Images of poorly-clothed and ill-fed Continental soldiers huddled in huts, marching barefoot in the snow, determinedly defending bleak hills despite ice and wind are seminal images in American history. According to these narratives, the army’s ability to endure such hard times demonstrated their resolve to establish a new nation. However, many of those images have more in common with national myths and not with historic facts. Why the honest confusion? Why have the boundaries between history and myth been blurred? In order to understand the origins of such legends, the winter encampments at Valley Forge in southeastern Pennsylvania (1777-1778) and Jockey Hollow near Morristown, New Jersey (1779-1780) are essential places to start. These two winter encampments were both moments when it appeared the common cause might unravel. The roots of our national mythologies largely grow from these points.
How and why Americans have conflated the experiences of the revolutionary winters would require an exhaustive study of cultural memory. However, one way we can develop a measure of appreciation for authentic encampment experience and strip away the illusions and inventions is by analyzing letters belonging to the foremost military and political leader of the American war effort, George Washington. Specifically, Washington’s letters exchanged with the presidents of the Continental Congress are essential documents that highlight some of the most important challenges of each encampment. During the Valley Forge and Jockey Hollow winters, Washington depended on two different presidents, Henry Laurens and Samuel Huntington, respectively. Both men had experience in provincial governance. Both had developed reputations as steady and evenhanded leaders among congressional delegates. And both assumed the presidency mere weeks before the Continental army established their encampments. And yet their differences were striking. Henry Laurens was born into a prominent South Carolina family and earned a fortune trading enslaved persons and profiting off their labor. Samuel Huntington was born to hardscrabble Connecticut farmers and self-educated, a far cry from Laurens’s private tutoring or European apprenticeship. During these dismal winters, Washington had two remarkably different presidents on whom the fate of his army rested.
These correspondences do not provide a complete picture of everyday life in camp or the numberless challenges faced by the Continentals. They are a mere fraction of Washington’s total papers from these hard times. However, they do highlight some of the most urgent matters that befell the commander in chief and the Continental Congress. They uncover how the demands of war evolved as the conflict ground on from Valley Forge, to Jockey Hollow, and beyond. And most importantly, they challenge popular images of these encampments long seared in the national psyche. Appreciating how Washington, Laurens, and Huntington made war throughout these wearisome winters is a small but essential step in more fully appreciating the complexity of these iconic Revolutionary moments.
Before diving into the contents of these documents, we must first understand their objectives and purposes. For all the letters’ descriptions of suffering soldiers and supply shortages, these letters are inherently political documents. Washington, Laurens, and Huntington all used persuasive language to convince their recipient other their agenda. On December 23rd, in the midst of a potentially catastrophic provisions crisis at Valley Forge, Washington composed a letter appealing to President Laurens. Washington included detailed descriptions of the sorry state of the Continental army describing the “no less than 2898 Men now in Camp unfit for duty, because they are barefoot and otherwise naked”. Highlighting the stakes of the moment he informed Laurens that “unless some great and capital change suddenly takes place…this Army must inevitably…Starve—dissolve—or disperse”. But despite the dramatic pleas, the letter’s intent was not to detail specific shortcomings of the army. Rather, Washington intended the letter encourage Laurens to act on these urgent needs. The letter was just as much a plea as it was a ploy: if “some great and capital change” were to occur, the letter implies that President Laurens would bring it to fruition. Despite national mythologies that cast revolutionaries, particularly Washington, as fundamentally apolitical, these men were nonetheless astute wartime politicians who understood that political means were necessary for achieving military ends .
|Figure 1: Pierre Eugène Du Simitière, engraving |
by Alexander Hay Ritchie, Henry Laurens, 1783,
Lloyd W. Smith Collection, Box 148,
Folder 3438, Morristown National Historical Park.
In several ways, these letters challenge cultural images that have developed around these winter encampments. First, the standard picture of an inept, and uncaring Continental Congress oblivious to the problems befalling the Continental army does not stand up to the scrutiny of these letters. Both Laurens and Huntington deliberately and frequently informed Washington of specific resolutions passed in Congress. Laurens reported on Congressional actions intended to fill vacant positions in the army, establish regulations for foraging soldiers, among others to the commander. Huntington too enclosed resolutions in his dispatches including actions concerning new enlistment terms and resolves on rank disputes. Congress certainly did not solve all the problems of supply, unfilled leadership positions, or poor army organizational structure that engulfed the Continentals in these winters. However, their chief executives recognized that congressional inaction meant certain doom for the war effort. 
