The following timeline narrative attempts to unite previously disjointed events and occurrences regarding the first four days of the Continental army’s six-month stay at Valley Forge in Pennsylvania. For clarification purposes, all references to “Valley Forge” are for the winter cantonment and not the iron forge on Valley Creek for which the encampment was named. Temperatures listed for each date were readings recorded in Philadelphia each day at 7:00 A.M. and 3:00 P.M. by Thomas Coombe.
Prelude: Sunday December 14, 1777
General orders issued from Gen. George Washington’s headquarters near Gulph Mills on December 13, 1777 specified that the army encamped in the area was “to be ready to march precisely at four o’clock to morrow morning.” No reason has come to light to explain why the march failed to commence, or at what location it was supposed to end. The intended single-night encampment at Gulph Mills unexpectedly stretched out to six nights. It cannot be ruled out that this Sunday the 14th was the day intended to reach the Valley Forge cantonment, less than eight miles from the height on which the infantry encamped at the Gulph (today’s “Rebel Hill”) by a road aptly named Gulph Road. George Washington’s headquarters near Gulph Mills stood merely six miles down the Gulph Road from Valley Forge. He naturally would have ridden out to Valley Forge and studied the encampment at least once during the army’s protracted stay at Gulph Mills, although no evidence exists to confirm this.
Friday December 19: 29 degrees (7:00 A.M.), 30 degrees (3:00 P.M.)
On a cold, clear day the Continental infantry departed Rebel Hill at about 10:00 A.M. and followed the army wagons on the Gulph Road on a very slow march, likely dragged out by several protracted halts. Soldiers revealed that the march was “plaged So bad With our waggons as the Roads was Excessive Bad and our horses very poor and weak.” No provisions existed during the trip with an uneven dispersal of food when they pulled off to the side after sunset. Those best supplied ate “like Insatiate Monsters . . . ‘till our Guts began to Ake;” while the less fortunate were reduced to “Eating our Suppers of raw Corn, which we got out of a field near by our encampment.” The lone casualty this day, according to one diarist, was an unconfirmed fatality—a woman allegedly died when a wagon overturned that afternoon.
Although the vanguard of the army entered the five-square-mile region of the encampment, much (if not most) of the line of troops behind them halted for the night short of this destination. No evidence exists to place George Washington at Valley Forge this day.
Was the route to Valley Forge marked by bloody footprints in the snow left by shoeless men, as the Parson Weems’ tradition tells us? Two days of rain prior to this Friday likely removed most vestiges of snow from the region. Although a civilian diarist seven miles north of the encampment entered “Snow begins” into his diary entry for this day, a sampling of soldiers’ diaries describing the day and their march to Valley Forge gives mentions of cold temperatures and heavy winds, but no snow. Benjamin Tallmadge, a cavalry major at the time, reminisced about how the footsteps of the men “could be tracked by the blood which they left on the ground,” but this occurred not on their route into Valley Forge, but afterwards “as they constructed their huts.” Another officer did indeed describe bloody footprints in snow, but his December 14 letter described the route to the Gulph Mills encampment the previous day: “It is amazing to see the spirit of the soldiery when destitute of shoes and stockings, marching cold nights and morning, leaving blood in their footsteps!”
Saturday, December 20, 1777: 25 degrees (7:00 A.M.); 31 degrees (3:00 P.M.)
On this day, the bulk of the army truly entered Valley Forge. George Washington and his military family most likely rode into Valley Forge on Saturday morning and headquartered in their linen tents. “The army being now come to a fixed station,” dictated Washington within the first set of general orders generated at Valley Forge, “the Brigadiers and officers commanding brigades, are immediately to take effectual measures, to collect, and bring to camp, all the officers and soldiers at present scattered about the country.” Most of those scattered soldiers were in the eight-mile region between the previous encampment on Rebel Hill and the present one. Before Saturday’s close, at least 19,124 Continental infantry, artillery and cavalry officers and men entered Valley Forge.
