Ken Hammontree • Living History Productions
On December 8, 1777, when the skirmishes at Whitemarsh were coming to a close, it was well past time for Washington’s army to go into winter quarters. Although it may seem quaint today, winter weather and the rigors of winter campaigning was avoided. Supply was complicated by the cold and the rigors of winter campaigning were difficult on the health and poorly clothed and poorly nourished soldiers.
Even before his shoeless, shirtless, and blanketless soldiers trudged to Valley Forge, General Washington was under savage attack by critics in Congress and the upper ranks of his army. More and more people concluded it was time to replace this fallen idol with a more reliable and experienced general.
However, Washington never loses sight of his goal, which is not a petty personal triumph over his adversaries, but the rescue of his army. The defining moments of the Revolutionary War did not occur on the various battlefields, but at Valley Forge. Washington must wage a secondary war against the slander of his reputation as a general and a patriot.
Valley Forge lay at the junction of the Schuylkill River and Valley Creek. Actually, Valley Forge was not a valley but a high rolling ground with gentle slopes two miles long overlooking the Schuylkill River. When Washington decided to march his 12,400 man army to this winter encampment twenty miles from Philadelphia, many in his command criticized him bitterly for failing to attack General Howe in Philadelphia. Not wishing another defeat like that at Germantown in October, Washington made the right decision by avoiding an open battle he was not prepared to fight. Valley Forge was close enough to watch General Howe and far enough away to guard against a surprise attack.
It was not the severe cold that was to make the Continentals miserable but the bungling quartermaster department and the avarice of American merchants and farmers that created the suffering at Valley Forge. Quaker farmers preferred to sell their goods to the British who paid in hard coin. Merchants in Boston and New York would not move governmental clothing off their shelves at anything less than 1,000%. Profiteering and graft were everywhere from Congress (when they could be found) down to the local merchants. It was a free-for-all and Washington’s men suffered for it.
The good news for Valley Forge came in February when Friedrich Wilhelm Ludolf Gerhard Augustin Stuebe, known in history as Baron Von Steuben (who was neither a Baron nor a general) introduced the troops to a vigorous, systematic training regime that transformed the ragged amateur troops into a confident 18th century military organization capable of standing up against the British in an open field of battle.
On June 9, 1778, Washington abandoned Valley Forge and followed the retreating British who had just left Philadelphia. Washington had lost nearly 4,000 men who either died or had deserted over to the British. As Washington rode up alongside his troops when departing Valley Forge, one could hear for miles the soldiers yelling, “Long live General Washington! Long live freedom forever!”
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About the Show
Call him General Dwight David Eisenhower or General George Patton. Or call him Tecumseh, legendary Shawnee leader. How about Daniel Boone? Or better yet, just call him Ken Hammontree. No, he’s not identity-challenged. He is Mr. Ohio History and a walking historical library.
After college, Ken began teaching American and Ohio history. He was surprised to learn that many of his students did not harbor the same excitement about history that he did. Realizing the students had a difficult time relating to history, Ken came up with an unusual plan. He would occasionally teach the class in first-person, impersonating a historical figure. His first performance was Johnny Appleseed.