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Valley Forge: The 6-Months That Turned Chaos into the Key to America's Independence

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
July 20, 2022 3:00 am

Valley Forge: The 6-Months That Turned Chaos into the Key to America's Independence

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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July 20, 2022 3:00 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, Bestselling authors Bob Drury and Tom Clavin the story of the Continental Army’s six-month transformation in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania; one of the most inspiring—and under-appreciated—chapters in American history.

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This is Lisa Beebe and this is our American stories we tell stories about everything here on the show and you've heard Bob Drury and Tom Clayman share their story about red cloud, and their number one New York Times bestseller, the heart of everything that is there back now with one of the most interesting and inspiring, and underappreciated chapters in American history.

The story of the Continental Army's six-month transformation in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. Although no battle was fought at Valley Forge.

It was the turning point of the Revolutionary war years Bob and Tom. Tom and I contend in Valley Forge that the characters who inhabit this book in their shared core of values which we were much blown away by were part of the most productive generation of statesmen in the history of the United States. We say this well aware of FDR's kitchen cabinet and Abraham Lincoln's team of rivals. What we hope we have accomplished with Valley Forge is as the anthropologists say, is to make the familiar strange and the strange familiar. When Tom and I were writing this book, we had friendly arguments with historians about our day.

Valley Forge no Trenton Abella trend. The surprise attack on Trenton and the subsequent victory of print. That was the key to the Revolutionary war and other other historians would tell no no no no. It's when the French got into the and others would say none of course on it was your town. That was the key that was the turning point of it was Horatio Gates victory at Saratoga when the Pulitzer prize-winning for his Washington biography Joseph Ellis and his National book award winning for his book on Thomas Jefferson came out and said Valley Forge was the exact existential moment in the war for independence. I said yeah go argue with Joe Ellis don't argue with us right, Tom.

What you think you're ready for story, story, as Bob alluded to our contention.

From the very beginning we start work on this book was Valley Forge became the most important part of the of the Revolutionary war was a turning point and we found that out because we started to do our research and get deeply into it.

The social studies class supports the Valley Forge is guys now in the snow starving and freezing and then you had George Washington on a horse looking down and watching guys in the snow starving and freezing and that's the socialist quarter we found out is that so much what was happening.

A big part of it was George Washington himself during the Valley Forge cabin, which lasted from December's 1777 to June 1778 George Washington went from being a usually revered figure, but he went he went from not being an American icon hero in action figure that happened during the course of Valley Forge one of the things he was having to deal with was a two front war there was the war itself against the British during the camera. Valley Forge there were conspiracies that included his senior. Some senior officers and members of the Continental Congress who tried to get him fired who try to get them replaced and they came very close to doing that so that was something that was that was very important about Valley Forge. Washington was surrounded. I think this is a very poignant part of the story.

Washington was surrounded by a loyal group of young surrogate sons but these that Alexander Hamilton Marquis Lafayette and a character named John Lawrence and John Lawrence. So like the founding father you never knew, but he's also had with him these these generals that were were totally loyal to him. Nathaniel Green there was another generally, Lord Sterling, who he called himself that insisted he be called Lord Sterling because he claimed to be descended from Scottish aristocracy and royalty washes position was keep fighting you call yourself and everyone Lord Sterling. Whatever your great general, keep doing it the situation. One of the things that people don't know about Valley Forge which we found out and again.

Now he's also in social studies, it was not the worst winter, the Revolutionary war, the worst winters. But Valley Forge the winter was bad. I wasn't terrible is bad but what happened was the several systems broken down in United States. One system was the government. The when the British took Philadelphia they kicked the Continental Congress out. They pretty much spread out some of the went to York Pennsylvania. Some simply went home. Someone disappeared. There was no functioning government for the most part of the United States anymore, so Val George Washington at Valley Forge was the United States government.

When Valley Forge began in December 19, 1777 young when they were 12,000 soldiers. They built huts and is also like but for 500 camp followers.

These women and children to follow the Army wherever they went.

Suddenly Valley Forge became the seventh largest city United States and became the capital of United States.