The men remained in tents during their first days at the new location. They were provided specific dimensions for winter hut construction during their final day at the Gulph Mills encampment, but they could not begin to build their winter homes until they knew exactly where their respective regiments would be located within the eight-mile perimeter of the cantonment. Washington ordered all five of his major generals to accompany the engineers to best locate where each brigade would build their winter huts. Immediately after those locales were identified and agreed upon, the engineers marked out the ground where the field officers within each brigade would superintend their respective regiments to build the huts. Due to the short amount of daylight, the several hours consumed to settle upon the locations, and the chaos of thousands of entries and departures from the region, Saturday’s task must have dragged into Sunday.
Upwards of one thousand soldiers departed Valley Forge on Saturday shortly after they entered it. Continental cavalry began to break out into squadrons to patrol roads (perhaps more than one hundred dragoons had been performing this function on each side of the Schuylkill River and never entered the camp this day). Five hundred soldiers in three independent regiments not attached to any of the fifteen infantry brigades exited the region as they continued to march westward to designated camps near Lancaster. Portions of several regiments were placed “on command” to perform duties away from their respective companies. Most of these detached service duties took place in Valley Forge while the rest extended a few miles beyond the boundaries. Even after these purges, Valley Forge likely remained overpopulated by 18,000 Continental soldiers, supported by 1,000 more non-military personnel including artisans, artificers, wagon masters, each general’s household staff, and several hundred women and children as camp followers. Nineteen thousand humans and several thousand horses bedded down for the night for the first (or second) time among life-long inhabitants of the region.
Sunday, December 21, 1777: 31 degrees (7:00 A.M.); 30 degrees (3:00 P.M.)
As the engineers and major generals completed their mission to create the boundaries for the future winter quarters of the fifteen infantry brigades, Washington ordered all the specially appointed field officers to come to his headquarters and meet with his aide de camp, Lt. Col. Henry Kidder Meade, who he had delegated to provide specifics on hut construction to these brigade superintendents in order to minimize the seemingly inevitable chaos that would emanate from thousands of soldiers simultaneously constructing their winter homes. For this Sunday, all the men remained in their tents.
By Sunday afternoon, the teams of engineers and generals finished laying out the lodging boundaries for fifteen infantry brigades. Washington’s specifications were for hutting one dozen non-commissioned officers and soldiers per dwelling, with seven additional huts for each regiment for company and regimental officers, and two more huts for each brigade—one for the commander and one for his staff. The disparity between the most numerous brigades compared to the most depleted ones was stark. For example, Brig. Gen. Jedediah Huntington’s brigade of four large Connecticut regiments had a region of Valley Forge marked out to accommodate 330 of these log cabins, more than both of Brig. Gen. Anthony Wayne’s Pennsylvania brigades combined. Artillery personnel followed the same guidelines. Camp followers—primarily women and children—would be housed separately in a total of perhaps fifty huts. Separate buildings would be constructed to house supplies. According to the plan upwards of 2,000 huts were marked out, dramatically altering the Valley Forge landscape.
On this day Washington decided to add an additional entry and departure route into the new camp. The Schuylkill River bordered the cantonment on the north with Fatland Ford and Pawling’s Ferry as the traditional crossings to and from the camp. Washington chose to bridge the river here as well, determining that a sound military bridge would be the swiftest and most reliable way to “be able in great measure with the aid of the Militia, to check the Excursions of the Enemy’s parties on the other side.” Washington met with Maj. Gen. John Sullivan who he chose to lead the operation. Sullivan convinced his superior to provide several contingencies to allow the bridge to be built in less than a week from start to finish (some which would be revealed in the following morning’s general orders). The span was designated to run over the river slightly west of Fatland Ford.
The first two days of encampment appeared destined to convert Valley Forge into a months-long winter cantonment. That concept turned dramatically on Sunday afternoon. Maj. John Clark, Washington’s spymaster for the region, had been communicating with him frequently since November, usually daily. Washington awoke on Sunday to Clark’s news that 1,000 Crown forces had left Philadelphia for New Jersey. Clark had sent several agents into Philadelphia a few days earlier, some armed with misinformation to spread into British lines, including that a large body of American soldiers were marching toward Derby for a winter post five miles from the Schuylkill. Whether or not this bait was effective or coincidental, Clark received and immediately relayed alarming intelligence. His noon-time message arrived at Valley Forge headquarters at 4:00 P.M. announcing that one of his spies confirmed that a large body of the enemy intended to plunder Derby and its neighboring townships “this Week.”
