The ABC’s of the Valley Forge Encampment


November 1, 2016
by Nancy K. Loane Also by this Author


Journal of the American Revolution is the leading source of knowledge about the American Revolution and Founding Era. We feature smart, groundbreaking research and well-written narratives from expert writers. Our work has been featured by the New York Times, TIME magazine, History Channel, Discovery Channel, Smithsonian, Mental Floss, NPR, and more. Journal of the American Revolution also produces annual hardcover volumes, a branded book series, and the podcast, Dispatches

Six months of struggle shaped into twenty-six characters.

A – Arrival

The Continental Army under Gen. George Washington trudged into Valley Forge on December 19, 1777. About 14,000 soldiers and hundreds of women and children came to this winter encampment, the third of the Revolutionary War. The army left Valley Forge six months later, on June 19, 1778.

B – Basics of Valley Forge

  • The camp was located about twenty miles from Philadelphia.
  • Over 2,000 soldiers died at Valley Forge and in the surrounding hospitals. About 1,000 men deserted. Hundreds of officers resigned their commissions at the encampment.
  • The temperatures that winter were moderate. Thick mud often covered the ground.
  • Generals Washington, Greene, Knox, Lafayette and Steuben were the pillars of the encampment. So was every enlisted soldier at camp.
  • Important happenings included Steuben training the troops, Greene’s overhaul of the quartermaster department, and the celebration of the French alliance.
  • Many consider Valley Forge to be “The Birthplace of the American Army.”

C – Camp followers

At least four hundred women, and innumerable children, came to Valley Forge. Many of the women were married to soldiers and worked for the army as cooks, washerwomen, and nurses.

D – Drill

Washington’s troops were determined, brave, and courageous on the field, but initially lost almost every battle. But after Baron Steuben arrived at camp, “It was a continual drill.” [1]

E – Entertainment

George Washington’s favorite play, Cato, was performed on May 11, 1778 before a “very numerous” audience of officers and their ladies.[2] In spite of the Commander’s directive, the private soldiers fashioned dice from musket balls and spent time gambling.

F – Feu de joie

Literally a “fire of joy,” this exuberant celebration of France acknowledging the free and independent United States of America was held May 6, 1778 on the Grand Parade. Orchestrated by General Steuben, the event featured thirteen booming cannon, thousands of soldiers firing off their muskets in rapid succession, and joyous huzzahs. It was the happiest day at camp.

G – Greene, General Nathanael

A self-educated Quaker from Rhode Island, Nathanael Greene possessed prodigious skills and was a strong ally of Washington’s. He reluctantly agreed to accept the position of quartermaster general at Valley Forge, then successfully transformed the department. His wife, Caty, was in camp for several months.

Replica huts (Photo by Tom Loane)
Replica huts (Photo by Tom Loane)

H – Huts

By early January the huts of one Massachusetts brigade were “chiefly done & they answer a very good end.”[3] The Valley Forge huts—with twelve soldiers per hut— were to be 14’x16’, with side walls 6 ½’ high. Most found their huts comfortable, but other soldiers complained, especially when it rained.

I – Inoculation

Four thousand or so soldiers underwent inoculation against smallpox at Valley Forge. Although the dreaded disease did creep into camp, and a few soldiers died, mass inoculation saved the army.

J – Justice

Hundreds of court martials were held at Valley Forge. After Pvt. John Riley deserted the camp, he was tried and sentenced to death. Riley was hanged near the Grand Parade on January 10, 1778. His dead body was dropped into a hole under the gallows and then covered over –disputing the tradition that no one is buried on the Valley Forge campgrounds.

K – Knox, General Henry

A friend to George Washington, the hefty Henry Knox, a former Boston bookseller, commanded the artillery during the Revolutionary War. In the winter of 1775-76, the can-do officer had masterminded hauling the army’s cannon from Fort Ticonderoga, New York, to Boston. His wife, Lucy, and two year old daughter (another Lucy) joined him at Valley Forge in late May.

L – Lafayette, Marquis de

Nineteen years old when he arrived from France, Lafayette—wealthy, well-connected, ambitious and a fine officer—was soon promoted to major general of the Continental Army. Sent on an ill-fated mission to Canada while at Valley Forge, he also commanded thousands of soldiers in a surprise peek-a-boo raid against the British near camp. Lafayette thought the soldiers’ huts to be “no more pleasant than a dungeon.”[4]

M – Martha Washington

Mrs. George Washington came to camp on February 5, 1778, and left four months later, on June 8. She traveled to all eight winter encampments and was away from Mount Vernon for about five years of the War. At Valley Forge she attended theater productions, received visitors, and socialized with officers and their ladies. No primary evidence suggests she visited private soldiers in their huts.