I think of something most people would never realize from social studies that because of the Philadelphia Lehigh states being occupied by the British because there was pretty much no Continental Congress because everything else the political systems complete disarray. Valley Forge was the capital United States and George Washington was the leader, de facto leader of United States.

If the FE is a lipid loss for whatever reason, if easily decided I've had enough.

I'm getting out of here. I'm going back to Mount Vernon. The even the British government as a persuasion even ordered offered to make him a Duke secular the Duke of Mount Vernon something like that. Now if you just give up. So there was that the idea politically that Valley Forge was at the, the, the center of the of the revolution's universe doesn't know what happening is that George Washington realized he cared about two things the cause of liberty and independence and his men in the anguish he was going through was actually awful because every day. His men were dying.

There were some who were deserting okay. They had that they had to get out of there, but there was step they would dying. The very first man who died at Valley Forge was Christmas Eve and wash and found out about Christmas morning. It was a black soldier from from Connecticut named Jethro he was the first one to die. He died basically of exposure or malnutrition. 2000 men died.

Valley Forge, during the course of the six months that's more by for any battle in the Revolutionary war and that's a remarkable number. The story of Valley Forge told by Bob Drury and Tom Craven continues here on our American stores. We have been here, the host of our American stories every day on the show were bringing inspiring stories from across this great country stores were big cities and small towns, but we truly can't do the show without you are stories are free to listen to what they're not free to make if you love what you hear go to L American and click the donate button a little devil go to L American and give Geico asks how would you love a chance to save some money on insurance, of course, the way when it comes to great rates on insurance Geico can help like with insurance for your car, truck, motorcycle, boat and RV even help with homeowners or renters coverage class at an easy to use mobile app available 24 hour roadside assistance and more. And Geico is an easy choice switch today and see all the ways you can save it's easy. Simply go to or contact your local agent today and we continue with our American stories and the story of Valley Forge 2000 men died in Valley Forge more than any other battle in the war. Let's continue with this mostly unknown story. Valley Forge is a struggle for survival not just of the Army, but the revolution because of the Continental Army had ceased to exist which Washington expected almost every day. December 23. He wrote a letter to whatever is left of Congress saying I expect any day for the my army to dissolve and disperse expected every morning to wake up and look out and they begun, and if they left. If there was no more consulate Army. There was no more war for independence. It was over Washington anguish over this. He was Costley baking the governors of individual states send me some food. Send me some clothing literally.

You might think it's a clich, but he literally they were blood in the snow because of all the men had no shoes open source, they would dying of start, literally dying of starvation in Washington had to try and keep them together. Why did this Army stay together because ultimately did.

I think giving way too much. The and we did what we did win the war of independence. That's where we come to the central figure of this book, George Washington, there was such admiration since caring for him that this many of the soldiers.

This despite the suffering they could not abandon George Washington they saw in him the war for American independence.

The ideal that that that America was going to be Washington was, he kept himself in check.

He was an aggressive emotional man who never let anyone see it except for it times more for his wife and when we discovered one of the main themes of Valley Forge is Washington was fighting a two front war at Valley Forge.

One was a war militarily against the British and the second was a political war against the faction of Congress who had been displaced from Philadelphia when the British captured it, and they were they had taken over the York Pennsylvania courthouse and especially the New Englanders who never really wanted Washington to lead the Continental Army anyway. They figure to fight the greatest of the great British Empire.

We need Virginia in the fold. So that's how he got the job and after he lost New York after the the the stuttering Pennsylvania campaign, worry, he was beaten at Brandywine Creek.

He was beat up AOL, he was beaten Germantown there was more than whispers to to usurp this man. Let's replace him with Horatio Gates who won the great battle of Saratoga but Washington had this inner steely quality and not only his officers but his NCOs and his enlisted men. They recognized it. They would not as as shoddily as they were short, I take this just one silly example when foreign officers would come over to either volunteer to fight for the Americans or to observe. They were shocked, shocked to see the American sentries in Valley Forge in these tattered blanket naked underneath not ripped uniforms naked underneath with no shoes. Standing on their hats in the snow to keep their feet as warm as possible.

Washington is the reason that these men remained at Valley Forge and I think he emanated that kind of steely will.

He was wounded. He was wounded by these attempts to usurp his position but he never let it show washed and got his first experience as a leader of of men, and then battle the French Indian war. He never rose above the rank of Col.

