After the American victory at Saratoga, British General Howe struck back by driving the patriots out of Philadelphia.
On DECEMBER 19, 1777, over 11,000 American soldiers set up camp at Valley Forge, just 25 miles outside Philadelphia.
Meanwhile, another 11,000 Americans were dying on British starving ships.
Yale President Ezra Stiles recounted May 8, 1783:
“‘O that my head were waters, and my eyes a fountain of tears,’ that I might weep the thousands of our brethren that have perished in prison ships–
in one of which, the Jersey, then lying at New York, perished above eleven thousand the last three years–while others have been barbarously exiled to the East Indies for life.”
Soldiers at Valley Forge were from every State in the new union, some as young as 12 and others as old as 60.
Though most were of European descent, some were African American and American Indian.
Among them were Marquis de Lafayette and the future Chief Justice John Marshall.
Lacking food and supplies, soldiers died at the rate of twelve per day.
Over 2,500 froze to death in bitter cold, or perished from hunger, typhoid, jaundice, dysentery, and pneumonia.
In addition, hundreds of horses perished in the freezing weather.
A Committee from Congress reported on the soldiers:
“Feet and legs froze till they became black, and it was often necessary to amputate them.”
Of the wives and children who followed the army, mending clothes, doing laundry and scavenging for food, an estimated 500 died.
Two days before Christmas, George Washington wrote:
“We have this day no less than 2,873 men in camp unfit for duty because they are barefooted and otherwise naked.”
Washington wrote “…that unless some great and capital change suddenly takes place… this Army must inevitably… starve, dissolve, or disperse, in order to obtain subsistence in the best manner they can.”
Hessian Major Carl Leopold Baurmeister noted the only thing that kept the American army from disintegrating was their “spirit of liberty.”
A farmer reportedly observed General Washington kneeling in prayer in the snow.
On December 24, 1983, President Ronald Reagan stated in a Radio Address:
“The image of George Washington kneeling in prayer in the snow is one of the most famous in American history.”
On April 21, 1778, Washington wrote to Lt. Col. John Banister:
“No history…can furnish an instance of an army’s suffering such uncommon hardships as ours has done, and bearing them with the same patience and fortitude –
To see men without clothes to cover their nakedness, without blankets to lay on, without shoes, by which their marches might be traced by the blood from their feet, and almost as often without provisions…
marching through frost and snow, and at Christmas taking up their winter quarters within a day’s march of the enemy, without a house or hut to cover them…
and submitting to it without a murmur, is a mark of patience and obedience which in my opinion can scarce be paralleled.”
Despite these conditions, soldiers prepared to fight.
A Christmas carol that lifted spirits at this time was “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen,” first published in 1760 on a broadsheet in London as a “New Christmas carol.” It was called “the most common and generally popular of all carol tunes”:
“God rest ye merry, gentlemen,
Let nothing you dismay.
For Jesus Christ our Savior,
Was born on Christmas Day;
To save us all from Satan’s power,
When we were gone astray. (Chorus)
O tidings of comfort and joy,
Comfort and joy,
O tidings of comfort and joy.”
In February, 1778, there arrived in the camp a Prussian drill master, Baron Friedrich von Steuben, who had been a member of the elite General Staff of Frederick the Great, King of Prussia.
Baron von Steuben, who was sent with the recommendation of Ben Franklin, drilled the soldiers daily, transforming the American volunteers into an army.
Lutheran Pastor Henry Muhlenberg, whose sons Peter and Frederick served in the First U.S. Congress, wrote in The Notebook of a Colonial Clergyman:
“I heard a fine example today, namely, that His Excellency General Washington rode around among his army yesterday and admonished each and every one to fear God, to put away the wickedness… and to practice the Christian virtues…
God has… marvelously, preserved him from harm in the midst of countless perils, ambuscades, fatigues.”
Washington successfully kept the army intact through the devastating winter, and gave the order at Valley Forge, April 12, 1778:
“The Honorable Congress having thought proper to recommend to the United States of America to set apart Wednesday, the 22nd inst., to be observed as a day of Fasting, Humiliation and Prayer,
that at one time, and with one voice, the righteous dispensations of Providence may be acknowledged, and His goodness and mercy towards our arms supplicated and implored:
The General directs that the day shall be most religiously observed in the Army; that no work shall be done thereon, and that the several chaplains do prepare discourses.”
On May 2, 1778, Washington ordered:
“The Commander-in-Chief directs that Divine service be performed every Sunday…To the distinguished character of Patriot, it should be our highest Glory to laud the more distinguished Character of Christian.”
The Moral Liberal Contributing Editor, William J. Federer, is the bestselling author of “Backfired: A Nation Born for Religious Tolerance no Longer Tolerates Religion,” and numerous other books. A frequent radio and television guest, his daily American Minute is broadcast nationally via radio, television, and Internet. Check out all of Bill’s bookshere.