This is Lee Habib and this is our American Stories, and we tell stories about everything here on this show, and you've heard Bob Drury and Tom Clavin share their story about Red Cloud from their number one New York Times bestseller, The Heart of Everything That Is. They're 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.
Here's Bob and Tom. Tom and I contend in Valley Forge that the characters who inhabit this book and their shared core of values, which we were pretty 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, I guess I would call it what, friendly arguments with historians about Valley Forge, no. The surprise attack on Trenton and the subsequent victory of Prince, that was the key to the Revolutionary War. And other historians would tell us, no, no, no, no, it's when the French got into the war.
And others would say, no, no, of course not. It was Yorktown that was the key. That was the turning point. Others would say it was Horatio Gates' victory in 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 existential moment in the war for independence, I said, yeah, go argue with Joe Ellis.
Don't argue with us, all right? Tom, what do you think? You're ready for a story?
Tell them a story. As Bob alluded to, our contention from the very beginning we started working on this book was Valley Forge became the most important part of the Revolutionary War. It was the turning point. And we found that out because we started to do our research and get deeply into it. The social studies class portrait of Valley Forge is guys 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 social studies portrait.
What we found out is that so much more was happening. A big part of it was George Washington himself. During the Valley Forge encampment which lasted from December 1777 to June 1778, George Washington went from being a, he was already a revered figure, but he went from that to being an American icon, a hero, an action figure. And 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. But during the encampment of Valley Forge there were conspiracies that included some senior officers and members of the Continental Congress who tried to get him fired, who tried to get him replaced.
And they came very close to doing that. So that was something that was very important about Valley Forge. Washington was surrounded, and I think this is a very poignant part of the story, Washington was surrounded by a loyal group of young surrogate sons. Alexander Hamilton, Marquis de Lafayette, and a character named John Lawrence. And John Lawrence is sort of like the founding father you never knew. But he's also had with him these generals that were totally loyal to him, Nathaniel Green. There was another general named Lord Stirling who he called himself that and insisted he be called Lord Stirling because he claimed to be descended from Scottish aristocracy and royalty. Washington's position was keep fighting, you can call yourself whatever you want.
Lord Stirling, whatever, you're a 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 what you saw in social studies, it was not the worst winter of the Revolutionary War. There were worse winters.
But Valley Forge, the winter was bad, I mean it wasn't terrible, it was bad. But what happened was several systems had broken down in the United States. One system was the government. When the British took Philadelphia they kicked the Continental Congress out and they pretty much spread out. Some of them went to York, Pennsylvania, some of them simply went home, some of them disappeared. There was no functioning government for the most part of the United States anymore. So George Washington at Valley Forge was the United States government. When Valley Forge began in December 1777, the army went in, there were 12,000 soldiers and they built huts and there's also like about 400 or 500 camp followers.
These are women and children that followed the army wherever they went. Suddenly Valley Forge became the seventh largest city in the United States and it became the capital of the United States. And I think that's something most people would never realize from social studies, that because of the Philadelphia, the capital of the United States being occupied by the British, because there was pretty much no Continental Congress, because everything else in the political system was in complete disarray, Valley Forge was the capital of the United States, and George Washington was the leader, de facto leader of the United States. If he had suddenly been lost for whatever reason, if he suddenly decided I've had enough, I'm getting out of here, I'm going back to Mount Vernon, they even, the British government as a persuasion even offered to make him a duke. So he would have been the Duke of Mount Vernon, something like that, you know, if you just give up. So there was the idea politically that Valley Forge was at the center of the revolutions universe.
The other thing that was happening is that George Washington realized he cared about two things, the cause of liberty and independence and his men. And the anguish he was going through was absolutely awful because every day his men were dying. There were some who were deserting, okay, they had to get out of there, but they were dying. The very first man who died at Valley Forge was Christmas Eve and Washington found out about it Christmas morning. It was a black soldier from Connecticut named Jethro. He was the first one to die.