He had hoped to be brought into vaccinated officer to British Army. They wouldn't have a then between that war and the Revolutionary war is back on his farm. He even as the British derisively referred to him. He was a Virginia planter is a far there was note no really I was a very formal training. There was added security. I think also have to look at Washington especially think during Valley Forge was in such a difficult position because he was very much alone.

By this time Washington had to come some he didn't start out this way, but he was a canny politician. By this time.

Now there was no doubt that the Continental Army was in dire straits, but Washington also recognized that he was throwing the gauntlet to the Continental Congress. Okay, I hear the whispers I see the anonymous screeds against me. I know Horatio Gates is triumph Saratoga anyone replace me with him what they want. Go ahead and try and if you do try it if Susan will he didn't even come out and say this, but the underlying the undertone was if you do try this this Army will dissolve, disperse and one thing you have to remember to the politicians in York some 80 miles inland and army dissolving or dispersing.

This was, you know, 8 to 12 to 13,000 men, but all I could envision was half soldier just scavenging the countryside taking our own farms and taking our own cattle and so yes, Washington was being a bit of a cynic but on the other hand was being perfectly truthful because if they didn't get food. If they didn't get shoes and they didn't get medicine the Army would fall apart.

That's why some cases they vinegar in some cases they were eating ethic if there was a cow that had been dented, died or horse that had died they'd eat that, don't hide whatever they can find there. There are stories of this article. Fire cakes they would make their there was those that ashes from the fire and what was it was it would put they had no leavening agent had no use so they would put this goopy goopy old thing together and they would just throw it on a rock in the campfire and wouldn't arise at all and it would be filled with baguettes and ashes. That's where he got the name fire cakes and it was just hard NOT breaking biscuit God's obvious question is if this was what they had to eat how did they survive. I can only point out again that of the estimated 12,000 men that went into Valley Forge in December 1777, 2000 died so they literally on a daily basis would dying of starvation, exposure to the elements disease. So it was it really it really was is is as horrific as hats were making it seem was a daily existence. At one point, not one point early on, you soldiers figured okay. Washington ordered these flying hospitals set up around the countryside, but they had no idea of your modern medicine. They did not know bacteria, germs, and so somebody would dying one of these hospitals and they just don't. The next guy on the same straw same vermin infested straw and finally the soldiers of course not knowing the science of its egg. These are abattoirs so they were just not telling when they're sick, and the diner hunts general. How is the there are two brothers, Richard and William how were the two commands of British forces in North America and they were they were mostly enjoying the pleasures of of Philadelphia in the winter day they would send out some foraging parties. This one event. We talk about in in the book that one of the house. It was personally leading a group. This brigade or regiment out into the field to collect supplies and Washington was enraged by this because he said they can't do this the coming right in our faces a Celeste Luskin are forced together and go and go attack them. So we we show them we teach them a lesson he couldn't get enough men fit for duty lately either work they could or they were starving. They were too weak to get up off their cots and British just went about their business took some of the food that was around the area and came back they were having parties that would put on plays a major attack.

Capt. Andre again was romancing Benedict all his future wife. One of the house, brothers and mistress British arms of numerous mistresses. They were just having a really good time and the idea and the reason why they could do that. There was no insecurity on the part of the British because they assumed that as soon as spring came in the fighting season began a there be no American army B.

What was left of easily wiped off the map, so why not enjoy enjoy. Go ahead, have a good time and while they were having a good time. My goodness again 2009 Valley Forge this is the period between December 1777 and June 1778, when we come back more. This American story and I'm told an unknown story here on our American stores and were back of our American stories and the story of Valley Forge is told by Bob Drury and Tom Clayman. Let's pick up when we last left off. Throughout the book as always footnotes and little tidbits that we found out during research, one of which was that it was during the Valley Forge encampment that the term father of his country was first used it was actually a German magazine, referring to the American Revolution that George Washington was the father of his country, Pennsylvania Pennsylvania German yeah and but I think yes it eat. I think Washington had probably some paternal instincts already. From helping to raise Martha's children and then he found himself which is a really central part of this book, he found himself with these relationships with the Marquis Lafayette with John Lawrence with Alexander Hamilton that I think one of the reasons why he could stand there a tremendous burden.

