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

During the six-month encampment at Valley Forge, from December 1777 through June 1778, George Washington’s headquarters were in a two-story stone house with a small adjoining building, which served as sleeping quarters for up to twenty-five of his officers. There was constant activity in the living and dining rooms of the main house, where Washington and his generals met to do their strategic planning.

Throughout the eight years of war, Washington yearned to make trips home to his beloved Mt. Vernon; however, he felt the need to stay with his troops through all of their trials and deprivations. Consequently, he was grateful when his wife, Martha, made numerous, sometimes arduous, trips to join him at his various encampments, including the bitter winter months at Valley Forge.

There were occasional Europeans who wanted to join in the great American Revolution for freedom. Some were seeking adventure and glory and, some just hoping to make their fortunes in the new world. However, there were a number of high-minded Europeans who were in the Continental Army and played significant roles in re-training the American troops at Valley Forge.

Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette, was born into a noble French family of the highest standing. Having lost both parents and his grandfather by the time de Lafayette reached thirteen, he became the sole heir of the family’s vast fortune. By the age of nineteen, he found himself committed to the principles of the American Revolution and helped secure much-needed supplies and aid for the Continental Army. Against the wishes of France’s King Louis XVI, de Lafayette sailed for America with the hopes of joining forces with Washington. His meeting with the American Congress. de Lafayette impressed them of his earnest desire to take up arms against British oppression. Because of his willingness to be self-supporting, the Congress to gave him the rank of Major General. Washington became aware of de Lafayette’s courage at the Battle of Brandywine, in September of 1777. When de Lafayette was shot in the leg, Washington took particular interest in his recuperation.

Having shown his capabilities, Lafayette was given command of a division of troops. He oversaw the welfare of his men, and using his own funds, purchased arms and uniforms for them during the harsh winter at Valley Forge.  Lafayette not only admired Washington, he seemed to consider him an all-but-adopted father; later naming his son, Georges Washington de Lafayette. As Commander of the Virginia Continental Forces, in 1781, Lafayette and his troops helped defeat British General Cornwallis at Yorktown, Pennsylvania.

After the war in America, Lafayette returned to France and, having joined the French army, was celebrated as the “Hero of Two Worlds.” In the United States, there are close to twenty cities and towns named Lafayette.

Friederich Wilhelm Augustus von Steuben was seeking a new military post. After having served for thirty years in the Prussian Army under Frederick the Great. He eventually became a member of the General Staff, where he received extensive training in the art of war -- a level of discipline exceeding even that of British and French officers. Now that his commission with the Prussian Army had ended, he felt best suited to continue on a military path. In Paris, the summer of l777, von Steuben was introduced to Benjamin Franklin. Impressed by von Steuben’s military experience, Franklin penned a letter of recommendation to the American Congress on his behalf. In late February of 1778, von Steuben introduced himself to General George Washington who, seeing the merits of the Prussian’s military skills, made him Inspector General of the Continental Army.

von Steuben’s arrival at Valley Forge, followed by his aide-de-camp, his secretary and, his pet Italian greyhound, made an immediate impression on the American soldiers. He spoke no English, but fortunately, his secretary was able to serve as his translator. However, once he began drilling the troops, some of his colorful language needed no translation. The soldiers recognized the value of his training and even grew fond of their new taskmaster. The respect was mutual; seeing that the soldiers were short of everything except spirit, von Steuben said, “No European army could have held together in such circumstances.”

The reorganization and training of the 11,000-man army at Valley Forge was an all-consuming task for Washington’s officers – this included overcoming language barriers of at least three major European countries.  Assisting von Steuben and Lafayette in the troop training were three noblemen from Poland: General Tadeuze Kociuszko, who later became a Brigadier General; Baron Johann de Kalb; and Count Casimir Pulaski.