Eighteen months after the Declaration of Independence was signed, the Continental Army was on the ropes and the American Revolution was on the verge of being snuffed out. Battered, demoralized, and half-naked, 12,000 American troops marched into a small, poorly supplied encampment in British-occupied Pennsylvania to hunker down for the winter. They called the encampment Valley Forge.
Despite the terrible conditions and circumstances there, something happened at Valley Forge that would change the tide of the Revolutionary War, and the entire course of history.
My guest today is a co-author of a new book, entitled Valley Forge, about this historic crucible. His name is Bob Drury, and I last had him on the show to discuss his stellar book Lucky 666. Today he explains the dire obstacles General George Washington and the Continental Army were up against at the time of Valley Forge, from coming off a string of strategic defeats to weathering political infighting. He then offers a vivid description of the squalor soldiers lived in at Valley Forge, as well as a rundown of the common myths people have about this historical episode. We end our conversation discussing how the situation at Valley Forge got turned around, and why the men who survived this crucible ended up stronger because of it.
This show will give you some fresh insights and new appreciation for this pivotal event in American history.
- What was going on in the Revolutionary War that set the stage for Valley Forge
- Why were the American soldiers reeling at the end of 1777?
- The roar to get rid of Washington after a string of defeats
- The sad state of the soldiers as they went into the winter of 1777
- Some myths of the Valley Forge story
- The epic story of the Frenchman Lafayette
- How Washington dealt with the stinging defeats — both mentally/emotionally and tactically
- How the incomparable Baron von Steuben came to train the soldiers at Valley Forge
- The great improvement of the Continental Army and the ending of the Valley Forge saga
- How the soldiers’ experience at Valley Forge turned the tide of the war
Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast
- My first episode with with Bob about his book Lucky 666
- Lafayette in the Somewhat United States by Sarah Vowell
- American Honor — Creating the Nation’s Ideals During the Revolution
- Battle of Trenton
- Battle of Paoli
- The Self-Education of George Washington
- Marquis de Lafayette
- Washington praying at Valley Forge
- Baron von Steuben
Connect With Bob
Listen to the Podcast! (And don’t forget to leave us a review!)
Recorded on ClearCast.io
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: 18 months after the Declaration of Independence was signed, this Continental Army was on the ropes and the American Revolution was on the verge of being snuffed out.
Battered, demoralized, and half-naked, 12,000 American troops marched into a small, poorly supplied encampment in British-occupied Pennsylvania to hunker down for the Winter. They called the encampment Valley Forge. Despite the terrible conditions and circumstances there, something happened at Valley Forge that would change the tide of the Revolutionary War and the entire course of history.
My guest today is a co-author of a new book entitled Valley Forge, about this historic crucible. His name is Bob Drury, and I had him last on the show to discuss his stellar book Lucky 666. Today, he explains the dire obstacles General George Washington and the Continental Army were up against at the time of Valley Forge, from coming off a string of strategic defeats, to weathering political infighting.
He then offers a vivid description of the squalor soldiers lived in at Valley Forge, as well as a rundown of the common myths people have about this historical episode. We end our conversation discussing how the situation at Valley Forge got turned around, and why the men who survived this crucible ended up stronger because of it.
This show will give you some fresh insights and new appreciation for this pivotal event in American history. After it’s over, check out the show notes at AOM.is/valleyforge. Bob joins me now via Clearcast.io.
Alright. Bob Drury, welcome back to the show.
Bob Drury: Brett. It’s great to be back, thanks. I had a fun time with you when we did Lucky 666, and looking forward to the same for Valley Forge.
Brett McKay: That’s right. So you’ve got a new book out, Valley Forge. Now this is interesting, this is an iconic moment in American Revolutionary history. I think all of us have seen the painting of Washington praying. We’ll talk about that here in a bit.
But what got you thinking about Valley Forge, and writing the history of this event in such great detail?
Bob Drury: Frankly, Brett, it was a family affair, believe it or not. I have a 20 year old, 21 year old, he’s 21 now, Liam-Antoine, with a hyphen. And his mother’s French. Liam-Antoine, he’s a dual citizen, he’s been bilingual since infancy. He’s in university in the UK now, he speaks four different languages.
But one day, I guess this was six or seven years ago, he was 13 or 14, we were down at my wife’s house outside of Philadelphia for a holiday. I think it was Christmas. And I heard this kerfuffle in the next room, in the TV room. As I was walking towards it, my son is kind of stomping out.
I said, “What’s wrong, son?” And he said my wife’s brother had made a crack about the United States bailing France out of two World Wars. And my son shot back at him, “Oh yeah? If it wasn’t for the Marquis de LaFayette in the French Army, you’d be Canada right now. There wouldn’t even be a United States.”
And not only was I proud of my early-teens son for standing up to this 40 year old man, Brett, it was like a light bulb went off over my head. Lafayette during the revolution, what a great book.
And so I got ahold of my co-author, Tom Clavin, we both agree … We were just finishing up our Red Cloud book, The Heart of Everything That Is, and we had already committed to the World War II book Lucky 666. But Lafayette was in the queue, he was next on line.