He was under because these men were unabashedly supportive of him and adoring of him and he believed in him and that no it's can it it it had to make him feel like we have to stay the stay the course to borrow something from George W. Bush.

We have to stay what were doing and and persevere and they they supported him enormously, totally devoted to him. They would've instantly taken a bullet for him and that's a big part of our story.

Alexander Hamilton was 22 years old. He was Washington's right-hand man. He wrote what made Washington's letters Washington would finish his thoughts.

Washington could tell Hamilton.

This is what I think about and Hamilton knew how to translate that into a thousand page letter to some the governor of New York and the governor Pennsylvania. There was Marquis Lafayette 20 is a Maj. Gen.

20 lead one of Marsha's divisions when he was wounded at the battle of Brandywine Washington sent the surgeon to find him and said to the surgeon. Treat him as if you were my son totally devoted to then John Lawrence was also 22 and became great. We are great friends with Hamilton the Marquis Lafayette and he worshiped Washington. He was from South Carolina and among the things he tried to do during the Valley Forge encampment. He kept trying to raise a brigade of black soldiers.

He thought one of the ways that the consul army could be a more effective fighting force is get more integrated. In fact he did in the sense that the there were there were hundreds of black soldiers part of the Continental Army would be the last time America had a fighting force in the field. I was integrated until the Korean War, so the rest of the Army two is made of so much of immigrants Irish German Italians: so there was a turning point that February and February was probably the lowest point for Washington. There's a famous painting story but him kneeling in the snow and praying. We discussed that in the book. It probably didn't happen.

The painting happened, but he probably didn't build the snow but it was at his lowest point in a couple things start to turn the tide.

One thing is our personal level is Martha Washington showed up, and you might think will.

So what George and Martha Washington were totally devoted to each other and when she came from out the conference about Vernon to go in the snow in the freezing cold with her husband for George personally. That was a big turning point get the point turning point was one of our favorite characters in the book, Baron Baron von Steuben what you have probably don't know is the real story. Baron wants to mostly think of him. Oh yeah, he was a Prussian general. I came over and train the troops well that is true to up to a point is not a Prussian general was a captain. He was a con man and the spy he'd met Ben Franklin, Paris, and Franklin had completely given him a new resume made him a Maj. Gen., a Prussian army gave all his background and everything is a go over there and wanted to see how things are bad things our report back to me.

He gets over they are all set to be released at this resume is totally doctored. Washington buys it say things okay great if they paid a lot of money to be a spy for the French and Franklin. He falls in love with the Continental Army. He said by God for the first time you believe in something, and he spent the next two or three months training the Continental Army this so many other characters in this book that the stories are in the other people might not even know about this James Munro is a young officer becomes a six president of United States or fifth John Quincy Adams six. This even sidebar stories about Capt. John Andre the British debonair theatrical officer, and he's romancing Peggy Shimbun, which might seem like a big deal, but she's a merry benefit. Arnold and with her lover convinced him to turn over West Point is all happening at the same time.

What happens is that the Army at the end of Valley Forge again to in the Valley Forge it's gonna be time for the British to a been relaxing and partying and having a great time in Philadelphia. It's gonna be time. As soon as the spring comes to wipe out the American army.

That's what they expected. They sort Army back in the fall that had barely staggered into a winter encampment and probably starve to death. They expected when the winter was over is to be normally left whatever was left was in the low hanging fruit easy pickings, and so the two armies met at the Battle of Monmouth Courthouse and with the British discovered is that whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger on backing up as I pay claimant 100 bucks to let me talk about the Baron Friedrich Wilhelm Ludendorff, Gerhard Augustine von she still even von Steuben to you and me, the Baron von Steuben arrived in Valley Forge at the end of February as ostentatiously as he could. He was in a sleigh adorned with 24 jingle bells pulled by a team of Percheron horses. He purchased in France, coal black to make a good entrance into Valley Forge and borrowed the money to purchase torches because he was dead flat broke this guy.

