There are points throughout our country’s history when true patriotism and the will to survive have helped us prevail as a society. For example, the Valley Forge encampment in Pennsylvania during the American Revolution comes immediately to my mind.
As The History Channel explains, “A lack of organization, food and money shortages plagued the Continental Army throughout the first half of the seven-year-long revolution. These problems exacerbated the harsh living conditions at Valley Forge, during the third year of the war.”
Not only did General George Washington’s Continental Army become further unified in their desire and ability to defeat the British and win independence, but they also experienced many hard-learned lessons about what true survival means. The six-month encampment at Valley Forge tested the soldiers’ ability to persist despite harsh conditions. From fighting against brutally cold temperatures to a lack of supplies, Valley Forge is a fascinating historical case study we can learn from.
Today, I’m taking us back to the winter of 1777-1778. I’m going to cover what happened and what we can learn from the soldiers’ experiences during their time in Valley Forge. Using this knowledge, you’ll be more prepared for potentially challenging future scenarios. True, we may never find ourselves in the exact same situation as the soldiers of the Continental Army. But these lessons can still apply today when it comes to survival.
First, let’s cover the basics...
What Happened at Valley Forge
George Washington originally selected Valley Forge as the winter encampment because it’s a natural fortress. It sits high on a plateau with surrounding hills to protect it from external attacks. At the same time, George Washington and his army could still keep an eye on the British-occupied city of Philadelphia, located 20 miles away.
Washington marched his army into Valley Forge a few days before Christmas in 1777. They were already hungry, tired, and sick after fighting a series of tough battles earlier that year.
Washington instructed his army to construct 1,500 to 2000 log huts to house all 12,000 soldiers and 400 women and children. The army stayed in Valley Forge for a total of six months and left in June of 1778.
As the soliders faced starvation, plummeting temperatures, disease, and low spirits, it was a harsh and deadly winter for some.
In a high-stakes race against time, the death toll climbed to 10 men each day. But thanks to the commitment and persistence of George Washington and former Prussian military officer Friedrich Wilhelm Baron von Steuben, the majority of the army survived. And not only did they survive, but they also became more unified and disciplined, leading them to victory and American independence down the line.
Now, I’m going to share five specific lessons we can learn from the experience in Valley Forge. From keeping warm to maintaining sanitation, there are five main takeaways we can apply to various emergency situations today.
Survival Lesson #1: Stay Warm
East Coast winters are known to be brutal, and electricity had yet to be invented in 1777. But the soldiers in Valley Forge suffered and froze in the plummeting temperatures for two reasons: a lack of blankets and adequate clothing.
Many soldiers did not have suitable coats to keep them warm during the constant rain in the valley. George Washington calculated that at least a third of his soldiers lacked shoes. In a December 23, 1777, letter to Henry Laurens, Washington wrote, “...we have, by a field return this day made no less than 2,898 Men now in Camp unfit for duty because they are bare foot and otherwise naked.” Additionally, there weren’t enough blankets on hand for the number of people living in the valley. As an alternative, the soldiers were instructed to find straw in the countryside to use as bedding.
Although most people today won’t find themselves in the exact conditions as these soldiers, it’s still worth preparing.
Maybe it’s losing electricity and heat during a snowstorm or getting stranded in the woods overnight while hiking. There are plenty of situations in which you’ll want to have certain items on hand. Whether it be an All-Purpose Thermal Blanket, Disposable Hand Warmers, Emergency Sleeping Bag, or Fire Disc Emergency Heat Source, stock up now on a few heat-producing and -conserving items sooner rather than later.
Also, don’t underestimate the value of a great pair of shoes or boots to wear during an emergency. Footwear is not something to be overlooked. Make sure they have solid soles and are sturdy in design, ready for a long walk or extreme conditions.
Survival Lesson #2: Make Sanitation a Priority
In the end, the cold was the least of the soldiers’ worries. Disease proved to be the biggest killer and “was the true scourge of the camp” according to the National Park Service. Influenza, typhus, typhoid fever, and dysentery plagued the camp, and by the end of their stay in Valley Forge, roughly one in six men had passed away due to disease.