The Plan to Attack Philadelphia on Christmas Day
Major Clark’s information accurately informed Washington that British Gen. William Howe detached thousands of troops across the Delaware and the Schuylkill rivers. His Excellency discerned that the British defenses of Philadelphia were now particularly but temporarily vulnerable. As early as Sunday evening Washington and an unidentified member of his staff—likely Tench Tilghman—huddled at headquarters to lay out a detailed plan of attack. The objective of the three-pronged operation was to feign near Derby to “occupy” Howe’s attention west of the Schuylkill by threatening the British plundering operation in that vicinity. While this was enacted, Washington would cross the rest of the army at Swede’s Ford and split it into two wings on the Philadelphia side of the river. One wing would assault the Crown forces defenses—weakened by the departure of so many troops—and capture Philadelphia while most of its British and Hessian defenders had been detached west of the Schuylkill and east of the Delaware, while the second wing of the assault force (the third prong of the operation), composed of American infantry and artillery, would contest all the crossing points of the river with military might to prevent a returning counterstrike by those detachments.
According to Washington’s docket describing the plan, Philadelphia would be secured “by way of surprise 25th Decr 1777,” Christmas Day, exactly one year to the day that Washington launched his war-altering Trenton operation from McConkey’s Ferry on the ice-choked Delaware River. The plan never specified the day to launch the operation; however, based on distance to travel during the shortest daylight hours of the year, two full days would be required to align his 18,000 soldiers expected to be available for the operation and march that army out of Valley Forge, funnel more than 14,000 infantry, cavalry, and artillery across Swede’s Ford (the rest staying west of the Schuylkill for the Derby portion of the plan), and then split up this Philadelphia attack force and then secretly advance both wings down to the city by separate arteries. An early-morning assault was necessary to perfect the element of surprise and permit enough time for all three prongs of the operation to perform nearly simultaneously with one another and complete each respective objective. Thus, December 23 (Tuesday) was set for the commencement of the battle plan from Valley Forge to re-occupy Philadelphia on Christmas Day with the two attacking prongs. The decoying prong near Derby would be detached on Monday (December 22) and initially would consist of four Continental infantry brigades, commanded by Lord Stirling, and supported by Brig. Gen. John Potter’s Pennsylvania militia and Daniel Morgan’s corps of riflemen.
Washington’s battle plan was deliberately worded as “intended” orders. No evidence exists that he discussed this finitely described plan with any of the commanders he had designated within the written document to carry out each prong. For the rest of this seemingly stagnant Sunday, everyone in Valley Forge was oblivious to Washington’s desire to engage most of them in the greatest American operation of the war—one with the intention to have most of them spend Christmas in Philadelphia. His Excellency planned no council of war to discuss the operation with any of his generals. (He was already aware from previous councils held at Whitemarsh that nearly every one of his generals had adamantly declared their dissent to conduct a winter offensive campaign of any duration.)
Monday, December 22, 1777: 31 degrees (7:00 A.M.), 33 degrees (3:00 P.M.)
George Washington activated his newly crafted plan without revealing its contents, as indicated by soldiers. “Sleept Qietly until morning when we Receivd orders to march in fifteen minits,” a Rhode Islander told his diary. Washington did not order his entire army to prepare to march out of camp that morning, but at least four brigades received those orders.
The plan required confirmation of Howe’s movements before Washington pulled the trigger to launch it. It remained under wraps throughout the morning. In the meantime, Washington issued general orders for December 22, which announced that Sullivan’s pending bridge-building mission excused him “from the common duties of the camp,” and then detailed the results of several courts martial. “Nothing New,” wrote an infantry commander for his entire journal entry of the day.
As the day entered its afternoon two messages from General Potter and one message from Major Clark arrived at headquarters. Both officers were at Radnor, six road miles from Valley Forge. They announced that the British were across the Schuylkill from Philadelphia and heading westward toward Derby (merely six road miles from the river’s edge) on a foraging mission. Potter also warned that “By a young man Just came from the City,” Howe had learned of the Marylanders at Wilmington and part of his mission was to send “eight pieces of Cannon and a number of men to Rout him.” (Enhancing the intrigue would be a second and much later arriving message from Major Clark noting the presence of several British generals, including Sir William Howe, within this reconnaissance in force.) “If a Corps was thrown instantly toward Middle ferry,” advised Major Clark in his noon missive, “their retreat is inevitably cut off.”