He died basically of exposure and malnutrition. Two thousand men died at Valley Forge during the course of those six months. That's more by far than any battle in the Revolutionary War. And that's a remarkable number. The story of Valley Forge told by Bob Drury and Tom Clavin. It continues here on Our American Stories.
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Let's continue with this mostly unknown story. Valley Forge was a struggle for survival, not just of the army, but of the revolution. Because the Continental Army had ceased to exist, which Washington expected almost every day. December 23rd he wrote a letter to whatever is left of Congress saying, I expect any day for my army to dissolve and disperse. He expected every morning to wake up and look out and they'd be gone. And if they left, if there was no more Continental Army, there was no more war for independence.
It was over. Washington anguished over this. He was constantly begging the governors of the individual states, send me some food, send me some clothing. I mean, literally, you might think it's a cliche, but he literally, there were blood in the snow because of all the men that had no shoes.
The open sores. They were dying of, literally dying of starvation. And Washington had to try and keep them together. Why did this army stay together?
Because it ultimately did. I don't think we're giving away too much that, you know, 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, such caring for him that many of the soldiers, despite the suffering, they could not abandon George Washington. They saw in him the war for American independence, the ideal 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 at times Martha, 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 a faction of Congress who had been displaced from Philadelphia when the British captured it. And they had taken over the York, Pennsylvania courthouse, and especially the New Englanders, who never really wanted Washington to lead the Continental Army anyway. But they figured, if we're going to fight 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 stuttering Pennsylvania campaign where he was beaten at Brandywine Creek, he was beaten at Paoli, he was beaten at Germantown, there was more than whispers 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 shoddily as they were shorn, I'll tell you, 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 at Valley Forge in these tattered blankets, 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.
Washington had gotten his first experience as a leader of men in battle in the French-Indian War. He never rose above the rank of colonel. He had hoped to be brought into, actually made an officer in the British Army.
They wouldn't have him. Then between that war and the Revolutionary War, he was back on his farm. Even as the British derisively referred to him, he was a Virginia planter. He was a farmer.
There was no really, I would say, very formal training, so there was that insecurity. And I think also you have to look at Washington, especially I think during Valley Forge, was in such a difficult position because he was very much alone. By this time, Washington had become, 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 greeds against me. I know Horatio Gates has triumphed at Saratoga, and you want to replace me with him? Well, I'll tell you what.
Go ahead and try it. And if you do try it, he didn't come out and say this, but the undertone was, if you do try this, this army will dissolve and disperse. And one thing you have to remember, to the politicians in York some 80 miles inland, an army dissolving or dispersing, this was 8,000 to 12,000 to 13,000 men, but all they could envision was we're going to have soldiers 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, he was being perfectly truthful because if they didn't get food, if they didn't get shoes, if they didn't get medicine, the army would have fallen apart. In some cases they ate vinegar. In some cases they were eating, if there was a cow that had died or a horse that had died, they'd eat the hide, whatever they could find. There are stories, there's something called fire cakes they would make.
What was that, ashes from the fire? Well, what it was, they had no leavening agent, they had no yeast, so they would put this goopy oat thing together and they would just throw it on a rock in the campfire and it wouldn't rise at all and it would be filled with maggots and ashes, and that's where it got the name fire cakes, and it was this hard, teeth-breaking biscuit. An obvious question is if this was what they had to eat, how did they survive? And I can only point out again that of the estimated 12,000 men that went into Valley Forge in December 1777, 2,000 died, so they literally on a daily basis were dying of starvation, exposure to the elements, disease, so it really was as horrific as we're making it seem was their daily existence. At one point, or not at one point, early on, these soldiers figured, okay, Washington ordered these flying hospitals set up around the countryside, but they had no idea of modern medicine. They did not know bacteria, germs, and so somebody would die in one of these hospitals and they'd just dump the next guy on the same straw, the same vermin-infested straw, and finally the soldiers, of course, not knowing the science of it, saying these are abattoirs, so they were just not telling anyone they're sick and they'd die in their huts. General Howe was the, there were two brothers, Richard and William Howe, were the two commanders of the British forces in North America, and they were mostly enjoying the pleasures of Philadelphia in the winter. They would send out some foraging parties. There's one event we talk about in the book that one of the Howes was personally leading a British brigade or regiment out into the field to collect supplies, and Washington was enraged by this because he said they can't do this, they're coming right in our faces, and he said let's get a force together and go attack them, so we show them, we teach them a lesson.
