence that General George Washington’s troops would face the British again in the thaw of 1778.
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Not long before Baron von Steuben arrived at Valley Forge, the French had signed a treaty with colonial forces. The Franco-American alliance eventually shook the nerve of British officers, and fearing that they would be set upon by the French naval force if they remained in Philadelphia, the British marched on to New York City on June 18, 1778. George Washington and his reformed soldiers followed bravely after the Redcoats the very next day.
As the British made their way through New Jersey, they decimated property and pillaged supplies from civilians. In response, the local militia set about exhausting the British soldiers with small scale confrontations. On June 28, the Continental Army and the British troops finally came together in the Battle of Monmouth.
The battle in the sweltering summer heat lasted five long hours. Though many historians consider this first great clash after Valley Forge to have been a stalemate between the forces, it was still pivotal in the Continental Army’s rise. They had proven themselves a cohesive and impressive unit. The changes made at the once-grim Valley Forge camp would propel them forward to eventually win their independence from Britain.
Featured painting of Friedrich Wilhelm Baron von Steuben drilling American troops at Valley Forge: Wikimedia Commons