Do you know how it feels when your stomach rumbles? Well, imagine that you are in the army and eating “fire cake” (a tasteless mixture of flour and water) day after day. You have had very little bread or meat to eat, your shoes are worn through, your clothes were made for warmer weather or well-worn from many battles, and you have no warm place to sleep. Would you complain? Sure! However, according to General George Washington’s letter to Congress, the soldiers in his Continental Army did not.
The Continental Army arrived at Valley Forge on December 19, 1777, after a tough campaign of battles with the British. Since early fall, the General had problems with getting supplies to his troops. As winter approached, the problems became worse. Soldiers received irregular supplies of meat and bread. Shortages forced the men to forage for food in the forests and farm fields that they passed.
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Conditions were so severe at times that General Washington wrote, “That unless some great and capital change suddenly takes place… this Army must inevitably… starve, dissolve, or disperse, in order to obtain subsistence in the best manner they can.” (Pollarine). Feeding the 12,000+ men at the encampment was only one of the problems facing the Commander-in-Chief. General Washington also was having a tough time getting support from Congress.
There were threats to his leadership. His officers were unhappy and he needed to better prepare the troops to meet the enemy in the coming campaign.
Clothing, too, was a problem. Long marches had destroyed the men’s shoes. Blankets were scarce. Tattered garments were seldom replaced. At one point, these shortages caused nearly 4,000 men to be listed as “unfit for duty.”
Undernourished, poorly clothed and living in crowded, damp quarters, many soldiers became very sick. Typhus, typhoid, dysentery, and pneumonia killed as many as 2,000 men that had been sent from camp to hospitals established in the surrounding countryside during the winter of 1777-78. Although Washington repeatedly asked Congress for help, it was not available and the soldiers continued to suffer. Wives, sisters, and daughters of the enlisted men tried to ease the suffering by providing desperately needed services such as laundry and possibly nursing care.
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