He's my fate with at Ed Tom mentioned John John Lawrence that the founding father you never heard of because he died too young. There's mad Anthony Wayne. I have so many favorite characters in this book, but the Baron bombshell even von Steuben is my favorite. When he arrived Valley Forge not only in the sleigh with the horses in the jingle bells he had his pocket Greyhound Azor in his lap.

He was decked out in a silk uniform with these two big horse pistols and in his wake was a retinue of aids and servants, and assistance and even a friendship he had brought along who by the way, quit 48 hours after eyeballing the conditions it Valley Forge. He said no way. I'm staying here that NS is as Tom alluded to this guy arrived Valley Forge with a resume more doctored up in the Mayo Clinic did met use of soldier of fortune, the one thing that is true is that he had for in Frederick the great's Prussian army now.

Frederick the great and his army affect his army was known as an army with a country as opposed to a country record Army Frederick the great was renowned throughout the Western world as the most feared military leader in the world and von Steuben had risen to Capt. in his army. But when the European war stopped. He kind of wandered around looking for a job as a soldier of fortune, and you been listening to Bob Drury and John claimant telling the story. The remarkable story of Valley Forge, my goodness, that moment were Martha leaves the comfort of Mount Vernon in February 1978 visitor husband Valley Forge in February. It's unbelievable. This was no duck walk taking that ride. There was no mass transit folks and also this character von Steuben if you grew up poor I grew up in northern New Jersey. There are von Steuben houses all over the place.

Is he really did become the man he'd never been and actually became a man well superior. His phony doctored up resume doctored up like the Mayo Clinic. Remember that one and use it when we come back for this remarkable story. Valley Forge here on our American stores and we continue with our American stories and the story of Valley Forge is told to us by Bob Drury and Tom Cleveland. Let's return to the final installment of Valley Forge von Steuben eventually ended up in Paris and the French Foreign Minister who is a big American supporter and eventually worked and worked and worked.

Louis XVI, so much that that's what made the French come into the war, but there's John D there's John, he saw sent in von Steuben any introducing the Franklin and Franklin's associate diplomats. I listing these two guys they were Matt Washington is written so many letters to us.

Don't send me any more of these deadbeats.

These the soldiers of fortune, these and this is a quote from what I read over 2000 of George Washington's memos private correspondence official proclamations. I personally read these general orders the correspondence between Congress and this is not my favorite word is that send me no more pop in Jay's we don't use that word anymore, but von Steuben. He sits out within three interviews with Franklin and Silas Deane.

They realized the sky's the real deal because Frederick the great had one rule in his army that no other Western army had and this was every officer would get down and work and live with the enlisted men. Everyone else thought this was beneath them, including the Continental Army. Every other army bequeathed this job to noncommissioned officer sergeants and corporals and when von Steuben started telling Franklin. This is how will drilling this is how well-trained this is one of the they realized Washington as strong as his will was in keeping this Army together as Tom elucidated it was really a collection of disparate malicious shoemakers, farmers, sailors, minors, shopkeepers had no idea how to fight as one well oiled machine so Franklin and Silas Deane LRI okay we got a send von Steuben numbers only Capt. so suddenly those Capt. bars disappeared and he had stars on her shoulder and suddenly he was. Not only an Inspector General of the Prussian army. The vaunted Prussian army, but an aide to Frederick great himself.

This is how he arrives in Valley Forge. Now George Washington has no clue. He knows Frederick the great hope this is one of his Inspector General. Okay, let's go on von Steuben's first day in camp. He decides to take an unofficial inspection tour.

Here's this guy showing up in his fancy pants European uniform with all the metals and he's walking into these filthy dirty huts and he starts interviewing Continental soldiers about their sanitary habits about you know how what the differences between an ordinary march in a quick March every heat within a week. He'd issued a series of memos to Washington. This is where you must take the latrines. These latrines you abduct. No wonder there's so much disease in this You put them on the downhill slope. On the other side away from the ovens that are baking bread. You know what, and let's grade these little pass in front of the huts and let's make them regimental roots to make this Army feel more professional so Washington's all into this and so he gives von Steuben, 100 men. His own personal guard 50 and 50 other men taken from the states. Equally and he said you are going to be von Steuben's sub trainers on Steuben takes them out on the parade ground of Valley Forge.