And of course, as we were working on Lucky 666, the inestimable Sarah Vowell, a terrific writer, she came out with her book Lafayette In the Somewhat United States. So, alas, there goes that idea down the tubes. Let’s find something else. But Tom stopped me, Tom Clavin, my co-author, and he said, “Hold on a second. I’ve just been doing some perfunctory research on Lafayette. What do you know about Valley Forge?”
And I kind of answered, I said, “I don’t know, what most Americans learned in Civics class or Social Studies or 8th grade History.” A lot of freezing, half-naked men starving to death. And, as you put it, Washington in all the portraits he’s sitting on a big white horse watching them starve to death.
And Tom said, “I think there might be a lot to more to that Winter of 1777, 1778 than meets the eye and that most Americans know about.”
So by this time I had done a little research on my own. And this was three Februarys ago, 2015. I made an appointment with the Parks Services chief Valley Forge historian. And, Brett, I spent the day with him. I drove to Valley Forge and we did a walking tour for the entire day. And what I learned just in that day, when I got home I was so excited, I called Clavin, I said, “We have a book. We have a book. No one, no American knows the half of what was going on at Valley Forge.”
So that’s how the concept came about, so to speak.
Brett McKay: I love it. So it started with your son. Sounds fantastic.
Bob Drury: In fact, we used him. You’ll see on the book, it says contemporaneous materials never used before. We hired my son to go into the French archives and find out some stuff that’s been in no other Valley Forge articles or books before.
And maybe we can talk about that later, but I just thought that was a nice aside, that we got this French-speaking kid to go do our work for us.
Brett McKay: That’s awesome. All right, so I think for people to understand Valley Forge and its importance, you have to understand what was going on with the war leading up to it.
So, at what point did you take up the story?
Bob Drury: We pick it up in August of 1777 with George Washington marching the Continental Army down Market Street in Philadelphia. A show of force.
I’ll back up a little bit. What had happened previous to where we begin the book. Washington asked, as you probably know, he was compromise candidate for the Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army. All those New England firebrands, John Adams, Sam Adams, James Lovell. They knew that if they were going to take on the most powerful empire in the world, they needed Virginia. The former colony of Virginia, now the state of Virginia, in the fold.
It was the most populous state, it was the largest state, it was the richest state. So, as compromise, they plucked George Washington, who had been a successful militia commander fighting alongside the British during the French and Indian War, and they made him Commander-in-Chief.
Now, this pissed off a lot of people. And John Adams was never really sold on George Washington. In fact he quipped, “The only reason he’s Commander-in-Chief is because he’s the tallest man in any room he walks in.”
So when Washington drove, in ’76, when Washington drove the British out of Boston, feather in his cap. But then things started to go wrong. He lost New York, the Battle of Brooklyn Heights, the Battle of White Plans, the Battle of Harlem Heights. He was basically just driven out of New York with his tail between his legs. And the whispers about Washington in Philadelphia, where the Continental Congress was meeting, they started to get a little bit louder. But then Washington quelled that with his surprise attack in 1776 on Trenton and the mop-up duty at Princeton. That kind of bought him some time.
But come, what they called back then, the fighting season of 1777, when General Howe, Commander of all British forces in the United States … He was the one who had driven Washington out of New York, he and his brother Lord Richard Howe, who was in charge of the Royal Navy. They decided to make their move on Philadelphia, which was of course the nascent Capital of the United States.
And throughout that late Summer, early Fall campaign, General Howe flummoxed Washington, General Washington at every single turn. There was the Battle of Brandywine Creek, where Washington chose a spot on a creek that was more like a river, to try to turn back the British from capturing Philadelphia.
And instead, General Howe ran an all-night flanking maneuver and he always came back behind Washington. And if only for the covering movements of two of Washington’s home-grown generals, Nathaniel Greene from Rhode Island, and Pennsylvania’s own Anthony Wade who later became known as Mad Dog. If it wasn’t for their covering movement, almost suicidal, the Continental Army would have been annhialated or captured.
So ten days after Brandywine Creek, Washington has sent General Wayne with a brigade of American soldiers, “Shadow the British soldiers as they move towards Philadelphia. Maybe you can relay to me another place where we can attack them.” But, we made the mistake of staying one night too long on this plateau, and the township of Paoli, Pennsylvania, not far, by the way, from Valley Forge.
Howe got wind of Wayne, where he was, local Torrys led him there, and he ordered a midnight bayonet attack on Wayne’s sleeping soldiers. And the General he put in charge, No-Flint Grey, they called him, General Charles Grey. G-R-E-Y. He had ordered his soldiers, A, here’s how he got the nickname No Flint, take your flintlocks out of your Brown Bess muskets, this is strictly bayonets. And B, no quarter. Over 200 Americans were massacred. It became known as the Paoli Massacre. Massacred in their tents, in their sleep.
And then finally, shortly after that, when Washington tried one last ditch effort to take back Philadelphia at what became known as the Battle of Germantown, he came this close, Brett. They were so close to routing the British.
Then at the last minute this fog rolled in. The American militia starting shooting at each other. It was just a mess A giant mess of friendly fire, which gave the British enough time, gave General Cornwallis enough time to get out of Philadelphia with reinforcements for Howe. And they turned what looked for sure like it was going to be a Continental victory into this rousing rout of a retreat.
