On December 19, 1777, one day after America’s First National Thanksgiving, Washington’s army marched into Valley Forge to begin preparations for winter camp. Valley Forge, named after an iron forge on Valley Creek, was about 20 miles northwest of Philadelphia, PA, the site of the British army’s winter camp. Winter conditions were already difficult. Henry Dearborn noted in his Journal, “The weather still Remains uncomfortable- this is Thanksgiving Day thru the whole Continent of America—but god knows We have very Little to keep it with this being the third Day we have been without flour or bread…”
Why was Valley Forge chosen? Washington explained, “The General ardently wishes, it were now in his power, to conduct the troops into the best winter quarters— But where are these to be found? Should we retire to the interior parts of the State, we should find them crowded with virtuous citizens, who, sacrificing their all, have left Philadelphia and fled thither for protection. To their distresses humanity forbids us to add.
This is not all, we should leave a vast extent of fertile country to be despoiled [stripped] and ravaged by the enemy, from which they would draw vast supplies, and where many of our firm friends would be exposed to all the miseries of the most insulting and wanton depredation— A train of evils might be enumerated, but these will suffice—These considerations make it indispensably necessary for the army to take such a position, as will enable it most effectually to prevent distress & to give the most extensive security; and in that position we must make ourselves the best shelter in our power— With activity and diligence Huts may be erected that will be warm and dry— In these the troops will be compact, more secure against surprises than if in a divided state and at hand to protect the country.” George Washington, General Orders, December 17, 1777
“Forasmuch as it is the indispensable duty of all men to adore the superintending providence of almighty God; to acknowledge with gratitude their obligation to him for benefits received, and to implore such farther blessings as they stand in need of… it is therefore recommended to the legislative or executive powers of these United States to set apart Thursday the l8th day of December next for solemn thanksgiving and praise…
[That] it may please him graciously to afford his blessings on the governments of these states respectively, and prosper the public council of the whole; to inspire our commanders both by land and sea and all under them with that wisdom and fortitude which may render them fit instruments under the providence of almighty God, to secure for these United States the greatest of all blessings, independence, and peace… [and] to take schools and seminaries of education, so necessary for cultivating the principles of true liberty, virtue, and piety, under his nurturing hand, and to prosper the means of religion for the promotion and enlargement of that kingdom which consists in righteousness peace and joy in the Holy Ghost.” Journals of Congress, First National Thanksgiving, November 1, 1777
Marquis de Lafayette was born into French nobility and inherited a large family fortune at the age of 14. At the age of 19, and against the will of the King of France, Lafayette used his own money to secure a ship to America. Lafayette described his feelings, “The moment I heard of America, I loved her; the moment I knew she was fighting for freedom, I burnt with a desire of bleeding for her; and the moment I shall be able to serve her at any time, or in any part of the world, will be the happiest one of my life.” With the approval of Congress, Lafayette joined General Washington on the battlefield. Unsure at first how to accept Lafayette, Washington quickly gained respect for Lafayette after observing him in his first battle, the Battle of Brandywine. Washington wrote Congress and recommended Lafayette be given a command.
“I would take the liberty to mention, that I feel myself in a delicate situation with respect to the Marquis de Lafayette. He is extremely solicitous of having a Command equal to his rank, &… it appears to me, from a consideration of his illustrious and important connections—the attachment which he has manifested to our cause, and the consequences, which his return [to France] in disgust might produce, that it will be advisable to gratify him in his wishes—and the more so, as several Gentlemen from France, who came over under some assurances [of appointments], have gone back disappointed in their expectations.
His conduct with respect to them stands in a favorable point of view… and in all his letters has placed our affairs in the best situation he could. Besides, he is sensible—discreet in his manners—has made great proficiency in our Language, and from the disposition, he discovered at the Battle of Brandywine, possesses a large share of bravery and Military ardor [passion].” George Washington, Letter to Henry Laurens (Congress), November 1, 1777.
The rattlesnake was a significant symbol used throughout the American Revolution. The Dept of War, established in 1789, included a rattlesnake in its seal in recognition of the rattlesnake’s importance. The Dept of the Army (1947), successor of the Dept of War, continued the tradition and included a rattlesnake in its seal. The Gadsden Flag, “to be used by… the American Navy” beginning in 1776, and the First Navy Jack, which is currently flown by the U.S. Navy, both contain a rattlesnake and the motto “DONT TREAD ON ME”. The following article, written by Benjamin Franklin one month after the formation of the [U.S.] Continental Marines, was his explanation of the rattlesnake.
