By David Harmer
On this date in 1777, General George Washington led the bedraggled, oft-defeated, retreating troops of the Continental Army into Valley Forge, establishing camp just a few minutes’ walk south of the site from which I now write.
Snow began to fall. The weather worsened from cold to bitter to brutal. Refusing to take better shelter than his men, Washington initially insisted on camping in a tent. But heavy snow on Christmas Day made it impossible to conduct the army’s business there and forced him into a modest stone home, shared with his staff.
His men were hungry—at times, starving. The specter of famine haunted the camp.
His men were cold. Thousands lacked coats, wearing only blankets. Thousands lacked boots. Many resorted to rags tied around their feet, leaving bloody footprints in the snow.
His men were poorly sheltered, moving from tents into hastily constructed, primitive log huts—twelve soldiers in each.
The Continental Army arrived in Valley Forge with 11,000 men. That winter, more than a quarter of them—3,000—died of disease or exposure.
Meanwhile, British troops in Philadelphia were comfortably accommodated, warm, well-clothed, well-fed.
The same was true of most American civilians. In letters home, British regulars and Hessian mercenaries alike commented on the wealth of the colonists. But little of their prosperity reached the army. A feckless Congress repeatedly failed to provide. When Congress did act, corruption and ineptitude in the Commissary and Quartermaster departments prevented urgently needed provisions from reaching Washington’s men.
Of that ordeal, the founding chairman of Freedoms Foundation at Valley Forge, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, said:
The freedom of the American people here experienced its greatest danger of extinction, here met its sternest challenge. Here also it fell heir to its finest example of courage and selflessness, of faith and conviction, of leadership and character.
As we enjoy the festivities of the season, may we remember with humble gratitude all those, from the Revolutionary War to the present day, who have spent their holidays far from home and hearth to secure the liberty, prosperity, and security of which we are the fortunate beneficiaries.
Warmest wishes to you and yours from all of us here at Freedoms Foundation.
David Harmer is president and CEO of Freedoms Foundation. firstname.lastname@example.org
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