National Memorial Arch (Photo by Tom Loane)
National Memorial Arch (Photo by Tom Loane)

N – “Naked and starving”

“Naked and starving as they are, we cannot help but admire the incomparable patience and fidelity of the soldierly.” These private words of Washington are today etched on the Memorial Arch at Valley Forge National Historical Park for all to see. In the eighteenth century, “naked” meant the soldier did not have the complete uniform—perhaps a jacket was missing, or shoes. But Steuben wrote from camp that “The men were literally naked, some of them in the fullest extent of the word.”[5]

O – Oaths

On May 30, 1778, at Valley Forge, Gen. Benedict Arnold renounced his loyalty to King George III and swore allegiance to the United States of America, as Congress required of every Continental Army officer. But Arnold was casual about keeping his word: about two years later he turned traitor to the patriot cause.

P – Private soldiers

Although hungry, without decent clothing or blankets, their meager wages sometimes months in arrears, the private soldiers of the Continental Army fought hard for freedom. Washington admired his men, writing in March, 1778 of his astonishment, considering the suffering at Valley Forge, “that more of them have not left us.”[6]

Q – Quill pens

Washington had a military secretary, assistant secretary, and several aides de camp at Valley Forge. Each of these tireless, brilliant men pushed his quill pen hard to produce the hundreds of orders, notes, memos and letters —and the necessary copies— that left Headquarters.

R –Rations

Rations for the enlisted soldiers usually consisted of only fresh or salt meat and bread. But several times during the encampment—December, mid-February, late May—even these were in desperately short supply. The officers ate better than the private soldiers, and the cooks at Washington’s Headquarters had cabbages, butter, eggs, hens, veal, beer, etc. in the kitchen.

S – Steuben, Baron de

Valley Forge is called the “Birthplace of the American Army” due to Steuben’s success in drilling the troops. Known as “Steuben” or “de Steuben” (not von Steuben) in America, the indefatigable inspector general was revered by the Continental Army soldiers and admired by Washington. In his last letter before resigning his commission, Washington thanked Steuben and acknowledged “… the obligations the public is under to you, for your faithful and meritorious services.”[7]

T – Thompson, Elizabeth and Hannah Till

Included in Washington’s “family” during the Revolutionary War was his housekeeper, Mrs. Elizabeth Thompson, originally from Ireland. She served the General for five years, was seventy–four at Valley Forge, and finally retired at age seventy-seven. Hannah Till and her husband Isaac, African Americans, cooked for Washington at the encampment and for several years during the War.

U – Unfit for duty.

The January 1778 report from Valley Forge shows 3,989, soldiers “Wanting Shoes and Clothes;” in February 3,032 men were “Wanting Clothes, Etc.;” the March report lists 2,172 soldiers “Without Clothes.” In June, Washington wrote that 2,300 of the 12,500 rank and file still suffered from sickness and a “want of necessaries” (clothing and shoes). [8]

V – Valley Forge farmlands

The twenty or so families that farmed the land Washington’s Army occupied were overwhelmed when the soldiers arrived. Suddenly two thousand huts sprouted from the ground. Senior army officers shared the farmhouses. Crops were not planted that spring. The army paid the farmers back by plundering the countryside, “ruinous to the Inhabitants.”[9]

W – Washington, Gen. George

Already being celebrated as the “friend and father of us all” at the encampment, Washington, who turned forty-six in 1778, kept the flame burning throughout the intrigue, desperation, desertions, successes and celebrations of Valley Forge. One officer even suggested that “our worthy General … ought to be a saint instead of a mere man.”[10]

X – marks the spot of the so-called “Conway Cabal.”

After Gen. Horatio Gates’s victory at Saratoga and Washington’s loss at the Battle of Brandywine, Gen. Thomas Conway wrote Gates suggesting that Washington was a “weak general.” Relations between Washington and Conway were understandably frosty when Conway arrived at Valley Forge as inspector general of the Army. The brouhaha eventually blew over when army officers supported Washington and no one produced the “weak general” letter for Congress.

Y –Yellow Springs Army Hospital

The first and only military hospital built during the Revolutionary War was constructed some twelve miles from camp. Yellow Springs treated about 1,000 soldiers by the time the army left Valley Forge. On May 13, 1778, Washington traveled to the hospital to visit every patient there. Less seriously ill soldiers were cared for in the camp hospitals.

