Surviving the Winters
Housing Washington’s Army during the American Revolution
University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 2021, 252 pages
Book Review published on: June 3, 2022
Steven Elliott’s Surviving the Winters: Housing Washington’s Army during the American Revolution is a welcome addition to the study of the America Revolution. Elliott opens in describing the first challenge faced by George Washington when he arrived in Boston following the Battle of Bunker Hill: how to properly shelter Patriot militia groups that would form his continental army. Elliott explores winter encampments at Middlebrook, Morristown, and West Point, and the role encampments and their evolution played in sustaining the continental army through the use of official military correspondence, diaries, memoirs, and other related documents. Elliott persuasively argues that the role of encampments went beyond just sheltering soldiers; it became a critical factor in Washington’s military strategy.
Among Elliott’s many significant observations and reflections, three stand out. First, his research reveals that castrametation, or the art of planning and construction of military encampments, was considered equally important as strategy in the eighteenth century. Throughout the eighteenth century, military scholars from famed commanders such as Frederick the Great to less renowned officers produced various papers, manuals, and guidebooks on castrametation. Unfortunately, none of this would be available for Washington and his continental army commanders who would learn by trial and error.
Second, Elliott argues that location, construction, and maintenance of encampments formed a crucial yet overlooked component of Washington’s Fabian strategy. Continental army encampments at Middlebrook, Morristown, West Point, New Windsor, and Valley Forge provided protection while allowing Washington to monitor the British and threaten British lines of communication while avoiding direct engagement. These encampments enabled Washington to neutralize a numerically superior opponent while protecting his own strength.
Third, Washington ordered the first mass inoculation in our military history. Smallpox arrived in Boston in 1775 carried by British forces from Canada and Europe. A smallpox outbreak prevented continental army forces from seizing Quebec and was now threatening Washington’s army around Boston. Smallpox impacted both continental army’s readiness and recruitment. Washington had to weigh the risks associated with inoculation, fear that his soldiers would not have time to recuperate from inoculation in case British forces attacked, and prohibition by states against the practice. Seeing no other viable option, Washington ordered Doctor William Shippen in a 6 January 1777 letter to inoculate all forces that came through Philadelphia. Washington informed Congress a month later of his decision to mass inoculate the continental army. Mass inoculation of the continental army dropped the infection rate from twenty percent to one percent. Congress decided to repeal bans on inoculation making it the first piece of public health legislation. Washington’s mass inoculation order saved the continental army.
Surviving the Winters’s strength is Elliott’s use of illustrations, primary source documents, numerous firsthand accounts, and a writing style that conveys the urgency and complexity of the challenges faced by Washington and continental army commanders. It informs us that Valley Forge was one of several severe winters that challenged a young continental army. America’s victory in the American Revolution truly was a remarkable event and that Washington was larger than life. This work is highly readable and provides a comprehensive examination of a lesser-known area of the American Revolution. It would be an excellent addition to the library of any historian or student with an interest on the subject.
Book Review written by: Lt. Col. Jesse McIntyre III, U.S. Army, Retired, Tampa, Florida