Although Washington did not know the exact numerical strength at the time, 8,000 British soldiers had taken part in this December 22 mission—nearly half of the entire Philadelphia-area force (more than a thousand others had been detached in the opposite direction to man the islands and forts and partake in limited foraging mission in New Jersey). Philadelphia was unlikely to be so weakly manned by Howe’s army as it was at this moment—and would be for the next few days only.
After sending a courier south to Wilmington to apprise Gen. William Smallwood to be prepared, Washington enacted the first phase of his plan, which specified Lord Stirling’s division, Morgan’s riflemen, other detached Continentals and Potter’s militia “to keep up the appearance of an Attack” and “to harass the enemy as much as possible” in order to “afford time for the Baggage &ca to be removed from our present of Camp—if that Camp cannot be defended.” While covering the contingency that Valley Forge could be endangered, Washington had planned support from militia and Smallwood’s Maryland brigades to limit or at least slow Howe’s advance against Stirling. He had resolved to uproot and evacuate his army from Valley Forge if circumstances forced him to do so.
While this aggressive ruse transpired, the bulk of Washington’s army would cross the Schuylkill the following day to operate on the Philadelphia side of the river. Correctly expecting Howe to outnumber Stirling, Washington wanted his division commander to employ Fabian tactics and move from post to post to draw Howe further away from the Schuylkill to improve the odds of success on Christmas Day. This first prong of the mission required eighteen miles to cover from Valley Forge to the environs of Derby. General Stirling’s division departed camp and trekked six miles southeast to Radnor where he joined Daniel Morgan to take overall command of the riflemen and several parties of Pennsylvania militia while General Potter kept control of the remainder as they all worked their way to Derby. Potter eventually confirmed for Washington that General Howe indeed was personally with the reconnaissance in force. This raised the stakes.
Washington had yet to divulge his attack plans to his generals. His refusal to call a council indicated his resolute desire to carry the mission through, knowing his subordinates would be far from united on the plan. This included his highest-ranking subordinate, Maj. Gen. John Sullivan, who had yet to be informed that he would lead the bulk of the force earmarked to liberate Philadelphia on Friday morning. The written document failed to specify Gen. Nathanael Greene’s role in the operation, or any other division commander outside of Stirling and Smallwood (the latter, according to the written plan, was to advance his brigades eastward from Wilmington and cooperate with Stirling).
The plan did finitely detail that a captain leading 67 soldiers from each of the thirteen remaining infantry brigades—884 officers and men in total—would compose the shock troops that would rush the expected lightly defended British redoubt of unexpecting soldiers, quickly capture the line of works and create a chain of sentries to police the newly captured region. Sullivan would push his prong of several brigades through the city and capture the four lowest ferries of the Schuylkill where they were to cut loose any bridges, turning the river into a moat to prevent Howe from recrossing into Philadelphia. The other prong, of undetermined composition, would head directly into the city to its Delaware River boundary, free prisoners and process the newly-captured Crown force defenders.
By incorporating all the available Pennsylvania militia and Smallwood’s Wilmington force, George Washington had intended to engage most of the army that had been united at Rebel Hill during the middle of December, much more than his Valley Forge force. A growing number of sickened soldiers would be left behind as well as a few independent regiments sent toward Lancaster and about 40 percent of soldiers from Valley Forge regiments who had been detached for other duties so far beyond the encampment that they could not be recalled quickly enough to participate. This reasonably left 21,000 Continental and militia officers and men serving in infantry, artillery, and dragoon units available to actively march and fight in front-line or reserve roles for this Christmas Day battle.
Not only did Washington outnumber William Howe’s entire army in and around Philadelphia by more than 3,000 soldiers, Howe’s dispersal of the force from the city assured the greatest possible impact by the Americans. Stirling’s operation west of the Schuylkill against Howe’s 8,000 foragers pitted no more than 6,000 Americans against this force. Howe outnumbered them since the Continentals and militia in this contested region served as decoys to draw Howe’s attention and his force further from the Schuylkill; it was a force large enough to remove any hint that Washington had planted them there primarily as a ruse. The mismatch was purposeful, for according to the plan, the rest of the army, at least 14,000 to 15,000 strong and presumably led by Washington himself, would directly descend upon Philadelphia against what was believed to be less than half their number dispersed in various roles throughout the city. The early Christmas morning surprise assault improved the likelihood that those 7,000 enemy soldiers would never unite in time to long resist the juggernaut sent by Washington to shock and overwhelm them.
