The Winter That Won the War
The Winter Encampment at Valley Forge, 1777-1778
Phillip S. Greenwalt
Savas Beatie, El Dorado Hills, California, 2021, 192 pages
Book Review published on: April 15, 2022
On 19 December 1777, Gen. George Washington led remnants of the battered, dejected, and destitute Continental army into winter quarters at Valley Forge. Valley Forge, site of the Mount Joy Forge, was nestled in the deep forest of interior Pennsylvania, providing a defensible position for the haggard troops. Its location, just eighteen miles northwest of Philadelphia, created an operational safe haven to monitor British activity in the occupied capital.
In a February 1778 letter to his friend John Jay, New York Congressman Gouverneur Morris described the conditions at Valley Forge as “a skeleton of an army … a naked condition, out of health, out of spirits.” Of the approximately fourteen thousand soldiers encamped at Valley Forge in the winter of 1777-1778, one in every four would perish. During those months, a team of gritty leadersGeorge Washington, Baron Fredrick von Steuben, and Nathanael Greenetransformed this depleted collection of citizen-soldiers into a tactically proficient military organization capable of seriously challenging the British army and leading the fight for independence.
For the seasoned Revolutionary War historian or the novice seeking a concise depiction of the significant early engagements of Washington’s Continental army and a well-researched and superbly illustrated overview of its subsequent encampment at Valley Forge, Phillip Greenwalt’s The Winter that Won the War: The Winter Encampment at Valley Forge, 1777-1778 delivers.
The story begins in Concord, Massachusetts, on a cool spring morning in April 1775 when local militia and minutemen challenge British colonial authority. In a series of short but informative chapters, Greenwalt seamlessly leads the reader from Concord through the army’s defeat at Germantown, ending the campaigning season of 1777. With his clear, concise illustrations; detailed maps; and precise summaries, the reader can feel the pain, suffering, and emotional dismay experienced by the Continental army as it limped into Valley Forge.
Greenwalt provides the reader with a systematic glimpse into the formidable challenges facing Washington and his staff. The lack of shelter, food, clothing, and medical supplies were foremost challenges that contributed immensely to the troops’ suffering. A dysfunctional and corrupt commissary system, including the absence of wagons, horses, and mules to transport foraged supplies, crippled any hope of immediate relief. Beyond the battlefield, political attacks and public debates challenging Washington’s leadership of the Continental army reached a crescendo in the winter of 1777-1778 and threatened his ability to maintain the Army intact.
Greenwalt smoothly transitions to the central premise of the book—the critical roles Washington, Steuben, and Greene played “in the winter that won the war.” There is little debate about the role each played in transforming the Continental army into a formidable military organization. Washington, the stoic Virginian, envisioned a free and enduring United States and established the revolutionary values that shaped the army. By championing their cause, sharing their hardships, and making critical decisions that improved their wellbeing, Washington solidified his command over the army.
Greenwalt asserts that Steuben was second in importance to Washington that winter. The Prussian captain, who honed his skills in military instruction in the army of Fredrick the Great, forged this “rag-tag collection of farmers, landless laborers, tradesmen, and Irish and German immigrates” into an army. On 19 March 1778, the first day of training, Steuben created a “model company” of one hundred men from each brigade and used them to demonstrate military drill. These men sequentially trained other personnel at regimental and brigade levels. His direct involvement in daily training, eccentric personality, and use of American profanity quickly created a bond between the army and him. Three months later, a revitalized, well-trained Continental army marched out of Valley Forge capable of challenging the British army.
Greene, adhering to Washington’s desires, relinquished a field command and was confirmed as Quartermaster of the Continental army on 2 March 1778. Prior to Greene’s leadership, Quartermaster Gen. Thomas Mifflin drove the department into chaos and dysfunction before his abrupt and politically motivated resignation in October 1777. However, Greene’s aggressive leadership and extraordinary efforts resulted in stockpiles of supplies, reduction of waste and fraud, and more precise record keeping. When the army left Valley Forge, it was well equipped for an active campaign season.
Greenwalt complements his analysis of the winter campaign by providing students or tourists a fascinating driving tour of historical sites of the Valley Forge National Historical Park and surrounding area. This tour provides photos, maps, and a brief narrative highlighting the significance of each site. Four informative appendixes provide additional context to several subjects related to Valley Forge and its impact on the revolution. For those interested in Revolutionary War history, this well-presented work profiles leaders who transformed the Continental army from a disparate band of survivors to a skilled, highly proficient fighting force that won American freedom.
Book Review written by: Lt. Col. Harry Clay Garner, U.S. Army, Retired, Fort Belvoir, Virginia