So now Washington’s 0-3. Of course when the British took Philadelphia the Continental Congress, such as they were, abandoned the city. Now, most of them went back to their own districts. But a small core met, at any one point between 18 and 23 delegates. Took over the courthouse in the inland Philadelphia town of York. And now the whispers that I spoke about about Washington, they’re a full-blown roar.
John Adams wants him out. Dr. Benjamin Rush, a Pennsylvania surgeon, very respected man, signer of the Declaration of Independence, he writes an anonymous screed calling Washington a full-blown dictator with no military skills. Now this, of course, is turned into a pamphlet. It’s circulated up and down the East Coast, through all the colonies.
Patrick Henry, as a matter of fact, he saw the original. And he writes to Washington, he says, “This is Benjamin Rush’s handwriting. I just want you to know the kind of statesmen, the kind of heavy hitters you’re up against, who want you out.”
And Washington, oddly enough, he was a great militia commander and infantry commander, but he knew nothing about cavalry tactics or about military engineering or about artillery. So when he was named Commander-in-Chief, he ran out and bought all these books about how does this work. So, now he was not only learning how to be a military commander, he was learning how to be a savvy politician. “If the knives are out for me, I’m going to turn the situation around and make the knives out for them.”
So, what he did, was he didn’t respond to Rush right away. Instead, he asked Congress in York, the delegates who were there, “Can you send a commission out here on an inspection tour? I want you to see what’s happening out here.” And when the five delegates who eventually arrived at Valley Forge saw condition of the army …
Brett, when I’m saying naked or half-naked, I’m not talking metaphorically. Foreign officers who came to Valley Forge to either volunteer to fight for the Americans, or to observe, were shocked to see Continental Sentries naked under a ratty blanket. Barefoot, standing on their hats in the snow or the freezing mud.
I mean, this army was on the verge, as Washington wrote to Congress, of starving, dissolving, or dispersing. When these five delegates reached Valley Forge, they were so embarrassed they started taking off their own shoes and handing them to soldiers. So, now, Washington starts manipulating what came to be known as the Camp Committee, these five delegates. And, without them really knowing it, they’re putting into action everything that Washington wants.
Every day he sends over one off his young aides, perhaps two. John Lawrence, Alexander Hamilton. And cajoling, and kind of putting into mind, “Oh, God, we need food. Washington’s not an autocrat. He’s the only keeping this army together,” which, in fact, was true.
So it was almost like the tail started wagging the dog. The five delegates in the Camp Committee began wagging the dog of the Continental Congress back in York. And Washington was so close to turning things around when, I don’t know if you want to talk about Saratoga, but as all these losses were piling up during the Pennsylvania Campaign, Brandywine Creek, Paoli, Germantown.
Up in a little hamlet in upstate New York, the hamlet of Saratoga, the American General Horatio Gates defeats the British General Gentleman Johnny Bergoyne. Captures 5,000 Redcoats and Hessians, including 23 generals. Now Gates, of course, he’s hailed by the John Adams clique. This is the man to replace Washington. Now, Gates was fine with that. He was a political animal. He was British-born, he had fought for the British during the French and Indian War. And after the British won that war, he had settled in the states, on an estate of Virginia.
And when the rebellion broke out, the American Rebellion broke out, Gates cast his lot with the Colonies, which were now states. He went to Boston. He expected to be named Commander-in-Chief, and was quite peeved when Washington was chosen as the compromise candidate. Gates considered Washington, mid-old gentry, foxhunting Virginian, a country bumpkin, more or less.
So now Gates sees his chance, and he takes lodging in York. And he begins lobbying the delegates there, “I’m your man. Make me Commander-in-Chief.” But because there were so few congressmen in York, they could not get a majority. So they did the next thing, they gifted General Gates by making him President of the Board of War.
Now, previously the American Board Of War had been kind of a bureaucratic, political position. “What are we going to do with the POWs? How are we going to get wagon wheels made? Where are we going to purchase our arms?”
But Gates turns it around and, suddenly, he’s giving orders to the field. You don’t do this. That’s way out of line. It was a public slap in the face to Washington. And the denouement came when Gates names his friend, the Irish-born French officer Thomas Conway, as Inspector General of the Continental Army. This was way out of league. Washington was the only man to make this … It was in protocol that the Commander-in-Chief names the Inspector General, not some President of the Board of War.
But Washington, once again, takes this very public slap in the face with equanimity. And he knows what Gates doesn’t know, what Adams doesn’t know, what none of the New England faction know, is that without his physical and emotional presence at Valley Forge, this Continental Army of ours would fall apart.
And suddenly the delegates have, the Camp Committee that went to Valley Forge, they’re starting to realize this too. It’s only Washington’s preternatural sense of will. It’s only the loyalty that these soldiers have to their Commander-in-Chief that is keeping this army together.
Now don’t get me wrong. There were plenty, there were scores, hundreds of desertions. Men just saying, “We can’t take this anymore.” Well some of the diaries and journals we read, Brett. I remember, it was Joseph Plumb Martin, he was like the Zelig of the Revolution, he was everywhere.
And at one point he wrote in his diary, “Oh yes, I think it was Thanksgiving. The Continental Congress had declared a day of thanksgiving for Gates’ victory at Saratoga.”
