New England troops had a cold Christmas in 1777 at Valley Forge. Most of us are familiar with the story—ragged, cold, hungry troops encamped in tents and tiny huts amid the snow—but the words of the men who were there remind us of that reality. (A typical camp of the time can be seen in the background of this Peale portrait of Colonel Walter Stewart of the 2nd Pennsylvania). The encampment at Valley Forge was part of a larger strategy that required General Washington and his commanders to care about the quotidian details of their men’s lives. For us, Christmas and the winter holidays usually mean warm hearths or homes and presents, celebratory meals and the comfort of families. For Albigence Waldo, it did not.
From Waldo’s diary:
December 24.—Party of the 22nd not returned. Hutts go on Slowly—Cold & Smoke make up fret. But mankind are always fretting, even if they have more than their proportion of the Blessings of Life. We are never Easy, always repining at the Providence of an Allwise & Benevolent Being, Blaming Our Country or faulting our Friends. But I don’t know of any thing that vexes a man’s Soul more than hot smoke continually blowing into his Eyes, & when he attempts to avoid it, is met by a cold and piercing Wind.
December 25, Christmas.—We are still in Tents—when we ought to be in huts—the poor Sick, suffer much in Tents this cold Weather. But we not treat them differently from they used to be at home, under the inspection of Old Women and Doct. Bolus Linctus. We give them Mutton & Grogg and a Capital Medicine once in a While, to start the Disease from its foundation at once. We avoid Piddling Pills, Powders, Bolus’s Linctus’s Cordials and all such insignificant matters whose powers are Only render’d important by causing the Patient to vomit up his money instead of his disease. But very few of the sick Men Die.
2, 898 men (or about 25 % of the men in the camp) were reported unfit for duty at Valley Forge on December 23, 1777, largely due to a lack of clothing. Supplies were short, from flour and meat to linen and wool and shoes; a lack of supplies would dog the Continental Army for years, but the troops fought on. By February, about 32% of the men were listed unfit because they lacked clothing. In November, 1776 the Providence Gazette had published advertisment for “All Taylors who are desirous of employ” to make up “a great Quantity of woolen Cloathing, for the Continental Army,” but 13 months later, coats were still scarce on the ground.
Some basic information about the huts and tents can be found online at Valley Forge Encampment and about medical staff and conditions at Valley Forge at Historic Valley Forge .
~ Kirsten Hammerstrom, Director of Collections