He couldn't get enough men fit for duty. They either were naked or they were starving or they were too weak to get up off their cots, and the British just went about their business, took some of the food that was around the area and came back. They were having parties, they were putting on plays. Captain Andre, again, was romancing Benedict Arnold's future wife. One of the Howe brothers had a mistress. The British office had numerous mistresses. They were just having a really good time, 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 the spring came and the fighting season began, A, there'd be no American army left, or B, what was left could be easily wiped off the map.
So why not enjoy it? Go ahead, have a good time. And while they were having a good time, my goodness, again, 2000 died at Valley Forge, and this is the period between December 1777 and June 1778 when we come back, more of this great American story, an untold and unknown story, here on Our American Stories. And we're back with Our American Stories, and the story of Valley Forge is told by Bob Drury and Tom Clavin.
Let's pick up where we last left off. Throughout the book, there's all these footnotes in it about 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 in a German magazine referring to the American Revolution that George Washington was the father of his country. Pennsylvania.
Pennsylvania German, yeah. But I think, yes, 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 de Lafayette, with John Lawrence, with Alexander Hamilton, that I think one of the reasons why he could stand the tremendous burden he was under, because these men were unabashedly supportive of him and adoring of him, and they believed in him. And that, you know, it had to make him feel like we have to stay the course, to borrow something from George H.W. Bush, we have to stay what we're doing and persevere, and they supported him enormously.
Totally devoted to him, they would have instantly taken a bullet for him, and that's a big part of our story. Alexander Hamilton, who was 22 years old, he was Washington's right-hand man. He wrote many of 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 governor of New York or the governor of Pennsylvania. There was Marquis de Lafayette, 20, he was a major general at 20, led one of Washington's divisions. When he was wounded at the Battle of Brandywine, Washington sent a surgeon to find him and said to the surgeon, treat him as if he were my son.
Totally devoted to him. And then John Lawrence was also 22 and became great friends with Hamilton and the Marquis de Lafayette, and he worshipped 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 Continental Army could be a more effective fighting force is get it more integrated, and in fact he did in the sense that there were hundreds of black soldiers part of the Continental Army. It would be the last time America had a fighting force in the field that was integrated until the Korean War.
So the rest of the Army too was made up so much of immigrants, Irish, German, Italians, Poland. So there was a turning point at February. In February was probably the lowest point for Washington. There's a famous painting and story about 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 kneel in the snow. But it was at his lowest point, and a couple of things started to turn the tide. One thing is on a personal level is Martha Washington showed up, and you might think, well, so what?
George and Martha Washington were totally devoted to each other, and when she came from the comforts of Mount Vernon to go in the snow and the freezing cold with her husband, for George personally, that was a big turning point. The other turning point was one of our favorite characters in the book, Baron von Steuben. What you probably don't know is the real story of Baron von Steuben. We mostly think of him. Oh, yeah, he was a Prussian general that came over and trained the troops.
Well, that is true up to a point. He was not a Prussian general. He was a captain. He was a con man and a spy. He had met Ben Franklin in Paris, and Franklin had completely given him a new resume, made him a major general in the Prussian Army, gave him all his background and everything and said, go over there, and why don't you see how bad things are and report back to me? He gets over there all set to be, you know, he's got this resume.
It's totally doctored, and Washington buys it. So he thinks, okay, great, I'm going to get paid a lot of money to be a spy for the French and for Franklin. He falls in love with the Continental Army. He says, my God, for the first time, I believe in something, and he spends the next two or three months training the Continental Army. There's so many other characters who are in this book that their stories are in there that people might not even know about. There's James Monroe as a young officer who becomes the sixth president of the United States, or fifth, John Quincy Adams is the sixth. There's even sidebar stories about Captain John Andre, the British debonair theatrical officer, and he's romancing Peggy Shimpin, which might not seem like a big deal, but she's going to marry Benedict Arnold and with her lover convince him to turn over West Point.
