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This Day in History: George Washington’s army marches into Valley Forge

On this day in 1777, George Washington’s army marches into Valley Forge. The army would stay there for a long winter encampment. When you think of Valley Forge, you probably think of half-clothed and starving men, suffering through a long (long!) winter, barely surviving. But Valley Forge was so much more than that.

For one thing, the mood in Valley Forge was significantly better than you might imagine. Yes, some men were not well-clothed and suffered hardships accordingly. But the men who were more fully outfitted took the difficult outdoor tasks. And everyone pitched in, finding supplies in the area around them. Did you know that they built a small city of huts to house themselves? The National Park Service website describes the scene: “The sound that would have reached your ears on approaching the camp was not that of a forlorn howling wind, but rather that of hammers, axes, saws, and shovels at work.”

Yes! The men were self-sufficient! And determined! THIS is the ethic that our country was founded upon.

Other good things happened at Valley Forge, too.

Washington used the time to do two things: First, he used the long months to better train his men. Baron Von Steuben, a Prussian, arrived in February 1778. He ran training drills and generally helped the men to evolve into a more professional army.

Second, Washington used the time to reestablish his credibility with Congress. (His credibility was suffering after a few recent losses and A LOT of bad-mouthing.) In late January, a five-member delegation from Congress came to visit the army. Washington won this delegation over; the members of that committee became his allies and helped him to implement some of the reforms that he wanted.

Yes, the winter was long in many respects. Many men died from the flu, typhus, and other diseases. Yet, at the same time, the army improved. It emerged from its winter encampment better able to take on the British.

One final note: Did you know that George Washington literally never returned home from 1775 all the way until 1781? Throughout his life, Mount Vernon was the single most important possession that he owned. Yet for all the years of the Revolution, he did not return to his home. In 1777, this meant that he joined his men in a difficult winter encampment just outside Philadelphia.

Valley Forge is often painted as a time of despair—a low point—in our country’s history. Such a picture covers up the more inspiring story of what really happened there that winter.

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