Let us take a little time to recall Christmas, 1777, during that war… Christmas in wartime is especially difficult, and so it was at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania in 1777.
"These are the times that try men's souls," wrote Thomas Paine in his well-circulated pamphlet entitled "The American Crisis." His opening line became the pivotal description of the Continental Army that fought against great odds to win freedom.
Indeed, Valley Forge stands as a monument in time attesting to the trying times General George Washington and the Continental Army faced.
Was there any hope for the struggling nation against the British? Was the dream of freedom to be lost amidst the cold, illness, death and deprivation of harsh winter? The Continental Congress had been forced to flee Philadelphia under British occupation. Little hope remained for support or supplies to feed the starving troops.
There they were, twelve thousand tattered troops with their General, George Washington, encamped at Valley Forge. Despite the bitter cold and the seemingly insurmountable odds of disease, starvation and lack of provisions, from this lowest point of the Revolution, the troops were trained and drilled into fighting form. A miracle was taking place as men shuddered in the fields of Valley Forge.
Dr. Albigence Waldo was one of the doctors ministering to the troops at Valley Forge. His diary gives us insight into both the pathos and glimmers of hope of that Christmas, 1777: "Universal thanksgiving! A roasted pig last night! God be thanked for my health, which I have pretty well recovered. How much better should I feel, were I assured my family were in health. But the same good Being who preserves me is able to preserve them and bring me to the ardently wish'd for enjoyment of them again." (*Dec. 18th, p.88)
On December 25 Dr. Waldo wrote: "We are still in tents."
Of General Washington, Dr. Waldo stated: "He has always acted wisely…His conduct when closely scrutinized is uncensurable. Were his inferior generals as skillfull as himself—we should have the grandest choir of officers ever God made." (*p. 89)
General Washington from his cold tent began a letter to the President of the Continental Congress, tendering his resignation, citing "abandonment to starvation and neglect."
In the midst of his writing, General Washington heard sounds coming from the field. Was it a mutiny, as one of his officers had predicted? He braved the falling snow and bitter wind, going from platoon to platoon where fires glowed, embers sputtering and hissing against the snow. Pots on the fires at each location gave off strange odors of whatever provender the soldiers had found of wild game to flavor their gruel.
At each location he was met with shouts of "Long live the United States! Hail to our Chief! May Liberty prevail!"
At one stop General Washington asked, "Have you not suffered enough?"
The lieutenant in charge responded, "Having come this far, we can but go the rest of the distance. With you to lead us, we can't lose!"
Washington and his aide made their way back to the General's tent. When they arrived, they found garlands of holly and cedar twined around the marquee that identified the headquarters tent, and draped above the tent-flap door. General Washington took the letter he had started to Congress. He burned it at the fire his aides had built outside his tent. "May God relieve your sufferings, if the Congress will not. And a good Christmas to you!" he said.
I am not sure of the timing, but I like to think that it was at this point that General Washington fell to his knees and prayed at Valley Forge.
He spent the remainder of that winter encouraging and training his troops. By June, 1778, they were ready for an advance against the British.
Christmas, 1777, bleak, comfortless and cold as it was, became a time for building hope.
*[Source material found in Colbert, David, ed., Eyewitness to America . (New York: Pantheon, 1977). "Winter at Valley Forge" by Dr. Albigence Waldo, p. 87-90.]
c 2008 by Ethelene Dyer Jones; published December 11, 2008 in The Union Sentinel, Blairsville, GA. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.