This is all happening at the same time. What happens is that the Army at the end of Valley Forge, you get into the end of Valley Forge, it's going to be time for the British, who have been relaxing and partying and having a great time in Philadelphia, it's going to be time, as soon as the spring comes, to wipe out the American Army. That's what they expected. They saw an army back in the fall that had barely staggered into a winter encampment and probably starved to death. They expected when the winter was over, there was either going to be no army left, or whatever was left was going to be low-hanging fruit, easy pickings. And so the two armies met at the Battle of Monmouth Courthouse, and what the British discovered is that whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger. Well, I'm backing up, because I paid Clavin a hundred bucks to let me talk about the Baron Friedrich Wilhelm Ludolf Gerhard Agustin von Steuben, 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 had purchased in France, coal black to make a good entrance into Valley Forge, and he had borrowed the money to purchase the horses because he was dead flat broke. This guy, he's my favorite. Well, Tom mentioned John Lawrence, the founding father you never heard of, because he died too young.
There's Matt Anthony Wayne. I have so many favorite characters in this book, but the Baron von Steuben is my favorite. When he arrived at Valley Forge, not only in the sleigh with the horses and 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 aides and servants and assistants and even a French chef he had brought along who, by the way, quit 48 hours after eyeballing the conditions at Valley Forge.
He said, no way, I'm staying here. And as Tom alluded to, this guy arrived in Valley Forge with a resume more doctored up than the Mayo Clinic. He was a soldier of fortune. The one thing that is true is that he had fought in Frederick the Great's Prussian Army. Now, Frederick the Great and his army, in fact, his army was known as an army with a country as opposed to a country with an 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 captain in his army.
But when the European wars stopped, he kind of wandered around looking for a job as a soldier of fortune. And you've been listening to Bob Drury and Tom Clavin telling the story, the remarkable story, of Valley Forge. And my goodness, that moment where Martha leaves the comfort of Mount Vernon in February of 78 to visit her husband at Valley Forge, again, in February. It's unbelievable, and this was no duck walk taking that ride.
There was no mass transit, folks. And also this character, von Steuben, who if you grew up where I grew up in northern New Jersey, there were von Steuben houses all over the place because he really did become the man he'd never been and actually became a man well superior to his phony doctored-up resume, doctored up like the Mayo Clinic. I'll remember that one and use it when we come back. More of this remarkable story, Valley Forge, here on Our American Stories. Music And we continue with Our American Stories, and the story of Valley Forge is told to us by Bob Drury and Tom Cleaven.
Let's return to the final installment of Valley Forge. Von Steuben eventually ended up in Paris, and the French foreign minister, who was 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 Divergent, he saw something in von Steuben, and he introduced him to Franklin and Franklin's associate diplomat, Silas Dean. Now, these two guys, they were, oh, man, Washington has written so many letters to us. Don't send me any more of these deadbeats, these soldiers of fortune, and this is a quote from what I read over 2,000 of George Washington's memos, private correspondence, official proclamations. I personally read these general orders, the correspondence between Congress, and this is my favorite word. He said, send me no more poppin' jays.
We don't use that word anymore. But von Steuben, he sits down. Within three interviews with Franklin and Silas Dean, they realize this guy'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 officers, sergeants and corporals. And when von Steuben started telling Franklin, this is how I'll drill them, this is how I'll train them, this is what I'll do, they realized Washington, as strong as his will was in keeping this army together, as Tom elucidated, it was really a collection of disparate militias, shoemakers, farmers, sailors, miners, shopkeepers.
