Jun 6, 2008
|"These are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; ..." - Thomas Paine, December, 1776.
One year after Paine wrote those famous words, only winter soldiers remained - and it was they who marched into Valley Forge on December 19, 1777, cold, hungry, sick and exhausted.
230 years later we made the trip to Valley Forge - to see where George Washington, having nothing to offer but the strength of his character, managed to keep the Continental Army from disintegrating that winter.
On an 80 degree day in June, it's hard to look at these rolling green hills and imagine the misery and desolation the soldiers faced. Food, tents and shoes were in short supply, and even blankets and clothing were scarce. First they had to fell trees and build log huts, then shiver in them for months without the supplies they needed.
Washington wrote to Congress 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."
In the end Washington received help - in the person of his most trusted general, Nathanael Greene. Greene, a forge owner himself, took on the job of Quartermaster to the failing army. Working with local contractors he miraculously managed to turn the situation around. Soon food and supplies started to arrive, and while there never was enough, the Army survived and even began to thrive.
To help matters, a crusty old Prussian named Baron von Steuben arrived to train the troops. Under his rigid and repetitious drills, inexperienced novices began to acquire the skills of professional soldiers. Skills gave them confidence, and with confidence came pride. Almost single handedly that winter, von Steuben turned the Continental Army into a respected fighting force.
On June 19, 1778, exactly six months from the day they arrived, a very different Continental Army marched out of Valley Forge. They were better fed, clothed, drilled and supplied - and they marched into Monmouth, New Jersey to engage the British Army in battle.
Cornwallis's surrender at Yorktown was still forty months away, and it would be nearly two years after that before the Treaty of Paris finally ended the war. But a sea change had taken place at Valley Forge. 2,000 men died there, but the winter soldiers who survived lived to change the course of history.
Our visit included a movie at the Visitor Center, a drive through the fields of the encampment, and a stop at the home Washington used for his headquarters. Surrounded by dozens of visitors on a hot summer day in the 21st century, it's hard to imagine the events that took place here - but that will come - in the quiet times when we think about this place in the months ahead.
We returned to our encampment through the college town of West Chester, where energetic kids were selling lemonade on the streets to raise money for the fight against cancer. I guess as long as there is life, there will be something to fight against. We can only hope that when it's our turn to fight we will have the courage to be winter soldiers.