Women of Washington

Communicating America’s Founding Principles

Women of Washington is an educational organization with a focus on understanding local, national, and global issues that are critical to our world today.



By Judy Leithe

After General Burgoyne surrendered to the Americans at Saratoga, New York, in the fall of 1777, George Washington brought his army together to fight the British forces of General William Howe, whose plan was to seize Philadelphia, the capital of the United States. Just a year-and-a-half earlier, this city hosted representatives from the thirteen colonies, who wanted to break with the tyrannical rule of the British monarchy. When King George received the Declaration of Independence, bearing the signatures of fifty-six determined American delegates, he commanded his military to take the colonies by force.

After the Americans lost two skirmishes with the British in Pennsylvania, the army of Howe marched unimpeded into Philadelphia. With winter setting in, Washington had to set his sights on finding suitable quarters for his troops. Initially, Valley Forge appeared to be a good location for his 11,000-man encampment. Philadelphia was just twenty-two miles away, so the elevated campsite provided the Americans with a commanding view of the area, from which to defend their position against British attacks.

However, there were numerous challenges for Washington’s army. His men were exhausted from battles and long marches. The soldiers’ clothes were reduced to rags, some without shirts and shoes. By the time they arrived at Valley Forge, on December 19, l777, the harsh weather had already begun. Washington immediately directed his men to the task of building log cabins for shelter, using trees from the surrounding forests. Each windowless cabin measured 14’ X 16’, included a stone fireplace, dirt floors, and a draped cloth for a door. Each cramped, smoke-filled cabin housed up to twelve soldiers. 

The abundant Pennsylvania farmland might have provided enough food and supplies for the Continental Army, however, some of the local farmers chose to sell their goods to the British, who paid in sterling silver rather than be forced to take the almost worthless Colonial currency. Washington continually wrote letters to Congress, asking for more funds to relieve the disgraceful, even wretched, conditions his soldiers were having to bear on a daily basis. Men were dying by the hundreds, and many more were sick from malnutrition and disease.

As the difficult winter months wore on, Major General Thomas Mifflin, Quartermaster General since 1775, resented having the unrewarding responsibilities of supplying the army with the procurement and transportation of supplies. When he finally resigned his post, Washington replaced him with the loyal and energetic General Nathaniel Greene, in March of 1778.

Greene preferred action on the battlefield over administrative duties.  However, when he took over as Quartermaster, he found that the supply department was wanting in every category. While Mifflin, like Congress, oversaw the war from Philadelphia, Greene chose to remain with Washington and the soldiers at Valley Forge. Even while regularly battling Congress for funding, Greene’s knowledge of the army’s needs propelled him to put in place a functioning supply chain.

Next week: Baron von Steuben