Dry conditions and moderate temperatures for December cooperated with the plan. The months-long supply woes did not. Three days earlier, Thomas Jones, the deputy commissary general of issues, had penned a letter to Pennsylvania’s executive council warning that if these problems were not resolved efficiently and quickly enough to assure that at least 200 barrels of good flour reached camp each day, “the army will not be able to exist one week longer.”
Alarming news regarding his supply deficiencies arrived at Washington’s headquarters tent Monday afternoon in the form of letters from two of his brigadier generals. “Fighting will be by far preferable to starving,” replied Gen. Jedediah Huntington to the headquarters directive to prepare his brigade for marching; “My brigade out of provisions, nor can the commissary obtain any meat.” In ominous tones, Huntington strongly alluded to mass insubordination within his ranks. “I have used every Argument my Imagination could invent to make the Soldiers easy,” he explained, “but I despair at being able to do it much longer.” Confirmation of mass unrest arrived from Gen. James Varnum who opened his missive by paraphrasing Shakespeare: “hunger will break thro’ a stone Wall.” Parroting Huntington’s warning, Varnum detailed the stifling result of a seemingly vacant commissary department. “The Men must be supplied, or they cannot be commanded,” he insisted. “I know it will make your Excellency unhappy,” continued Varnum apologetically; “But if you expect the Exertions of virtuous Principles, while your Troops are deprived of the essential Necessities of Life, your final Disappointment will be great, in Proportion to that Patience, w’ch now astonishes every Man of human Feeling.”
By coincidence, Varnum’s and Huntington’s brigades had been ready to march out of camp that morning, probably to support Stirling west of the Schuylkill before crossing the river in their reserve roles for the Christmas morning assault upon Philadelphia. Washington immediately rescinded his marching orders for those two brigades. Stirling’s mission continued unimpeded, but was now in jeopardy. Without mentioning his attack plan, Washington notified Congress of the preliminary intelligence to illustrate how the dearth of supplies could hinder any operations. He emphasized that “had a body of the Enemy crossed the Schuylkill this morning, as I had reason to expect from the intelligence I received at Four O’clock last night,” the division that he routinely held in readiness for these emergent situations “could not have moved.” His strongest warning to Congress included an emphasis that the commissary woes had not been exaggerated and its impact could be catastrophic: “I do not know from what cause this alarming deficiency, or rather total failure of Supplies arises: But unless more vigorous exertions and better regulations take place in that line and immediately, This Army must dissolve.”
According to Col. Charles Stewart, the commissary general of issues, on this Monday Washington “was amazed and highly offended at this failure” to properly feed the men. His Excellency immediately summoned all his Valley Forge generals to headquarters as well as his commissary chiefs. The generals confirmed the problem to him and then went on to describe a much more ominous event that shook His Excellency even more. Mass discontent had begun the previous night (Sunday, December 21). Washington heard their accounts and subsequently described it as a “dangerous mutiny,” a characterization which appears to have been laced with hyperbole. But the actual event at least contained the ingredients of one, for others who were there used the same term to describe it. While the commander in chief must have been furious that a potential uprising was hidden from him for half a day, he admitted relief that “the spirited exertions of some Officers” had successfully tamped it down on Sunday night. But, as a witness at the meeting noted, the generals declared “the danger of an immediate Mutiny in the Army” remained this Monday.
More immediate and lasting was what instigated the discontent. Washington summoned the personnel from the purchasing wing of his commissary department to his quarters. Only one agent existed for the entire encampment who bore terrible news: no meat whatsoever and only twenty-five barrels of flour existed at Valley Forge. Washington revealed that the depth of collapse in the commissary department “mortified” him. Convinced “that the Men were unable to stir on account of provision,” he quietly cancelled the grand Christmas Day operation to seize Philadelphia from British control. Washington resorted to merely sending out small parties to observe and harass elements of Howe’s reconnaissance if the opportunity called for it. Washington never revealed his plan to anyone. When he filed the document away, he did so under the phrase “Intended Orders for a move that was intended agt Phila by way of surprise, 25th Decr 1777,” the two key words being “intended” and “was.”