“I observe on one of the drums belonging to the marines… there was painted a rattlesnake, with this motto under it, 'Don't tread on me.' … I sat down to guess what could have been intended by this uncommon device. I took care, however, to consult, on this occasion, a person who is acquainted with heraldry [military artwork]… This rather raised than suppressed my curiosity, and having frequently seen the rattlesnake, I ran over in my mind every property by which she was distinguished…
I recollected that her eye excelled in brightness that of any other animal, and that she has no eyelids. She may, therefore, be esteemed an emblem of vigilance. She never begins an attack, nor, when once engaged, ever surrenders. She is, therefore, an emblem of magnanimity and true courage. As if anxious to prevent all pretensions of quarreling with her, the weapons with which nature has furnished her she conceals in the roof of her mouth… but their wounds, however small, are decisive and fatal. Conscious of this, she never wounds till she has generously given notice, even to her enemy, and cautioned him against the danger of treading on her. Was I wrong sir, in thinking this a strong picture of the temper and conduct of America?” Benjamin Franklin, The Meaning of the Rattlesnake, December 27, 1775
In 1776, John Adams was asked to share his opinions on government. In response, Adams wrote several letters and a pamphlet entitled, Thoughts on Government. Adams touched on three branches of government and a system of checks and balances. Thoughts on Government helped colonists embrace Independence and influenced several State Constitutions. (In 1780, John Adams became the primary author of the Massachusetts Constitution, the oldest functioning constitution in the world.)
“It has been the Will of Heaven, that We should be thrown into Existence at a Period, when the greatest Philosophers and Lawgivers of Antiquity would have wished to have lived: a Period, when a Coincidence of Circumstances, without Example, has afforded to thirteen Colonies at once an opportunity, of beginning Government anew from the Foundation and building as they choose. How few of the human Race, have ever had an opportunity of choosing a System of Government for themselves and their Children?
… All Sober Enquirers after Truth, ancient and modern… have agreed that the Happiness of Mankind, as well as the real Dignity of human Nature, consists in Virtue… [And] great Writers… will convince any Man who has the Fortitude [courage] to read them, that all good Government is Republican… for the true Idea of a Republic, is ‘An Empire of Laws and not of Men.’
… As a good Government is an Empire of Laws, the first Question is, how Shall the Laws be made? In a Community consisting of large Numbers, inhabiting an extensive Country, it is not possible that the whole Should assemble, to make Laws. The most natural Substitute for an Assembly of the whole, is a Delegation of Power, from the Many, to a few of the most wise and virtuous… [The] Representative Assembly, should be an exact Portrait, in Miniature, of the People at large… [and] great Care should be taken in the Formation of it, to prevent unfair, partial and corrupt Elections.” John Adams, Letter to John Penn, March 27, 1776
Following the American losses in the fall of 1776 and prior to the victory at Trenton, several States issued addresses in an effort to encourage their citizens. Among the addresses given was one to the citizens of New York written by John Jay. (John Jay became the first Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court in 1789.) After reading a copy of this address, Congress “earnestly recommended”it to all American citizens and ordered it “printed at the expense of the continent.”
“You and all men were created free, and authorized to establish civil government, for the preservation of your rights against oppression, and the security of that freedom which God hath given you… It is, therefore, not only necessary to the well-being of Society, but the duty of every man, to oppose and repel all those… who prostitute the powers of Government to destroy the happiness and freedom of the people over whom they may be appointed to rule…
But you are told that their armies are numerous, their fleet strong, their soldiers valiant, their resources great; [and] that you will be conquered… It is true that some [of our] forts have been taken, that our country hath been ravaged, and that our Maker is displeased with us. But it is also true that the King of Heaven is not like the King of Britain… If His assistance be sincerely implored, it will surely be obtained. If we turn from our sins, He will turn from His anger.
… [Therefore] let universal charity, public spirit and private virtue be inculcated [taught], encouraged and practiced; unite in preparing for a vigorous defense of your country, as if all depended on your own exertions; and when you have done these things, then rely upon the good Providence of Almighty God for success, in full confidence, that without His blessing all our efforts will evidently fail.” John Jay, Address of the Convention of the Representatives of the State of New York to their Constituents, December 23, 1776
George Washington was born in Virginia on February 22, 1732. He was appointed County Surveyor at the age of 17 and joined the British Army at 21. Washington was a Virginia Delegate to the First Continental Congress, Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army, President of the Constitutional Convention and unanimously elected first President of the United States. Washington died at his Mt. Vernon home at the age of 67 on December 14, 1799. Washington’s Birthday was set aside as a Federal holiday in 1885 in honor of America’s First President.
Here is Thomas Jefferson’s description of Washington: “He was incapable of fear, meeting personal dangers with the calmest unconcern. Perhaps the strongest feature in his character was prudence, never acting until every circumstance, every consideration was maturely weighed; refraining if he saw a doubt, but, when once decided, going through with his purpose whatever obstacles opposed. His integrity was most pure, his justice the most inflexible I have ever known, no motives of interest or consanguinity, of friendship or hatred, being able to bias his decision. He was indeed, in every sense of the words, a wise, a good, & a great man.