He said, “Oh, we were served a hearty lamb stew with onions and carrots and cabbage and hickory nuts, without the lamb stew, the onions, the carrots, the cabbage, and the hickory nuts.” Instead they were issued a gill of vinegar to ward off scurvy and a gill of rice. I mean, this army was in bad shape. And the delegates at Valley Forge are beginning to realize only Washington can keep this army together.
That was a very long-winded answer to your question, and I apologize.
Brett McKay: No, no. No, it’s a great story. So, basically they were hunkering down in Valley Forge for the Winter after these defeats at Brandywine and Germantown. This is in Pennsylvania. So this raises the question, why were things so bad? Why were there men who were naked, no shoes in the Winter, during Valley Forge?
Bob Drury: Just as the nascent United States did not know how to set up an army, we had no clue how to put an army together. In fact, most of the congressmen did not want a standing army. They felt they could defeat the greatest empire on Earth, militarily, with a bunch of disparate militia men. You know, Second Sons and farmers and miners and shoemakers. And finally they were disabused of that notion during the New York campaign, where the British just rolled up the Americans.
So, just as they did not know how to create an army from scratch, they didn’t know how to create a supply system from scratch. There was a general, General Mifflin, was in charge of the supply line. But everybody working below him, buyers, teamsters, they were all civilians and they were corrupt as hell. And even when there was … we have bushels of wheat, we have corn, we have … Whatever they have. The Continental Army had no wagons.
There were maybe 16 wagons for the 12,000 men at Valley Forge. So they couldn’t get the food there. And Washington, one of his dictates to the Camp Committee, the five delegates at Valley Forge, was, “We must totally restructure the supply stem of this army.”
And of course they agreed with him. And eventually … I’m jumping ahead of myself a little bit. But General Greene, who was just a great character in the book … Washington had designated General Greene … These guys are so young, Brett. Greene was in his mid-thirties. Anthony Wayne was in his mid-thirties. Lafayette was 19 when he introduced himself to Washington. Hamilton was 22. John Lawrence was, by the way, the founding father you’ve never heard of, John Lawrence was 23.
But Washington had designated General Greene as his successor as Commander-in-Chief, should he fall in battle. And when Washington went to Greene and said, “I need your organizational skills. Please take over the supply line,” Greene didn’t want to. He wanted battlefield honors. As he put it, “No one in history ever heard of a supply general. They’ve only ever heard of battling generals.” But, for the good of the country, for the good of the army, for the good of his great good friend George Washington, he did it.
And eventually, not yet, February was the cruelest, cruelest month at Valley Forge. But eventually, by the time that army marched out of Valley Forge, Greene had set up all these depots for the horses. The horses were dropping dead where they stood of starvation. And we didn’t talk about a couple of the myths. Now that I’m on to the horses, do you mind if I-
Brett McKay: No, let’s talk about some of the myths.
Bob Drury: Two of the things I found out that day, when I did my tour of Valley Forge, my very first tour, were the myths of, “Oh, freezing Winter. Washington’s bad luck. The coldest Winter ever.”
It wasn’t, Brett. In fact, it was one of the mildest Winters ever recorded in Southeast Pennsylvania. But what would happen at … Washington’s previous encampment at Morristown, New Jersey, and his subsequent encampment at Morristown, New Jersey, were far more Arctic.
But what would happen is that Valley Forge would be buried in a week, in a snowstorm. And that would be followed by an ice storm. And then the temperatures would rise. And 40 degree rains would just flood the camp. Once again, they didn’t know how to dig latrines. The latrines were just dug haphazard through the camp. And all kinds … was just flying all over the camp.
The horses, who had dropped dead and been dead in maybe a foot or two of ground because it was freezing at the time, now they’re starting to rise. The one thing that was an ongoing trail through all the research that Tom Clavin and I did … I personally read everything George Washington wrote or dictated between July 1st, 1777 and July 15th, 1778. And I can tell you, Brett, sometimes my eyes were glazing over. But sometimes you just come across a nugget and say, “Yes, that’s what I’m talking about.”
But the Winter, hot, cold, hot, cold, hot, cold, Washington much preferred cold. The previous Morristown, the subsequent at Morristown. And, with this mud, everything that we read from everybody. Everyone commented on the stink hanging over the camp like an illness. It just smelled to high heaven.
Another myth, as long as I’m on the myth, is that, “Oh, the previous Autumn’s Pennsylvania Campaign had denuded all the farmsteads of the surrounding counties. Chester County, where Valley Forge was. The neighboring counties, Delaware, Montgomery, Bucks County. There was no food to be had, that’s why the Continentals had no food.”
That is 100% wrong. In fact, 1777 had been one of the best harvests of the decade for that area. But the surrounding, the civilians, the merchants, the farmers, Continental soldiers who survived Valley Forge, many of them we to their deathbed cursing, as they put it, those damn Quakers. Because there were many religious sects who preferred, Dunkers, Mennonites, the soldiers all just called them Quakers, that preferred to smuggle their goods, their merchandise, their cattle, their poultry, their sheep, their corn, their wheat, into British-occupied Philadelphia where they would be paid in Pounds Sterling and sometimes even gold, as opposed to selling their goods for the worthless script that the Continental Congress was issuing.
So those are two myths right there, you know? Cold Winter? No. No food around? No. And one other thing I’ll mention, is that it’s not so much a myth, but it kind of shocks people when I mention it in my presentation. Brett, I’ll ask you … Well, of course you know because you read the book.