They had no idea how to fight as one well-oiled machine. So Franklin and Silas Dean, they say, all right, okay, we've got to send von Steuben home, but he's only a captain. So suddenly those captain bars disappeared and he had stars on his shoulder. And suddenly he was not only an inspector general of the Prussian Army, the vaunted Prussian Army, but an aide to Frederick the Great himself. This is how he arrives in Valley Forge. Now George Washington has no clue. This is Frederick the Great. Oh, this is one of his inspector generals.
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 medals, and he's walking into these filthy, dirty huts, and he starts interviewing Continental soldiers about their sanitary habits, about do you know what the difference is between an ordinary march and a quick march.
Within a week, he had issued a series of memos to Washington. This is where you must take the latrines. These latrines you have, Doug, no wonder there's so much disease in this camp.
You've got to 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 paths in front of the huts, and let's make them regimental routes to make this army feel more professional. So Washington's all into this, and so he gives von Steuben a hundred men, his own personal guard of 50 and 50 other men taken from the states equally, and he said, you are going to be von Steuben's sub-trainers. Von Steuben takes them out on the parade ground at Valley Forge. The very first day, there's a hundred 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. Von Steuben spends the very first morning, the entire morning, teaching them the correct way to stand at attention. He goes on. He teaches them how to wheel. You know, one of the great myths of the American Revolution is the minute man, you know, slinking through the copse of trees or hiding behind a boulder and picking off the squared British red coats in their battle formation, and yes, there were times when this guerrilla, when this Indian fighting techniques that the Americans had, that it worked, but for the most part, these people needed how to learn, how to march quick step into battle, how to wheel, how to stand when a cannonball or grape shot 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 and you meet one person. It wouldn't be Washington, although he is the protagonist and the hero of our book. It would be Von Steuben because he's this false staffian character. He spoke, he had no English, so Washington assigned John Lawrence and Alexander Hamilton. Von 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 damn. 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-forties, younger than most of the generals in the American Continental Army, and he would, his face would red, he'd flail his arms, spittle coming out of his mouth, and he'd yell over it, Alexander Hamilton or whoever's transferring, get over here and swear for me. And Alexander Hamilton would scurry up as Von Steuben is unleashing a string of oaths and curses, and by the time Hamilton translated them into English, the Continental troops were doubled over in laughter at this guy, but they understood that he was not afraid, like Frederick the Great, his mentor, to get down on his knees, on his belly, in the muck, and this is the way you, this is the way you put a bayonet.
Your bayonet is not for cooking biff stick, it is for stabbing an enemy in the gut. So Von Steuben also knew that sooner or later the charade of his resume was going to, the jig was going to be up, but by the time the jig was up and Von Steuben had a lot of oomph 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. 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 Baron Von Steuben, thanking him for turning his disparate militias into a professional army. So that June of 1778, five years earlier, as the Continental Army is marching out of Valley Forge to meet the British on the sandy plains of New Jersey near the small village of Monmouth Courthouse, and it was what Tom and I like to call a Butch and Sundance moment for the Brits. They looked at this army wheeling and marching and they're like, 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, at the massacre at Paoli before Christmas.
These guys look like they know what they're doing. As it turned out that day, Washington made the initial mistake of putting another general in charge of the attack on the British. He was bringing up the rear corps. When he got to the front lines, he saw his Continental Army retreating. Retreating orderly, thanks to Baron Von Steuben, but still retreating. And for the first time in front of his aides, in front of the entire, he lost his temper. He went galloping up and down the front lines until he found the general he had put in charge, and he dressed him down.
It was a blistering hot June day, a heat wave with over 100 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 dropped out of exhaustion. He was handed the reins of another horse and he got up. Finally, he stood on a ridge, and about a mile and a half away, the entire Continental Army could see a sea of red, 10,000 red coats, Cornwallis' 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 his head. A cannonball lands feet from his horse, splatters mud all over him, and he is looking at those British and he's saying, Who will stand with me?
Who will fight with me? And you've been listening to Bob Drury and Tom Clavin tell the story of Valley Forge, and again, an underappreciated story, and well, as 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, and the writers are Bob Drury and Tom Clavin. The story of Valley Forge, here on Our American Stories.
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