10 Quotes from Valley Forge


January 21, 2015
by Nancy K. Loane Also by this Author


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Being ten unexpected and edifying quotations from the third winter encampment.

I – “We live uncommonly well for Camp…We have Milk and sugar in plenty…I have my hair powdered every day.…”Samuel Ward, Jr. to Phebe Ward, Valley Forge, 5 May 1778.[1]The letters of “Sammy” Ward, who had been married only a month when he came to Valley Forge, reflect both an ardor for his wife, Phebe, and for the service. He writes of joyfully anticipating holding dearest Phebe “in my arms” and being “pressed to your tender bosom” as well as declaring flat-out that “America is invincible.” (Note that Ward penned this letter in early May, after the French had officially joined the war against the British.)The newlywed also gives a fresh perspective to the daily life of an officer at the camp itself. Maj. Ward writes that he rises with the sun, exercises (drills) from 6:00 a.m. until 8:00 a.m., breakfasts on tea or coffee, then walks, writes, reads, rides, or plays until dinner when he is served good beef or pork and “as good bread as I ever eat,” is free all afternoon, and exercises at 5:00 p.m., ending with the setting sun.

II – “I should most certainly see you this Winter if within the compass of human possibility…”Henry Knox to Lucy Knox, Valley Forge, 27 December 1777.[2] The letters of Henry and Lucy Knox reflect the vibrant personalities of these two large individuals (Henry weighed about 280 pounds; Lucy 250). Although Lucy apparently dominated the relationship, the duo shared a mutual respect and love; their letters are punctuated with such phrases as “My dearest and only love” and “[I am] with the utmost purity of affection your own.” In the letter quoted above Henry is responding to his wife’s pleas to allow her to come to Valley Forge, writing that she, in a previous letter, had “appeared hurt” that no invitation had been forthcoming, and assuring her that he had an “anxious desire to see her at all events” (underlining Knox’s). Knox had even discussed the issue with Gen. Washington. Lucy Knox and the Knox’s first child, age 2, did come to the Valley Forge encampment, but they arrived on 27 May 1778, only a few weeks before the army marched away.

III – “The wine is excellent, I got some of it, which his Excellency was so good upon hearing I was sick, to send me three bottles.” Levin Powell to Sarah Powell, Camp near Valley Forge, 21 January 1778.[3] Lt. Col. Powell is writing to his wife, Sarah, who was home in Virginia with the children. As described by Powell, his illness was diagnosed as “St. Anthony’s fire”; it gave him “great pain” and confined him a “great while” to his room. The excellent wine Powell referred to was taken from a British brig captured by General Smallwood. The brig also carried such items as arms, tents, soldiers clothing, officers’ baggage, rum, port and a dozen British officers’ wives traveling to America to their husbands. Gen. Washington extended many kindnesses to others during the Revolutionary War, such as releasing every camp prisoner in celebration of French Alliance at Valley Forge, returning documents to a British surgeon, and sending back Gen. Howe’s errant dog. This magnanimity did not go unrecognized, for, as Samuel Ward wrote from camp, Gen. Washington “still shines as usual, the friend and Father of us all.”[4]

IV – “You must Not Look for mee till you See mee But if you Could Send me A Leter to Lett me no how you All Are It Would gave me grate Satisfaction to see the Same.” [5] Henry Johnson to Lambert Johnson, Valley Forge, 25 February 1778. (All misspellings and odd capitalizations appear in the original.) Although the officers of the Continental Army wrote hundreds of letters during the Valley Forge winter, the poignant communication from which this quote is taken is one of the few extant letters from an enlisted soldier at camp—in this case, “Henery Jonson.” According to Joseph Lee Boyle, it was addressed to Lambert Johnson in Middletown, New Jersey and may have been written by Pvt. Henry Johnson of Forman’s Additional Continental Regiment. Pvt. John Buss also wrote from Valley Forge to his father, closing his letter with this charming poem: “My ink is poor/and pen is bad/if you Can read this/I Shall be Glad.”[6]

V – “A number of our men, indeed all who have not had the small pox are & soon will be under Inoculation.” Alexander Scammell to Timothy Pickering, Jr. Valley Forge, 28 February 1778. [7] Washington’s effort to eliminate smallpox through inoculation was crucial to the health of the Continental Army. In February, after small pox crept into camp, the commander ordered everyone at Valley Forge who had not had the dreaded disease to be inoculated—including, probably, the army’s women and children. New recruits were to be preferably inoculated before they came to camp; all persons doing business at camp were to first undergo inoculation. Between three and four thousand soldiers took the inoculation at Valley Forge, with, it seems, only several dozen fatalities. Some soldiers, however, did suffer side effects such as joint pains and lameness in the legs.