That said, if it wasn’t for the help of former Prussian military officer Friedrich Wilhelm Baron von Steuben, the death toll due to disease could have been a lot higher. Diseases were most likely exacerbated by poor hygiene and sanitation at the camp. As a result, von Steuben set standards for camp layout, sanitation, and conduct. He demanded that latrines be placed, facing downhill, on the opposite side of camp as the kitchens.
Whatever emergency situation you find yourself in, it’s important to maintain sanitary conditions in order to preserve health and limit the outbreak and spread of disease. With items such as Biodegradable Camp Soap and Germicidal Tablets Drinking Water Treatment, you’ll be one step closer to staying safe and clean.
Survival Lesson #3: Stay in Good Health
Many of Washington’s soldiers were doomed even before they settled in Valley Forge. When they arrived in December 1777, they were weak, tired, and sick after spending the previous summer fighting multiple losing battles. This meant they were at a higher risk for disease due to weakened immune systems and a lack of medical equipment and knowledge. It’s important to take consistent preventative measures to keep your health at an optimal and functioning level...before a disaster occurs.
Because there was no hospital in Valley Forge, George Washington was forced to pull together a primitive hospital system. In the same way, you will find that basic First Aid know-how and skills will come in handy in the case of injuries, illnesses, and other health issues that arise during times of crisis. Make sure to arm yourself with an extensive First Aid Kit, and study up using a resource such as The Ultimate Survival Medicine Guide Book.
Survival Lesson #4: Stock Up on Enough Nonperishable Food
Originally, George Washington was told that they had eight months worth of food when they moved into Valley Forge. However, in reality, it turned out to be only eight days worth of food. Washington had to write to the President of the Continental Congress, imploring him to do something quickly, or the army would dissolve in search of a meal. Though the soldiers were granted more supplies, it was never quite enough.
Government regulations designated that troops were also supposed to receive daily rations of…
- A pound of meat, either beef, salt pork, or salt fish.
- A pound of flour.
- Three pints of peas or beans.
- A pint of milk.
- A smaller amount of rice, corn, and molasses to round out their meals.
However, in reality…
- Too much salt was used in order to preserve meats, and soldiers had to soak meat repeatedly in order to render it edible. Additionally, records suggest food shortages in February of 1778 left the men without meat for several days at a time.
- Due to shortages, oftentimes only flour and meat were dispersed, leaving out the vegetables, milk, rice, corn, and molasses.
You’ll want to have an emergency supply of nonperishable, nourishing food on hand. From a 4-Week to Three Month Emergency Food Supply, you can’t go wrong in stocking up to prepare for worst-case scenarios. The difference may mean life or death for you and your family. Let’s say you find yourself in a relatively similar situation, where your access to food is diminished. Perhaps it’s an economic collapse that disrupts food supply, or a natural disaster that shuts down roads to your local stores. Or a long-term power outage.
Survival Lesson #5: Develop Alliances and Unity
Though it was certainly a trying and challenging experience, Valley Forge is often referred to as the birthplace of the American Army.
Why? By June of 1778, the remaining troops emerged united, rejuvenated, confident, and capable of defeating the British. Though their numbers had decreased, they were stronger in many ways. This is partly in thanks to the leadership skills of their Commander, George Washington.
George Washington advocated for his men and pressured Congress to continue to provide the necessary supplies for survival. In the meantime, he came up with solutions to problems, band-aid after band-aid. While other senior officials would leave periodically to go on furloughs to see their families, Washington was there at all times, fighting to keep his army alive.
After Valley Forge, Washington’s soldiers loved him and trusted him. And as Wayne Bodle writes in The Valley Forge Winter: Civilians and Soldiers in War, after their experience in Valley Forge, Washington’s troops became imbued with “a deeper identification with and pride in their craft.”
Should you find yourself in a high-stakes survival situation, it’s important to remain focused, calm, and united in the face of adversity. Develop bonds with neighbors in order to improve your chances of survival and put your own leadership skills to the test.
By the early spring 1778, conditions at Valley Forge had greatly improved. On June 19, the Continental Army marched out of Valley Forge with their fearless leader, George Washington, as their commander.
And the rest, they say, is history! Have a safe weekend and stay alert.
Preparedness Advisor, My Patriot Supply