This day—Monday, December 22—happened to be the day for the adjutants to compile returns of the camp’s troop strength. Stirling’s division had already but temporarily departed Valley Forge and the Maryland brigades formerly under Sullivan and now under Smallwood were perched at Wilmington and not included in the infantry return. This left thirteen brigades of Continental infantry at Valley Forge on Monday. By the results of the return, Washington’s twenty-five barrels of flour had to feed more than 19,000 bodies this day (including artillery personnel, non-soldier workers such as waggoners and artificers, numerous camp followers, and Stirling’s division which departed camp that day without completing its return). With warnings of a mutiny, Washington faced a catastrophe.
The commander pivoted to his next decision that Monday; he created a mission out of desperation. He directed each brigade commander to detail two dozen men (led by a captain and including a commissary of issues) to forage up to a ten-mile radius from camp to “seize and bring in flour, Beef Pork & Wheat.” Colonel Stewart received his third order this day to appear at headquarters. There, Washington instructed him to head this foraging operation. To protect the foragers, Washington ordered out equal-sized detachments of fifty-nine officers and privates—“all pickt men”—to supply themselves with forty rounds and head out to harass any approaching enemy light parties that could threaten the mission. In all, 1,400 officers and men departed camp this day on an emergency scrounging operation.
With full attention now devoted to supplying the army, the tent city surrounding Washington completed their fourth day at Valley Forge—the third day for thousands of them—never knowing that their commanding general had prepared “for the Baggage &ca to be removed from our present of Camp,” and eventually moved to Philadelphia where Washington had hoped to celebrate a victorious Christmas Day with them. Instead, they would awake the following morning and finally begin building their huts, while Washington (who would soon transfer his headquarters from his marquee to the Isaac Potts house near the northwest corner of the cantonment) seethed at Congress for failing to heed his months of pleas to adequately supply his army, warning them for a second straight day “that unless some great and capital change suddenly takes place,” his Continental army will “Starve—dissolve—or disperse,”
“The Israel Angell Diary, 1 October 1777–28 February 1778,” Rhode Island History 58 (2000),121; Joseph Lee Boyle, “Notes and Documents, from Saratoga to Valley Forge: The Diary of Lt. Samuel Armstrong,” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 121 (1997), 258; “A Revolutionary Diary of Captain Paul Brigham, November 19, 1777–September 4, 1778,” Vermont History 34 (1966), 16.
“Valley Forge: 1777-1778,” 102; Henry P. Johnston, ed., Memoir of Colonel Benjamin Tallmadge (New York: Gilliss Press, 1904), 36; “Extract of a letter from an officer in the Continental army, dated Dec. 14, 1777,” Hartford Courant, January 13, 1778.
General Orders, December 20, 1777, in Philander D. Chase, ed., The Papers of George Washington (Charlottesville, Va.: University Press of Virginia, 2002 (PGW), 12:642; Gary Ecelbarger and Michael C. Harris, “A Reconsideration of Continental Army Numerical Strength at Valley Forge,” Journal of the American Revolution Annual Volume 2022 (Yardley, PA: Westholme, 2022), 115-126 (numerical entry table on 119-20).
Number of dwellings calculated from the troop strength return of December 30, 1777. See www.fold3.com/image/9151410. Artificers may have been the first personnel to begin hut construction. According to one, he “Began our house for winter quarters,” on December 20. See Charles Collard Adams, Middletown Upper Houses: A History of the North Society of Middletown, Connecticut, from 1650 to 1800, with Genealogical and Biographical Chapters on Early Families and a Full Genealogy of the Ranney Family (New York: Grafton Press, 1908), 652-53.
“’Thro mud & mire into the woods:’ The 1777 Continental Army Diary Of Sergeant John Smith, First Rhode Island Regiment,” transcribed by Bob McDonald, 1998, www.revwar75.com/library/bob/smith.htm.
Washington to Laurens, December 23, 1777, PGW, 12:683-684; Ricardo A. Herrera, Feeding Washington’s Army: Surviving the Valley Forge Winter of 1778 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2022), 39. For large excerpts of two witnessed accounts by Charles Stewart see “After Orders” and its annotation in PGW, 12:664-65n5.