The very first day.

There's 100 men. There's thousands of other Continental soldiers. They have nothing else to do. But as Tom said, starve and freeze to death.

They're all watching on Steuben spends the very first morning entire morning teaching them the correct way to stand at attention.

He goes on, he teaches them how to wield it.

One of the great myths of the American revolution is the Minuteman, you know, slinking through the copse of trees are hiding behind a boulder and picking off the square British redcoats in their battle formation and yes there were times when this gorilla when this Indian fighting techniques that the Americans at that. It worked but for the most part, these people needed how to learn how to march quickstep into battle how to wield how to stand when the cannonball or grapeshot was taking off the head of the guy next to you how to not fire until you were ordered to fire von Steuben starts teaching the Continental Army how to do this, how to become a professional army and my favorite thing about von Steuben if I could go back I wouldn't go back they said you go back to Valley Forge meet one person would be Washington. Although he is the protagonist and the hero of our book. It would be von Steuben because he's this Falstaff Ian character. He spoke, he had no English. So Washington assigned John Lawrence and Alexander Hamilton on Steuben spoke French and German. Hamilton and Lawrence both spoke French and they were his translators and von Steuben was such a stickler for detail. He had one word in English God and when someone would make a mistake during the training. His face would turn and he was a portly man with a double chin and he was in his mid-40s, younger than most of the generals in the American continent farm and he would his face would read he flail his arms spittle coming out of his mouth any deal over it. Alexander Hamilton, a reference transferring get over here and swear for me and Alexander Hamilton would scurry up as von Steuben is unleashing a string of posts and curses. By the time Hamilton translated them into English. The Continental troops were doubled over in laughter at this, but they understood that he was not afraid like Frederick the great's mentor to get down on his knees on his belly in the muck and ship this is the wage. This is the way you put beta your bandit is not for cooking dipstick.

It is for stabbing an enemy in the gut. So von Steuben also know that sooner or later the charade of his resume was kind of the jig was going to be up but by the time the jig was up and von Steuben had a a lot of of in kind of putting it up himself. He was so he had become so enamored of not only the infantrymen but of the junior officers allowable. First let me say one thing, it's kind of really skipping ahead, but the very last letter. George Washington wrote, before resigning his commission as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army in 1783 was to the vet, the Baron von Steuben, thanking him for turning his disparate malicious into a professional army so that June 1778, five years earlier as the Continental Army is marching on the ballot.

Valley Forge to meet the British on the sandy plains of New Jersey and near the small village of Monmouth Courthouse and it was what, and I like to call up Butch and Sundance moment for the Brits. They looked at this Army wheeling and marching. Who are these guys these are not the guys that we brushed off like lint at the battle of Brandywine before Christmas at the battle of Germantown before Christmas. The mascara pay only before Christmas.

These guys look like they know what they're doing. As it turned out that date. Washington made the initial mistake of putting and then another general in charge of the attack on the British. He was bringing up the rear core when he got to the front lines. He saw his Continental Army retreated retreating orderly thanks to Baron von Steuben but still retreating and for the first time in front of his age in front of the entire he lost his temper.

He went galloping up and down the front lines until he found the general he put in charge and he trust him down and it was a blistering hot June day, a heat wave with over hundred degrees Washington up and down miles and miles spurring the troops to turn around so much so that the horse he was riding collapsed beneath him and drop dead. If he exhaustion he was handed the reins of another horse, and he got up. Finally he stood on a rich and about a mile and 1/2 away the entire Continental Army could seek a sea of red 10,000 redcoats Cornwallis is best doing a slow bayonet charge. By this time the British artillery had moved into range as Washington is pointing his sword and saying to his troops, who will fight with me who will stand with me grapeshot is whizzing by a set cannonball Lance feet from his horse splatters mud all over and he is looking at those British and using who will stand with me who will fight with me and you been listening to Bob Drury and Tom Clayman tell the story of Valley Forge and again and underappreciated story and well is again the great Joseph Ellis said it was the existential moment in the Revolutionary war, you've heard just a part of this great story and if you want to learn more. Of course Valley Forge is the book in the writers are Bob Drury and Tom Clayman.

The story of Valley Forge here on our American stores

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