But nobody seems to realize there were 750 black soldiers at Valley Forge. Now, they were all free men. Many of them had been born free men. Others had been slaves on New England plantations. Their owners were given compensation, and these men were formed into batalions. And they fought ferociously. And the deal was if you’ll fight, that was in their contract, for the duration of the war, we will free you afterwards.
Rhode Island was the first state to do this. And when politicians and generals from Connecticut and Massachusetts saw how ferociously these black soldiers fought, they said, “We have to do this ourselves.” And this was the last time, until the Korean War, that black American soldiers fought side by side with white American soldiers.
Yes, there were black units in World War II, the Tuskeegee Airmen, but they were all segregated. This was the last integrated American army until Korea.
Brett McKay: That’s great. I did not know that until I read the book.
Washington’s basically just having a hell of a time right now. He’s faced these defeats, his army is about to fall apart. What I love about the book is you describe his inner circle, these characters that kind of buoyed him up.
Bob Drury: Yeah.
Brett McKay: And the one that really stuck out to me, and we began the show talking about him, is Lafayette. I mean, I knew of him, but I didn’t know much about him until I read the book. And it made me fall in love with this guy. This guy sounded amazing. Like you said, he was 19 years old. So tell us, how did this aristocratic French kid, basically, end up being Washington’s kind of adopted son?
Bob Drury: Well, Tom and I contend in our book, Valley Forge, that the shared core values that men like Lafayette and Hamilton, and Greene, and Mad Anthony Wade, and John Lawrence, their shared core of values was the most productive generation of statesmen that the United States has ever produced.
We say this knowing full well about Lincoln’s Team of Rivals and FDR’s Kitchen Cabinet. But these men stood out, I believe … Now don’t forget, it’s easy to be sarcastic about this now, but this was another era. And these were idealists. And there was none more ideal than the Marquis de Lafayette.
When he arrived in the United States in August of 1777. As you said, he was 19 years old. He turned 20 around the time of the Battle of Brandywine. He wanted to fight. He had read about American ideals, and he believed that he could fight in this war and take that ideology back to France with him.
And Washington who, for the most part, hated the foreign mercenaries that Ben Franklin and his associate Silas Dean, the two American diplomats in Paris … They were sending all these, I love this word, he wrote to them, I read the letters, “Stop sending me these poppingjays.” It’s a good word, it’s fallen into disuse.
But these were predominantly Frenchmen. And they came over with no English, and they expected to be handed a General’s sash the moment they set foot on United States soil. And Washington just had no use for these people. But Lafayette was different. I think Washington saw some of his younger self in Lafayette. In the enthusiasm for the battlefield honors. Because Washington was very much that way in his younger days, during the Seven Years War, which we call the French and Indian War.
And there was something about Lafayette. It didn’t help that Lafayette was the only man … Washington was a tall man, he was 6’3″ at the time when I guess the average height was maybe 5’9″. And Lafayette was tall enough, he was the only man that could look Washington in the eye. And Washington, there was double edged sword with Lafayette. Not only did he personally come to consider him his surrogate son … Don’t forget Washington was childless. He had a step-son, Jackie Custis, with Martha Custis, but he had no children of his own. Lafayette was about the right age for him to have been George Washington’s son.
I’ll give you a perfect anecdote. At the Battle of Brandywine Creek, when Lafayette took a musket ball in his leg, Washington sought out the surgeons attending to Lafayette and said, “Treat him as you would my own son.”
Now there’s that, that personal connection between the two. But there’s also … Washington, as I said before, was learning to become a canny political animal. And he knew that what Lafayette was writing back to France about the American struggle for independence, especially to the French foreign minister, the comte de Vergennes, who had the ear of the Boy King, Louis XVI, would go a long way to bringing France into the war.
He needed Lafayette. He was walking a tightrope. Because on the one hand, he couldn’t have Lafayette killed because, “Oh the greatest Frenchman in the United States is now dead? No, we’re not going to fight this war for you.” That’s that the King would say. And on the other hand, he needed Lafayette. He couldn’t really stop him. I think at one point he wrote to Henry Lawrence, the president of the Continental Congress. He said, “I’ve tried my best. The man lives to be in the way of danger. I’m putting him in charge. Whatever happens happens.” Let the chips fall where they may.
So finally, of course, Lafayette’s importuning to Versailles, to the comte de Vergennes, to the King, it did bring the French into the war in February of 1778. Although, given the vagaries of ocean travel at the time, no one in America would know that for months.
Brett McKay: So there was that aspect, that person in his inner circle that kind of buoyed him up and played a political role as well. You mentioned John Lawrence. You say he’s a forgotten Founding Father.
Tell us about this guy, and what role did he play in Washington’s circle?
Bob Drury: He is … Well of course, Washington’s my favorite character in the book. You know, Brett, we tend to look at Washington and, when we think of Washington … I know I’m getting off your question, I promise I’ll get right back-
Brett McKay: That’s fine, let’s get back … No, talk about Washington.
Bob Drury: We think of him like coming out of the womb in the portrait that’s on the one dollar bill. And Washington was a very human man. He had his weaknesses. He had his doubts about himself. That’s why these kids, we would call them, that he had around him, Lafayette, Hamilton … I mean, there were 17 of them all living in a three bedroom farmhouse on the Northwest corner of Valley Forge that Washington had made his headquarters.
And among them were John Lawrence, 23 year old John Lawrence, and you’re right, he’s one of my favorite characters in the book. Lawrence had been studying … He was the son of Henry Lawrence, who succeeded John Hancock as President of the Continental Congress in 1777.
The Lawrences were a big South Carolina family. In fact, they had made their money on slavery. Henry Lawrence owned the biggest slave house in South Carolina. John was studying law in London after having received his university degree in Geneva, when war broke out in the United States.
Much to father’s chagrin he immediately rushed back, volunteered his services. Washington liked this man too, and so did Hamilton. Alexander Hamilton and John Lawrence became fast friends. They became the best of friends, finishing each other’s sentences. And at one point, during Brandywine Creek, much to, once again, his father’s chagrin, Lawrence showed his military ability.
And then he was actually heroic at Germantown and the defeat of Germantown. If we had won that battle, I think more people would know about John Lawrence. But there’s so much about John Lawrence’s story arc in the book that I could go to here today, but let me just say the reason I call him the Founding Father you never heard of was because late in the war, when Washington had finally … Hamilton, Lawrence, they were always pleading, “Release me from my inkwell,” that’s what they called being Washington’s aides-de-camp. “Release me from my inkwell.”
Late in the war, when Washington had finally given Hamilton and Lawrence a command, Lawrence was down in South Carolina. Outside of his hometown of Charleston. He was down in sickbed, he was suffering from malaria. And he got word that the British were sending a foraging party out of the city.
Brett, this was months from the end of the war. It was mere weeks before the British would evacuate Charleston. But Lawrence gets out of bed, shaking with malaria, determined to look for a fight with this foraging party. He leads a company of men and, as he’s looking for them, a squad of British scouts spots him. They shoot him off his horse, out of the saddle, and he’s dead. He’s dead at the age of 27.
I am certain, from everything I have read and know about John Lawrence, that he would have been President George Washington’s first Secretary of State. But anyway, we’re getting way ahead of ourselves here.
Let me just go back to saying that it was the young men, as Washington felt that the weight of the world on his shoulders at his headquarters in Valley Forge, at the Potts house, what came to be known as the Potts house. It was rented from a Quaker named Potts. It was Lawrence and Lafayette and Hamilton who buoyed him in his darkest time.
And you mentioned at the onset of our conversation here about Washington praying in a snowy glade, down on his knees. Tom and I, as we write, have come to the conclusion that this is an apocryphal story. Washington was not a very religious man. He sometimes attended … Like Jefferson, he was a deist. And he sometimes attended Episcopalian services, but he always left before the communion. And just because the story came out over half a century later, it’s not sourced well. We just can’t believe that Washington went off by himself into the woods of Valley Forge and got down on his knees in the snow and prayed to his God to help him persevere and keep his army together.
But that painting which, you know, everyone has seen, it circulates so much. Washington on his knees. It is symbolic of how Washington felt that Winter. So in that sense, had he been a religious man, he probably would have done that. He just did it in his own way and, once again, it was the youngsters. These guys are veterans. Well, Lafayette’s wounded. But it was the youngsters, as Tom and I called them, that really buoyed this man in his deepest, darkest hour.
Brett McKay: How long was the Continental Army holed up at Valley Forge?
Bob Drury: Precisely six months.
Brett McKay: Six months.
Bob Drury: They slogged in there on December 19th, 1777. And they marched out, and there’s a difference when I say slog and march, and they marched out on June 19th, 1778.
Brett McKay: Well, let’s talk about that difference. What happened to the army while they were in Valley Forge? Because after Valley Forge, things changed for the Continental Army, right? They started winning. So what happened at Valley Forge that precipitated that?
Bob Drury: I think, and you can’t put it all on his shoulders, but I told you before, John Lawrence and of course Washington is my favorite character in the book, John Lawrence might be one of my favorites, but my favorite secondary protagonist in this book is the Baron Friedrich Wilhelm Ludolf Gerhard Augustin Von Steuben. Baron Von Steuben to you and me.
This guy was a colorful as his name, Brett. He arrived at Valley Forge in late February in a sleigh pulled by a team of coal black Percheron horses he had purchased in France, just to make a good impression. Of course he had purchased the horses on borrowed money, he was dead flat broke. The sleigh was adorned with 24 jingle bells. Steuben himself had a silk tunic on, a silk officer’s tunic. Two big horse pistols in his holster, on either hip. And his pocket greyhound, Azar, sitting in his lap.
He was a big man, he was not a young man. Von Steuben was in his mid-forties. He was an ample man, shall we say. And in his trail was his retinue of servants and aides-de-camp and translators. He had no English. He was fluent in French and German. He even brought a French chef to Valley Forge. The guy quit after 48 hours. He said no, no, no, no, this is not for me.
But what really intrigued me about Von Steuben was he also arrived at Valley Forge with a resume that was more doctored up than the Mayo Clinic. Now, I’ll step back to explain that. Von Steuben had risen to the rank of captain in Frederick the Great’s Prussian Army. Now of course Frederick the Great, at the time, was the most renowned military commander in the Western world. And his Prussian army, although small, was the most feared. In fact, they used to say that Frederick the Great had an army with a country, as opposed to a country with an army.
Von Steuben had learned under Frederick the Great, something that no other Western officer had. Not in france, not in poland, not in Britain, not in Italy, certainly not in the Continental Army of the United States. And that was Frederick the Great made his officers live, eat, and breathe with the enlisted men.
Get down in the much and mire with them. All the other armies thought the officers … This was below an officer’s station. We leave that to the sergeants and the corporals, the NCO. Von Steuben knew how to drill an army.
So when he kind of shows up in France, and the comte de Vergennes, once again, a man, a Frenchman in the middle of a lot of this, introduces him to Franklin and Silas Dean.
Now, of course, their initial reaction is, “Oh, Christ, no. No, no, no. We’re already getting screaming letters from Washington not to send anymore of these mercenaries, these soldiers of fortune, over to the United States.” But it only took a few interviews with Von Steuben, they all chatted in French, for them to realize, Franklin especially, this is just the man that Washington needs to turn his disparate conglomeration of militias into a well-oiled fighting machine. He knows what he’s doing, he knows how to train, he knows how to drill.
Well he and Dean and Vergennes got together and they said, “Well, what are we going to do? He’s only a Captain. Washington’s rejected the Generals we’re sending over.”
So suddenly, Brett, Von Steuben’s Captain’s bars miraculously disappeared from his shoulder and they’re replaced by General’s stars. And he became the Inspector General of Frederick the Great’s Prussian Army, which of course he never was.
And he became a principal aide-de-camp to Frederick the Great for over a decade. Of course, which he never did. But this is the way that they figured they could get him into the States. Later on, when it gets exposed, we’ll figure it out then. But for now let’s get him over there.
And sure enough, he shows up. Within his first week at Valley Forge, the enlisted men, the junior officers, and even the American generals who were very suspicious of foreigners, he’s ingratiated himself to every one of them. His first week, he’s writing memos to Washington, “You cannot have your latrines run willy nilly through the bread baking oven territory, you’ve got to put them on the other side of the hill.”
“Let’s grade the roads in front of the huts. There’s 2,000 huts they built at Valley Forge. Let’s grade those roads and give them regimental names to give the soldiers a sense of professionalism.”
Within ten days, Washington had told all his other officers, “Do not train your men. The training is going to come from this Prussian.” Washington gave Von Steuben his personal guard of 50 men, chose another 50 men from the states that were represented at Valley Forge, and said to Von Steuben, “Train these 100 men, and then spread them out throughout the army as your sub-trainers.”
So every day Von Steuben would take these 100 men out onto the parade ground at Valley Forge. And the other soldiers didn’t have a lot to do, so there’s thousands of them lined up in a square watching Von Steuben in action. And, sure enough, Von Steuben would get down on his rather large gut in the muck, in the mire, to teach them how to read terrain.
Or, he’d doff his coat and throw away his riding crop, pick up a musket and show them the proper way to put a bayonet in somebody’s get and then twist it. The men took to this like never before.
And, Brett, this is the other … well, one of the many reasons why I love Von Steuben. He was a prickler for detail. He was Prussian, what do you expect? And when someone made a mistake or did something wrong or somehow incurred Von Steuben’s ire … As I said before, he had no English, just French and German. Well, Washington had assigned Lafayette and Lawrence as his translators. In fact, they followed him … He was a Falstaffian character. And they followed him around like a couple of Prince Hal’s.
But when someone made a mistake on the drilling field, Von Steuben’s double-chinned face would get red and he’d start flailing his arms. I said before, he had no English. e had one word of English. “God damn!”
And he would call over to Lawrence or Hamilton or whoever was translating for him that day, and in French he would yell, “Get over here and curse for me!” And Hamilton would come over and the spittle coming out of Von Steuben’s mouth. There would be a string of French and German. Oaths and curses, punctuated by the occasional “God damn.”
And by the time whoever was translating, Lawrence, Hamilton, by the time they translated the American soldiers were doubled over in laughter. They loved this guy. The same way with the junior officers.
Because hiqs rations were not quite as meager as the Captain’s, the Lieutenant’s, the Major’s, he would invite them over to the farmhouse where he was staying for dinner. But on one condition. The clothing situation by the time of Von Steuben’s arrival and through March had not improved much. So if you wanted to attend one of Von Steuben’s dinners, you had to have no pants, or your pants were in such rags they were just falling off you.
He called them his Sans-culottes dinners. Suppers. His Sans-culottes suppers. And on the many occasions when Von Steuben was invited to the Potts house to dine with Washington and the other generals, he would charm the other generals’ wives. He spoke French with like ribald tales of the salons of Europe.
But all that aside, it should be remembered that the very last letter, the very last public, official letter that George Washington wrote in 1783 before resigning as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army, was to the Baron von Steuben thanking him for turning this disparate contingent of militias into a professional army.
And that’s what Von Steuben did for us.
Brett McKay: So not only did Valley Forge forge the army into an army, but I feel like it did something spiritually, too. Like, something happened to the, I don’t know, the motivation, the drive of not only Washington, but also the Continental Army.
What do you think happened there? Was it just a crucible that they went through and they came out refined?
Bob Drury: Yes. You just said the word. I was just going to use the word crucible. Kind of like, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. And don’t forget, 2,000 men died at Valley Forge. Of malnutrition, exposure, disease, cholera, typhus, they just ran wild through the camp. Because, until Von Steuben got there, nobody knew that personal hygiene, or a lack thereof, breeds disease.
But the 10, 11,000 men, it’s funny, historians don’t … They say the victors write history. No one can say for sure how many men marched into Valley Forge and how many men marched out.
So let’s say 12,000 marched in, and the 10,000 that marched out had gone through this crucible. And, once again, I hate to come off as naïve, but there was a burning desire in all these men for freedom. For an independent United States. All they needed was the right direction. And between Washington and everyone we’ve talked about, Greene and Wayne and Von Steuben, these men gave those enlisted men the right direction.
I’ll tell you, I might be jumping ahead, but it’s another one of my favorite stories, or what I like to call it. When they marched out of Valley Forge in quick step, by the way, having been taught was quick step was by the Baron Von Steuben, when they met the British on the sandy plains of New Jersey, near the small hamlet of Monmouth Courthouse, the British had their Butch and Sundance moment.
“Who are these guys? This is not the ragtag bunch of farmers we brushed off our shoulders like lint at Brandywine Creek, that we massacred at Paoli, that we turned the tables on at Germantown. Look at these guys, they’re wheeling in formation. They’re spreading out in columns, they never did that before.
One of the great myths of the American Revolution, Brett, is of the musket-carrying Minutemen, stealing through a copse of trees or crouched behind a boulder, picking off the square British attack formations one by one, and that’s how we won.
Now, don’t get me wrong, our Indian style guerrilla warfare did come in handy many, many times. But if it hadn’t been for Von Steuben who, by the way, wrote the manual the U.S. Army War College, and it was in use for 50 years after Valley Forge. If he hadn’t been for the likes of Von Steuben teaching these men how to fight like professionals, there never would have been that who are these guys moment.
If you want to roll into the end, there’s just a great story about the end. I don’t know where we are. I’m yakking away too much here-
Brett McKay: No.
Bob Drury: I apologize.
Brett McKay: Yeah. No, you’re fine, this is has been … So yeah let’s roll into the end. So, how did this end?
Bob Drury: All right. Well, we’re talking about here comes the army, here comes the Continental Army, marching to meet the British near Monmouth Courthouse, the town of Monmouth Courthouse. In quick step. Wheeling and turning. All Von Steuben’s doing. Who are these guys?
But Washington had made one mistake that day. He had put another general in charge of the attack on the British, and he was bringing up the relief in the rear. The other general, who had been a POW for the last 16 months, didn’t realize that the men he was leading were changed troops. He thought he was still leading the ragtag from 1776.
And at the first hint of British opposition, he called a retreat. By the time Washington gets to the front line, the soldiers are retreating in an orderly fashion, thanks to the Baron Von Steuben. They’re not running for the lives, but they’re retreating.
For the first time ever among his aides, among his close associates, among his favorite generals, they had never seen the stoic George Washington explode. He explodes on the front line, calls over the general Charles Lee, he had put in charge of the attack.
“What is the meaning of this? You’ve pulled true. What is the meaning of this? Get to the back. I dismiss you to the back.” Washington takes over the lead of the attack. But first he’s got to turn his troops.
So he’s riding up and down the front lines, trying to halt this orderly retreat. He’s on this big white Charger, it was a stifling, blistering day. Over 100 degrees. At one point, the horse just collapsed beneath him. Died of heat exhaustion. He takes the reins of another horse. And he’s riding up and down, trying to turn this retreat into an attack of his own.
By now, he can see across a swell a mile and a half away, a sea of red is approaching. 10,000 Redcoats have doffed their packs and they’re attacking in a bayonet charge. The British artillery were close enough that the grape shot is whizzing by Washington’s head. A cannon ball lands yards from where he’s sitting on his horse, splattering him and his horse with mud.
And yet, he’s riding up and down, “Will you fight with me?” Not will you fight for me. “Will you fight with me?” His sword is extended in his right hand. He’s pointing it towards the sea of red, coming closer and closer. “Will you fight with me?” And finally the soldiers stopped and they turned and they answered in unison … And, Brett, if you want to know what they answered you’re going to have to read the book. Okay?
Brett McKay: I love it. Bob, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book?
Bob Drury: You know, I have a website. My co-author Tom Clavin has a website. But you just can never go wrong. If you went to amazon.com and typed in Bob Drury page, it would probably give you everything you need.
Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well, Bob Drury, always a pleasure. Thanks for coming on.
Bob Drury: Oh, Brett, thank you. I always have fun when I talk with you.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Bob Drury. He’s the co-author of the book Valley Forge. It’s available on amazon.com and bookstores everywhere.
You can find out more information about his work at rfxdrury.com, or you can check out our show notes at AOM.is/valleyforge, where you can find links to resources, where you can delve deeper into this topic.
Well, that wraps up another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. For more manly tips and advice, make sure to check out the Art of Manliness website at ArtofManliness.com. And if you enjoyed the show, you got something out of it, I’d appreciate if you take one minute to give us a review on iTunes or Stitcher. Helps out a lot. And if you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or family member you think would get something out of it.
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