VI – “…Except you have some dependence from abroad, the few Horses that remain must perish in a few days.” Tench Tilghman to Clement Biddle, Valley Forge, 5 March 1778.[8] The horses at the Valley Forge encampment are rarely discussed today, but there were lots of them there —about 2,000—in late January 1778. Although Washington had ordered all unnecessary horses away from camp, forage for those remaining was still in critically short supply. Indeed, in February Gen. James Varnum wrote that “Death hath seized upon a very large Proportion of our Horses for want of Forage.”[9] The horses that survived were in poor condition, described as “extremely bad” or “unfit for service.” To bring more and better horses to camp—horses were needed for the artillery, to pull the wagons, for officers and surgeons— Washington ordered impressment. The army branded the public horses (those belonging to the army) to discourage horse theft, which was common in camp.

VII – “It is offered to the consideration of the Officers of the Virginia Line to contribute some thing as a reward to Mrs. Hay & her daughter for their great attention and Tenderness to our Brother Officers, prisoners in the City of Philadelphia.” General Woodford’s Brigade, Valley Forge, 22 February 1778.[10] Mrs. Hay, a poor widow, and her daughter were only two of many people—most unknown today— who came to the aid of American prisoners in Philadelphia. According to this petition, these two women, at the risk of their own lives, assisted prisoners to escape, nursed the sick, and took care of the remains of the deceased. The women probably took food to the prisoners, too. Prison conditions were wretched, and many died for want of food, blankets and sufficient clothing. At Valley Forge, the forty-three Virginia officers collected almost fifty pounds for Mrs. Hay and her daughter.

VIII – “We want, my dear sir, wine above all things, for our sick are now numerous, and our cases generally putrid….we also want sheets, shirts, candles, soap, writing as well as wrapping paper, pots, horn-spoons, and every other kind of hospital utensil.” James Fallon to Jonathan Potts, Yellow Springs, 27 April 1778. [11] The Yellow Springs Hospital, the first in the country to be built specially as a military hospital, was located about ten miles from the encampment. The hospital, which was under the direction of Dr. Samuel Kennedy, cared for hundreds of soldiers from Valley Forge. Supplies were sparse; hospital personnel ordered coffee, tea, chocolate, vinegar, kettles, salt, bed ticks, blankets —the list goes on and on —in addition to those items requested above. Gen. Washington visited Yellow Springs Hospital on 15 May 1778, speaking to every patient there, “which pleased the Sick exceedingly.”[12] About 2,000 soldiers died during that Valley Forge winter, most of them perishing, not at camp, but at Yellow Springs and other nearby (and other not-so-nearby) hospitals. Dr. Samuel Kennedy himself died in June, just before the army left Valley Forge.

IX – “…it is very certain that half the army is almost naked, in a great measure bare-footed.” Johann de Kalb to Comte de Broglie, Valley Forge, Christmas Day 1777. [13] The army trudged into winter quarters at the “Forge in the Valley” less than a week before Christmas. The situation was grim: On 23 December Washington reported to Congress that his soldiers had to “…occupy a cold bleak hill and sleep under frost and Snow without Cloaths or Blankets…”[14] The Continental Army struggled to get adequate clothing, shoes, blankets, food and supplies to the soldiers for the entire encampment period. Although the Connecticut troops were well supplied, the other states did not or could not send sufficient clothing for their men. Furthermore, the supply roads were treacherous, horses and wagons scarce, wagon drivers few. Clothing supplies were lost or stolen in transit. With inadequate clothing and shoes, the soldiers were unable to leave their huts to stand guard duty, go on foraging duty, or drill under Steuben. The clothing crisis ebbed in the spring with warmer weather, better roads, and a new quartermaster. But the “great deficiency of Blankets” continued through May.[15]