Z – Azor.

Azor, Steuben’s beautiful and beloved Italian greyhound, accompanied Steuben to America and remained with him throughout the Revolutionary War. At Valley Forge, Azor could be seen trotting along behind Steuben as the Baron reconnoitered the camp and drilled the soldiers.


[1] Joseph Plumb Martin, Private Yankee Doodle: Being a Narrative of Some of the Adventures, Dangers, and Sufferings of a Revolutionary Soldier, George E. Scheer, edd. (Fort Washington, PA: Eastern Acorn Press, 1998), 118.

[2]William Bradford Jr. to Rachel Bradford, May 14, 1778 in Joseph Lee Boyle (ed.) Writings from the Valley Forge Encampment of the Continental Army, December 19, 1777-June 19, 1778, Vol. 2 (Bowie, MD: Heritage Books, 2001), 125.

[3] Edward White to Benjamin White, January 2, 1778 in in Joseph Lee Boyle (ed.) Writings from the Valley Forge Encampment of the Continental Army, December 19, 1777-June 19, 1778, Vol. 6 (Westminster, MD: Heritage Books, 2007), 16.

[4] Lafayette in the Age of the American Revolution: Selected Letters and Papers, 1776-1790, Stanley Idzerda, ed. (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, nd.), 1:223.

[5] Friedrich Kapp, The Life of Frederick William Von Steuben (New York: Mason Brothers, 1859), 118.

[6] George Washington to James Bowdoin, March 31, 1778, The George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress, 1741-1799,

[7] Washington to Friedrich Wilhelm Steuben, December 23, 1783, Ibid.

[8] The Sinews of Independence: Monthly Strength Reports of the Continental Arm, Charles H. Lesser, ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, n.d.), 58-61; Continental Army, June 17, 1778, War Council, Valley Forge, The George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress, 1741-1799.

[9] George Washington to Continental Congress War Board, January 2, 1778, George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress, 1741-1799.

[10] Samuel Ward to Phebe Ward, April 1778, in Joseph Lee Boyle, ed., Writings from the Valley Forge Encampment of the Continental Army, December 19, 1777-June 19, 1778, Vol. 1 (Bowie, MD: Heritage Books, 2000), 127. Also Elias Boudinot to William Atlee, April 18, 1778, in Boyle, Writings from the Valley Forge Encampment, Vol. 6, 110.



  • Without a personal visit to the Encampment area, one cannot dare to dream what it was like. I worked with the VF archaeologist Jim Kurtz back in 1987 to reconstruct a 50 year social history of the park, only to find that much history was destroyed by successive generations to preserve what “they” wanted followers to know. CHBloss

  • The ABC’s of the Valley Forge Encampment is an awesome approach to learning all the key facts about Valley Forge. I thoroughly enjoyed this summary. It gave me a better understanding of life for the soldiers and others in Valley Forge during the Revolutionary War.

  • Your section labeled “Naked and starving” raised questions in my mind. I have seen before remarks from contemporaries about “naked” soldiers in encampments during the war. It always shocks me and I suspected that it usually was not meant to mean totally without clothes, and indeed you confirm that. Interesting that Steuben made clear that at Valley Forge some men were in fact without clothes. It is hard to grasp. How did this happen? Did their clothes become so filthy and lice-ridden they had to be burned, or did they rot away. And how did naked men survive the winter? Did they wrap themselves in blankets? Hard to fathom. And how shameful that the military suppliers, the Congress, the civilian population so utterly failed these men.

  • Nancy, This is wonderful! What a great idea to use the alphabet. Not only will adults love it, but it will also be great for middle schoolers studying the revolution. Congratulations! Peggy McReynolds

  • Brian:

    There are a few other places in the writings where “naked” seems to refer to “a soldier in his birthday suit.” Among them – On February 12, 1778, Richard Butler describes troops in a PA regiment at Valley Forge as “totally naked for body clothing.” (Butler to Thomas Wharton) On February 23, 1778, at Valley Forge, John Paterson describes New Jersey troops as “naked from the crown of their heads to the soles of their feet.” (Paterson to Colonel Marshall)

    There were many reasons for the clothing problems at camp – ineptness in the supply department; poor planning; lack of wagons, drivers, horses; poor roads; weather and mud; currency issues; inability to supply the troops, etc.

    There is no doubt but that our soldiers suffered from a lack of clothing at Valley Forge – as they did as other times, too.

    Nancy Loane

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *