Monday, December 1, 2014
December 1, 2014: AmericanWinters: Valley Forge
[As we get closer to what some are predicting will be another rough winter, a series AmericanStudying significant winter events from our history. Leading up to a special weekend post on Pearl Harbor!]
On how a desperate American winter can help us remember two crucial aspects of history.
Between December 1777 and June 1778, George Washington and the Continental Army spent a long and destructive winter at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. Having experienced a series of losses and retreats over the prior months, highlighted by the decisive October loss in the Battle of Germantown, the army was in rough shape when it arrived at Valley Forge, and the subsequent weather and less than ideal conditions didn’t help: almost 2500 soldiers would die by the end of the encampment, and another contingent led an aborted mutiny (known as the Conway Cabal) to overthrow Washington’s leadership. But the spring news of a newly signed alliance with France buoyed spirits, and newly energized—and well-trained by the Prussian Baron Friedrich von Steuben—the army retook Philadelphia within days of leaving the encampment in June.
It’s a great American story for a variety of reasons, but I would especially emphasize two aspects of history that it can be difficult to remember and of which Valley Forge certainly reminds us. For one thing, there’s the striking and undeniable contingency of all historical events, no matter how inevitable they seem in retrospect. If a few more soldiers had joined the Cabal, or more had died, or von Steuben had not been able to travel from Prussia, or any number of other individual details had gone differently, the history not only of Valley Forge, but of the Revolution and of America itself, would likely have changed dramatically. Earlier this year Adam Gopnik wrote eloquently in The New Yorker about “what history generally ‘teaches,’” namely “how hard it is for anyone to control it, including the people who think they’re making it.” No American figures better fit that latter designation than the Founding Fathers, and perhaps none of them better “the Father of Our Country”—but Washington was as subject to contingency as any of us, as Valley Forge demonstrates.
As I wrote in this post on 12 Years a Slave, there’s another element to history that it can be even harder to remember than its contingency, however: the humanity present in every moment. While it might be relatively easy to keep in mind the overall, shared humanity of all historical actors, I would argue that it’s often extremely difficult to recognize and engage with the specific humanity of individuals experiencing historical events (perhaps doubly so for famous such events). But the brutal details of that winter in Valley Forge—details that led Washington to express his concern to Congress that, “unless some great and capital change suddenly takes place, … the Army must inevitably starve, dissolve, or disperse”—are impossible to ignore, and force us to think about the men (and women) who experienced those brutal conditions day in and day out. Whether their survival and eventual triumph makes them heroes depends on your perspective on that complex concept; but it certainly represents an impressive and inspiring human and historical story.
Next AmericanWinter tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other winter events you’d highlight?