… [It] may truly be said that never did nature and fortune combine more perfectly to make a man great, and to place him in the same constellation with whatever worthies have merited from man an everlasting remembrance. For his was the singular destiny & merit of leading the armies of his country successfully thro’ an arduous war for the establishment of it’s independence, of conducting it’s councils thro’ the birth of a government, new in it’s forms and principles, until it had settled down into a quiet and orderly train, and of scrupulously obeying the laws, thro’ the whole of his career, civil and military, of which the history of the world furnishes no other example.” Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Walter Jones, January 2, 1814
Soldiers often endure hardships and make many sacrifices while serving their country. During America’s struggle for Independence, for example, many soldiers went without adequate food or sleep; clothing or bedding. Most of General Washington’s troops, however, endured without a single complaint. “It will be a terrible night for the soldiers who have no shoes… but I have not heard a man complain.” An Officer, Diary of an Officer on Washington’s Staff, December 25, 1776
William Hull, an officer serving with Washington, provided a good description of the soldier’s life in 1776 – 1777. “When we left the Highlands [Hudson River, NY], my company consisted of about fifty, rank and file. On examining the state of the clothing, I found there was not more than one poor blanket to two men: many of them had neither shoes nor stockings; and those who had, found them nearly worn out. All the clothing was of the same wretched description.
These troops had been almost a year in service, and their pay which was due, remained unpaid. Yet their privations [lack of provisions] and trials were only equaled by their patience. They knew the resources of their country did not admit of their being more comfortable; yet. In a noble spirit of patriotism, they served her in her greatest need without compensation, and almost without the hope of more prosperous days…
In the attacks at Trenton and Princeton we were in this destitute situation, and continued to sleep on the frozen ground, without covering, until the seventh of January, when we arrived at Morristown, New Jersey, where General Washington established his winter quarters. The patient endurance of the army at this period, is perhaps unexampled in this or any other country.” William Hull, Revolutionary Services and Civil Life of General William Hull, January 1777
The majority of Washington’s militia enlistments were expiring at the end of the year. Suspecting few to reenlist, Washington desperately needed a victory. Beginning at sunset on Christmas Day, Washington’s plan was to move his army and artillery across the Delaware River and march quietly to Trenton. If all went well, his army would surprise the Hessian Garrison in an early morning attack. River ice and a violent storm, however, created delays and prevented many troops from crossing. Washington lost all hope of surprising the enemy but going back across the river was not an option. When the muskets became wet, Washington ordered, “use the bayonets. I am resolved to take Trenton.”
“… without tents and some of our men without even shoes, [we were ordered] over the mountains to a place called Newton, [PA]… A day or two after reaching Newton we were paraded one afternoon to march and attack Trenton. If I recollect aright the sun was about half an hour high and shining brightly, but it had no sooner set than it began to drizzle or grow wet, and when we came to the river it rained… Over the river we then went in a flat-bottomed scow, and as I was with the first that crossed, we had to wait for the rest and so began to pull down the fences and make fires to warm ourselves, for the storm was increasing rapidly…
During the whole night it alternately hailed, rained, snowed, and blew tremendously. I recollect very well that at one time, when we halted on the road, I sat down on the stump of a tree and was so benumbed with cold that I wanted to go to sleep; had I been passed unnoticed I should have frozen to death without knowing it…” John Greenwood, The Revolutionary Services of John Greenwood, December 1776
In the fall of 1776, the American army lost to British forces at Long Island (NY), White Plains (NY), Ft. Washington and Ft. Lee. Historians estimate over 500 Americans were killed and over 4000 American soldiers were taken prisoner. The British captured over 100 cannon and 1000’s of muskets. Present at Ft. Lee, and serving as aide to General Nathanael Green, was Thomas Paine. In December 1776, Thomas Paine later recalled, “I sat down, and in what I may call a passion of patriotism, wrote the first number of the [American] ‘Crisis.’”
“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; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives everything its value… Not a man lives on the continent but fully believes that a separation [from Great Britain] must some time or other finally take place… I am as confident, as I am that God governs the world, that America will never be happy ‘till she gets clear of foreign dominion…
I call not upon a few, but upon all: not on this state or that state, but on every state: up and help us… better [to] have too much force than too little, when so great an object is at stake… The heart that feels not now is dead; [and] the blood of his children will curse his cowardice, who shrinks back at a time when a little might have saved the whole, and made them happy. I love the man that can smile in trouble, that can gather strength from distress, and grow brave by reflection. 'Tis the business of little minds to shrink; but he whose heart is firm, and whose conscience approves his conduct, will pursue his principles unto death.” Thomas Paine, The [American] Crisis No. 1, December 23, 1776