Primitive huts served as housing for Windham soldiers during their winter at Valley Forge. Courtesy Valley Forge National Historic Park

In December of 1777, General George Washington’s Continental Army found themselves disappointed and defeated after a series of battle losses that led to the fall of the Colonial capital of Philadelphia, placing it into the hands of the British. This ragtag group of 12,000 downtrodden troops were on the move to their winter encampment in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, some with wives and children in tow.

They arrived on Dec. 19 and were about to embark on one of the most trying times they would ever endure. Among the soldiers marching into the rural farming community of Valley Forge were some early Windham settlers: Ebenezer Barton, Josiah Chute, Robert Millions, John Swett, Richard Dole, Enoch Graffam, Enoch and Job Hall, Eli Herbert, Nicholas Hughes, James Jordon, Elias and Joseph Legro, Lonnon Rhode, Edward Webb and Stephen Manchester.

Courtesy Valley Forge National Historic Park

What they found when they arrived was as Washington himself described it, “a dreary place” that was “uncomfortably provided.” The location had been selected because of its close proximity to enemy-occupied Philadelphia, it had a defensible position and had access to clean water and firewood. But the troops were low on supplies and were lacking in basic necessities such as food, clothing and blankets, and the cold winter weather only led to more hardships.

Disease was running rampant and many soldiers were suffering from typhus, smallpox and dysentery. As a matter of fact, more Continental soldiers died during the winter at Valley Forge than died in any battle of the Revolutionary War. One of the soldiers who fell was Windham’s Stephen Manchester who took ill while in the encampment, was taken to Reading to recuperate, but died there on Jan. 5, 1778.

The soldiers who were well enough to work were quickly put to it. They were broken into groups of 12 to build the primitive huts that would serve as shelter during the winter months. Each hut was 12×16 feet with roofs and sides made of logs. There was a fieldstone fireplace in the rear of each building and 12 bunks built into the sides of the walls for sleeping accommodations. The huts were cold, drafty and not much help against the elements, especially when fireplaces malfunctioned and the structures would fill with smoke. This was further aggravated by the use of green wood, which was most readily available.

It was not a pleasant existence, but through it all, the soldiers tried not complain. They endured their challenges knowing they fought for the blessings of liberty and it was worth their struggles. And so, with this fortitude, Valley Forge became a milestone in the development of the Continental Army.

It was here, that in February 1778, Baron Friedrich von Steuben arrived to become the army’s unofficial inspector general. He was appointed by Washington to work with troops to bring uniformity to the fighting force. He developed a system of drills to train the army and then began teaching combat maneuvers that would better equip the Continentals to fight the British regulars.

It was also at Valley Forge that the Marquis de Lafayette entered the scene to become one of Washington’s biggest supporters and believers in the American cause. He was revered by his men for his military knowledge and for his ready engagement with the troops. He endured all the same harsh conditions as his underlings and this greatly endeared him to the common soldiers.

And so they honed their military skills and while doing so, the morale of the soldiers began to improve. Optimism grew further as word spread of the French alliance with the Americans in May of 1778. The next month, the revitalized, reorganized, uniformly trained army took their newfound discipline and professionalism with them to win the Battle of Monmouth on June 28, 1778.

Valley Forge reshaped the Colonial army and made our ancestors from Windham better equipped to face the challenges that continued to lie ahead. Their dedication, endurance and resilience during that long, cold winter helped to build their confidence and gave them the resolve to forge ahead to eventually win the war for our country’s independence.

Haley Pal is a Windham resident and an active member of the Windham Historical Society. She can be contacted at [email protected]

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