It is the soldiers’ fate, it would seem, to be away from home at Christmas. Every year – during time of war and at times of peace – thousands of our sons and daughters in the military are far from the love of family and the comforts of home. It’s no wonder that the World War II-era song, I’ll Be Home for Christmas, was known as the “soldier’s theme song.”
For the American soldier, being away from home at Christmas is nothing new; it’s a tale that goes back to the beginning, back to a place called Valley Forge.
This past summer I took a fantastic trip that allowed me to follow the arc of George Washington’s military career. Our trip began at Fort Necessity, where, in his first battle, Washington suffered a humiliating defeat in the wilderness of western Pennsylvania as a young lieutenant in the British army. We ended our trip in Yorktown, where, at the end of his career, Washington won a final victory that secured America’s independence. Along the way, I made my first-ever visit to Valley Forge.
It’s a name that should be familiar to every American: Valley Forge, where General Washington and his men spent a harrowing winter in the Pennsylvania countryside battling – not the British – but the elements. They arrived at Valley Forge on December 19, 1777, exhausted, hungry and cold.
Just a year before, on Christmas night 1776, General Washington had delivered our young nation a stunning victory when he and his troops crossed the ice-choked Delaware River under cover of dark and caught the Hessians – the German mercenaries fighting for the British – unprepared. The ensuing fight was quick and relatively bloodless, owing to the element of surprise.
The victory at the Battle of Trenton, as it came to be known, was vital to the American cause. Throughout 1776 Washington’s troops had suffered one defeat after another: the Battle of Trenton, quite probably, saved the Revolution.
But just 12 months later, in December 1777, the victory at the Battle of Trenton seemed but a distant memory, and the Continental Army was in worse shape than ever. As the beleaguered men trudged along the road to their winter quarters, “you might have traced the army from White Marsh to Valley Forge by the blood of their feet” in the snow, General Washington later wrote.
What those men faced at Valley Forge during that winter was deprivation of a kind that most of us, thankfully, will never be able to imagine. The suffering began almost immediately. One soldier wrote in his journal that this is “the third day we have been without flour or bread – and are…laying on the cold ground.”
In his book about Valley Forge – Washington’s Secret War – author Thomas Fleming tells of one officer who reported to General Washington that half the men in his division were “walking barefooted on the ice or frozen ground.”
Another soldier, Private Joseph Martin, reaffirmed those desperate conditions in his memoir: “‘The great part’ of the army ‘were…shirtless and barefoot.’ Martin explained how he had fashioned crude moccasins from a piece of ‘raw cowhide,’ but he soon gave them up because the hard edges cut deep ridges in his ankles. Thereafter he went barefoot ‘as hundreds of my companions had to.’”
Food was as scarce as shoes and warm clothing, and for most of the winter, feeding the army would be an on-going struggle, caused both by shortages and a bureaucratic morass that hampered Washington’s every move. Adding to the misery, the sanitary conditions in camp were, to understate it, less than ideal. Although the British never attacked Valley Forge, roughly 2,500 men perished during that harsh winter, mostly from disease and the elements.
When Christmas dawned on Valley Forge there was little reason for hope, but Washington did his best to bolster the morale of his men. “On Christmas Day,” Fleming tells us, “it began to snow heavily. Struggling to establish a semblance of hospitality, Washington provided a spartan Christmas dinner for his aides.” The meal “was as plain and rough as the surrounding landscape; unadorned mutton, veal, potatoes, and cabbage, washed down by water.”
Of course, Christmas was only the beginning of the winter. In the days that followed, hundreds of crude log huts were constructed that provided some shelter from the weather. While conditions were never pleasant, and food was never plentiful, as the weeks passed the camp slowly began to take shape.
The biggest change came in late February, when Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben – a German army officer – arrived in camp to offer his military skills to the Continental Army. With his limited English but superlative ability to swear in multiple languages, von Steuben began putting the American soldiers through drills that were common to professional European armies. He also brought order and much needed sanitation to the camp.
And there, in the lonely Pennsylvania countryside, despite the struggles and miseries, something extraordinary occurred: the nearly defeated band of men who stumbled into Valley Forge in December 1777, barely resembling soldiers, emerged from that wintry crucible the next spring as a disciplined fighting force, capable and ready to face the mighty British army.
That’s why the name Valley Forge retains a high place in the American lexicon. True, there was no crucial battle fought there; no great victory was won in that place. But Valley Forge represents something more. It stands as a testament to the camaraderie that is forged from shared hardship, and the iron will that manifests itself when a group of homesick but determined American soldiers endure adversity and overcome the near impossible.
Washington’s men straggled into Valley Forge in December 1777 as individual patriots; they marched out of Valley Forge into the annals of legend.
And so it is that those men who spent Christmas at Valley Forge share a bond with the soldiers who froze at Bastogne during Christmas of 1944, and with the soldiers who spent Christmas huddled on a hillside in Korea or in a jungle in Vietnam, and with any American who ever spent Christmas in uniform, serving their country far from home.
Although the “soldier’s theme song” wasn’t written until 1943, it speaks to the hope of soldiers from any era: “I’ll be home for Christmas, you can count on me…I’ll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams.”
Whether you’re home for the holidays this year – or just dreaming of it – may all of you have a Merry Christmas.