19th June 1778,
The Continental Army marches out of Valley Forge exactly 6 months after they arrived. The Army entered the encampment with little food and almost no equipment after suffering two disheartening defeats at Brandywine and Germantown. The harsh weather coupled with the lack of supplies immediately began to take its toll on the Continentals, as many began to fall to injury, starvation, and disease. General George Washington, encamped with his men, concluded that the army, if not equipped soon, would have to disperse. Johann de Kalb, a foreign volunteer, wrote to his friend upon seeing the army, “it is very certain that half the army is almost naked, in a great measure bare-footed.” Petitions made to Congress did little to alleviate the situation. Congress was powerless to tax individual States to provide supplies, the States being much more concerned with supplying their own militias rather than the army sponsored by Congress. It was clear that the Army encamped at Valley Forge was on its own.
The situation looked bleak as the winter plodded on. Little food or clothing had made its way to the troops, and hundreds of men were carted out of camp each week to die in regional hospitals.
It seemed to all of the officers that the army was on the verge of collapse, but somehow they held together.
In February the Baron Friedrich Von Steuben arrived with a letter of recommendation from Benjamin Franklin himself. Von Steuben was an unemployed Prussian officer who met Franklin while he was in France attempting to secure an alliance with the French King. General Washington, after reading the letter, immediately commissioned Von Steuben as a General and placed him in charge of a new and comprehensive training regimen. Von Steuben’s military bearing, colorful uniforms, and even more colorful language boosted the spirits of the men, and his strict training shifted the men from a motley collection of different units from around the country into a single, cohesive army
In the meanwhile, General Washington understood that training meant very little if the army was not equipped, so he tasked General Nathanael Greene, his most brilliant young commander, with supplying the army. Greene accepted the demotion to the rank of Quartermaster General and worked tirelessly to ensure that all manner of supplies ranging from blankets to bayonets were provided to the troops, and after many months of deprivation the army finally began to receive the equipment and provisions it desperately needed. As the harsh winter finally transitioned to spring the army transformed from a barefoot and ragged band to a well-equipped and highly trained fighting force.
As spring progressed it brought with it more good news. The Marquis De Lafayette, who had spent the winter with the men at Valley Forge, was instrumental in helping to secure an alliance between the Americans and his native France. His correspondence with French officials detailed the growth and fighting spirit of the American Army. A treaty was formally reached in February, and on May 6th word reached Valley Forge that the French would be joining the fight, as well as providing even more weapons and men.
On June 19th, a highly trained and confident Continental Army marched out of Valley Forge, and less than 2 weeks later would meet the British at Monmouth. The hardships those men endured were beyond the comprehension of most of their contemporaries, and cannot be fathomed by most Americans living today. Of the 12,000 + men who marched into the encampment more than 2500 would be dead before winters end. A letter written by George Washington to the Governor of New York written during that long winter stands as a testament to the steadfast bravery and dedication of the Continental Soldier: “Naked and starving as they are, We cannot enough admire the patience and Fidelity of the Soldiery.”
Today, Valley Forge stands as a monument to the fighting spirit and sacrifices made to ensure the Freedom of our Country. By many, Valley Forge is regarded to this day as the birthplace of the U.S. Army, yet in many regards it may also be considered the birthplace of the United States of America.