X – “Our Men have all got comfortably covered in their Huts and Better quarters are not in the World…” Tench Tilghman to John Cadwalader, Valley Forge, 18 January 1778.[16] The soldiers began constructing log huts immediately after coming into camp. The log huts, which housed 12 non-commissioned officers and privates, were to be uniform, 16’x 14’, with the sides and ends made of logs and the roofs constructed of split slabs. To encourage speed and competition, Washington himself offered $12.00 to the party of twelve in each regiment that finished their hut in the “quickest & most Workmanlike Manner.”[17] Hutting was slowed by a dearth of nails and axes; one soldier wrote that his regiment had but one dull ax. When completed, the report card for the hut project was almost uniformly positive, for the men had few complaints about the huts and described them as being comfortable; one described them “very magnificent.”[18] (This last may have been said in jest.) Albigence Waldo, a surgeon with the 1st Connecticut Regiment, even favored his wife with a rosy, lengthy poem in praise of his hut.


[1] Samuel Ward, Jr to Phebe Ward in Joseph Lee Boyle, Writings from the Valley Forge Encampment of the Continental Army (Berwyn Heights, MD: Heritage Books, 6 Volumes, 2000-7), 1:131.

[2] Henry Knox to Lucy Knox in Boyle, Writings from the Valley Forge Encampment, 5:9.

[3] Leven Powell to Sarah Powell in Boyle, Writings from the Valley Forge Encampment, 1:35.

[4] Samuel Ward, Jr. to Phebe Ward in Boyle, Writings from the Valley Forge Encampment, 1:127.

[5] Henry Johnson to Lambert Johnson in Boyle, Writings from the Valley Forge Encampment, 5:62.

[6] John Buss to Stephen Buss in Boyle, Writings from the Valley Forge Encampment, 3:24

[7] Alexander Scammell to Timothy Pickering, Jr. in Boyle, Writings from the Valley Forge Encampment, 3:73.

[8] Tench Tilghman to Clement Biddle in Boyle, Writings from the Valley Forge Encampment, 4:75.

[9] James Mitchell Varnum to Alexander McDougall in Boyle, Writings from the Valley Forge Encampment, 1:45.

[10] Subscription of forty-three Virginia Officers for Mrs. Hay in Boyle, Writings from the Valley Forge Encampment, 6:71.

[11] James Fallon to Jonathan Potts in Boyle, Writings from the Valley Forge Encampment, 6:118.

[12] James Craik to Jonathan Potts in Boyle, Writings from the Valley Forge, 6:136.

[13] Johann de Kalb to the Comte de Broglie in Boyle, Writings from the Valley Forge Encampment, 4:8.

[14] George Washington to Continental Congress, 23 December 1777 from the George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress, 1741-1799. Online.

[15] Samuel Ward, Jr to Phebe Ward in Boyle, Writings from the Valley Forge Encampment, 1:131.

[16] Tench Tilghman to John Cadwalder in Boyle, Writings from the Valley Forge Encampment, 1:26.

[17] Richard Platt to Alexander McDougall in Boyle, Writings from the Valley Forge Encampment, 2:9.

[18] William Little to Jonathan Baldwin in Boyle, Writings from the Valley Forge Encampment, 6:42.


  • Thank you so much for this post. It’s a nice follow-up to your informative lecture at the David Library this past Sunday.

    1. Diane – Thanks for attending my talk at the David Library this past (icy) Sunday…and thanks for reading and commenting on the post. Best wishes from Valley Forge – Nancy Loane

  • Nancy, the quotes were wonderful. I read them on a cold snowy day, and I was pleased to get to know these patriots better by hearing their own voices.

  • Lots of small, intimate details about daily life – these quotes bring the experience home. Picturing the people at the encampment enjoying chocolate, a man having his hair powdered, trying to build huts with a dull ax, being gifted wine when ill, writing love letters, the private struggling to write to his father with poor ink and a bad pen. It makes the people seem much more personable and real. Great research.

  • I so loved reading Dr. Loane’s Following the Drum, and these quotes were a lovely addition from someone who is so intimate with the lives of those who brought us our freedom. She is able to illuminate and animate situations we could never comprehend and it makes me all the more appreciative of those who suffered for our country. Thank you Nancy for letting us in on the thoughts and lives of these lovely women and men who the true founding people of our nation.

  • I Love the way Nancy has brought these historical figures alive for us through their letters.
    She has done the research and all we have to do is sit back and enjoy learning what life was like at the Valley Forge Encampment. I recommend you read her book to glean more details about life at the encampment during the winter of 1777-1778!

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