The Bugler

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Talk About Cold

As almost everyone in the United States has experienced recently, the winter can be brutal. In New Jersey, where Glendale is based, we suffered first a big snow followed by a few days of temperatures in the low single digits. Compared to some areas in the Midwest these temperatures were almost a heat wave. I could not help but think if we were this cold, what about the poor men who camped at Valley Forge during the Revolutionary War.

The national park websites continue to amaze, with a treasure trove of information and pictures, videos reenacting the time period and a true gift to make a visual story of that time period. For years students have seen pictures of the men freezing to death at Valley Forge and the misery of the camp. And although there were many miserable parts about that winter, in reality, it was also a major learning time for the Continental Army and a true study in resourcefulness.

Let's start with a timeline:

  • March 1775 - Patrick Henry gives famous "Give Me Liberty, or Give me Death Speech."
  • April 1775 - Battle of Lexington and Concord, "The Shot Heard Round the World."
  • June 15, 1775 - George Washington is appointed Commander in Chief, besting out his closest competitor for the spot, John Hancock.
  • July 4, 1776 - Declaration of Independence adopted by Congress.
  • August 27, 1776 - Redcoats defeat Washington's army in Battle of Long Island but Continental Army escapes during the night.
  • Washington's men spend winter of 1777 at Morristown, NJ. British General Howe arrives in Maryland in August and occupies Philadelphia in late September.

The National Park website states, "In 1777 British strategy included a plan to capture Philadelphia, the patriot capital. To accomplish this, the British commander in chief, Sir William Howe, landed nearly 17,000 of His Majesty's finest troops at the head of Chesapeake Bay. To oppose them, General George Washington marched his 12,000-man army from New Jersey. People often picture the Continental Army of 1777 as a ragtag bunch of inexperienced fighters. But Washington's men fought with skill and were often on the offensive while campaigning against superior numbers of professional soldiers. Although they lost two key battles, as well as Philadelphia, to the British, Washington's soldiers emerged from these experiences with a renewed confidence in their fighting abilities. They only needed a little more training to reach their full potential. Wintering at Valley Forge would give them the time for the training they needed."

Picture from Valley Forge NHP.

By the end of June a huge transformation had occurred. The National Park at Valley Forge website describes it as follows: "When Washington's army marched into camp at Valley Forge, tired, cold, and ill-equipped, it was lacking in much of the training essential for consistent success on the battlefield. On June 19, 1778, after a six-month encampment, this same army emerged to pursue and successfully engage Lt. Gen. Sir Henry Clinton's British army at the Battle of Monmouth in New Jersey. The ordered ranks, martial appearance, revived spirit, and fighting skill of the American soldiers spoke of a great transformation having occurred amidst the cold, sickness, and hardship that was Valley Forge."

The website has a section on people that played important roles at Valley Forge. One is Friedrich Wilhelm von Stuben, who had been at one time on the General Staff of Frederick the Great, King of Prussia. Von Steuben had met Benjamin Franklin during one of Franklin's stays in Paris, and with basically no means of employment offered his services to the Patriot cause. The website's account of what transpired is a true glimpse on what a difference this man made to American history:

"When he arrived at Valley Forge from France on February 23, 1778, he was armed with a letter of introduction from Benjamin Franklin. Washington saw great promise in the Prussian and almost immediately assigned him the duties of Acting Inspector General with the task of developing and carrying out an effective training program.

"Numerous obstacles threatened success. No standard American training manuals existed, and von Steuben himself spoke little English. Undaunted, he drafted his own manual in French. His aides often worked late into the night, translating his work into English. The translations were in turn copied and passed to the individual regiments and companies that carried out the prescribed drill the following day.

"Von Steuben shocked many American officers by breaking tradition to work directly with the men. One officer wrote of von Steuben's "peculiar grace" as he took "under his direction a squad of men in the capacity of drill sergeant." From dawn to dusk his familiar voice was heard in camp above the sounds of marching men and shouted commands. Soon companies, regiments, then brigades moved smartly from line to column, column to line; loaded muskets with precision; and drove imaginary redcoats from the field by skillful charges with the bayonet.

"When the Continental Army paraded on May 6, 1778, to celebrate the French alliance with America, von Steuben received the honor of organizing the day's activities. On that day the Grand Parade became a showplace for the united American army. Cannons boomed in salute. Thousands of muskets fired the ceremonial "feu de joie," a running fire that passed up and down the double ranks of infantrymen. Cheers echoed across the fields. The good drilling order and imposing appearance that the troops presented during the Alliance Day ceremonies demonstrated their remarkable progress in improving their abilities as a unified, fighting force capable of defeating the British Army. Washington, with von Steuben's aid, had made an army of the Continental troops. With their French allies, the Americans could now proceed with the war."

Although it would be another five years before the Peace Treaty was signed, the winter at Valley Forge had turned the Patriots into an army.

Tolerably Comfortable

Valley Forge National Historical Park (Flickr website).

Although popular history would tell you the men at Valley Forge froze to death, in truth, the winter at Valley Forge was one of the warmest winters during the Revolutionary War. The average temperature in the Philadelphia area during that time was around 33 degrees and in fact one of the biggest obstacles the Continental Army faced in building bridges and receiving supplies since the warmer termperatures were causing swollen rivers and flooding. However, many men did die during this encampment, with over 2000 deaths between March and the end of May, but more than two thirds of these deaths were attributed to disease as opposed to the cold. The winter of 1779 and 1780 when Washington wintered for the second time at Morristown, New Jersey, was much more brutal.

One of the most interesting papers on the Valley Forge National Historical Park website is a report of a field trial titled, "Tolerably Comfortable: A Field Trial of a Recreated Soldier Cabin at Valley Forge." This field study describes how the cabins were built and how well they maintained heat. It also contains descriptions of the work the men did and includes letters from solders describing their work and surroundings.

USMC West Coast Composite Band and the 125th Tournament of Roses Parade

The Tournament of Roses Parade is a truly amazing event. Pasadena always seems to have beautiful weather on January 1st and the streets are filled with spectators, floats and marching bands from all over the country. We have to give a shout out to the USMC West Coast Composite Band. The spectators were on their feet applauding as the band marched and played the hymn of the United States Marine Corps. Watch this YouTube video to experience the fun.

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