Another challenge to the national mythology these letters present concerns the military situation of each encampment. The prevailing perception that during the Revolution both armies paused active military operations until the spring does not correspond with the documentary evidence. Washington and Laurens exchanged letters describing both British and American foraging operations and even planned an entire expedition into Canada that they eventually aborted. Especially during the Jockey Hollow encampment, it even appears cold weather encouraged more operations. Solid ice that chocked the tidal strait between New Jersey and Staten Island allowed both armies to launch raids in January 1780. After a failed American expedition into Staten Island, on January 27 Washington wrote to Huntington “I am sorry to inform your Excellency that the Enemy on the night of the 25th surprised our advanced parties which were stationed at Elizabeth Town and New Ark—and made a part of them prisoners… several people were plundered at New Ark & the Academy burnt; also the Meeting & Town Houses at Elizabeth Town.” These various operations are instructive in that they remind us despite winter conditions (and in some cases because of them) military endeavors continued during the encampments. No winter ceasefire, spoken or unspoken, existed. 
|Figure 2: Bonar and Cumming, Samuel Huntington, |
Lloyd W. Smith Collection, Box 11, Folder 1293,
Morristown National Historical Park.
If their letters are any indication, the most pressing problem the army confronted both winters was not supply crises or harsh weather, but prisoner exchange. No single topic exhausted so much ink between the leaders. Reports of the filthy, malnourished, and diseased condition of American captives languishing in New York had long been presented to Washington and Congress. While at Valley Forge Washington and his aides attempted to set up a fair and equitable prisoner exchange via a cartel. At the time President Laurens wanted to ensure that Congress be involved in any negotiation. “I am also directed to intimate to your Excellency as a recommendation from Congress that every proper precaution be taken against putting it in the power of the Enemy to take any unfair advantages in the Exchange of prisoners,” Laurens wrote. By the time of the winter at Jockey Hollow, the cartel still managed to elude the commander in chief. President Huntington, perhaps appreciating the worsening state of American captives, ceded Congressional authority in the negotiation, informing Washington that “…the matter of negotiating and settling a Cartel may safely be trusted in your hands.” As the war ground on, not only did the terms of negotiation change, but so did Washington’s relationship with the President and thereby Congress itself.
Some of the most important political relationships Washington developed throughout the war were with noncombatants, and these letters to Laurens and Huntington reveal subtle changes in these interactions. Moreover, even these relationships challenge national ideas about civilian interactions with the military. Difficulties in procuring supplies were issues that befell both winter encampments and led to drastic measures in the Continental army. To Henry Laurens on January 5, 1778 the general wrote that the army’s frequent use of supply “seizures” and other “coercive measures…may give a momentary relief, but if repeated will prove of the most pernicious consequence.” These procedures were “spreading disaffection” and instilled among his soldiers a “disposition to licentiousness—to plunder & Robbery, difficult to suppress afterwards.” Surely Washington and Laurens considered how these actions weakened the army’s political support in the countryside.
Writing exactly two years later to Samuel Huntington, Washington’s views had altered noticeably. Facing another provisions shortage he reported that with “very scanty supplies…some for their preservation have been compelled to maraud and rob from the Inhabitants.” During the Valley Forge winter Washington explained to Laurens why such actions
harmed the cause. At Jockey Hollow he informed Huntington to expect no such admonition. “I have it not in my power to punish or to repress the practice. If our condition should not undergo a very speedy & considerable change for the better—it will be difficult to point out all the consequences that may ensue.” More importantly, both these letters challenge the ingrained national mythology that virtuous citizen soldiers of the Continental army always demonstrated stouthearted commitment to the cause and their fellow citizens. As supplies dwindled, the Continental army did not pause to seize property of civilians, and it appears that by 1780, Washington was not as willing to admonish his plundering soldiers.
While these letters do not provide a comprehensive overview of either the Valley Forge or Jockey Hollow winter encampments, they do provide the starting point for us to understand which encampment descriptions hold up to historical scrutiny and which images were fabricated or in some cases outright invented. The impression of the war effort according to these documents can be aptly summarized by what Ron Chernow called the “draining atmosphere of a perpetual, slow motion crisis.” To Washington, Laurens, and Huntington, Valley Forge and Jockey Hollow were not moments that demonstrated national public virtue and unwavering commitment to the cause as much as they were moments of exhaustion. The continuous strain of supply crises, ongoing negotiations of prisoner exchanges, and constant military operations, (all of which compounded by the slow pace of congressional resolutions) sapped the Revolutionary movement of its vigor. It is only in hindsight Americans have ascribed these encampments the veneer of heroism. 
 This essay relies on George Washington’s letters exchanged with Presidents Henry Laurens and Samuel Huntington during the winters (December 21-March 21) at Valley Forge and Jockey Hollow, 1777-1778 and 1779-1780, respectively. See The Papers of George Washington Digital Edition, ed. Theodore J. Crackel et al., Revolutionary War Series (16 June 1775-31 December 1783 [in progress]), Volumes 12-14, 23-24 (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, Rotunda, 2008). Hereafter cited as PGW, Rev. War Ser.
 Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, “Laurens, Henry (1724-1792)”, accessed Nov 20, 2017, http://bioguide.congress.gov/scripts/biodisplay.pl?index=L000121; Richard L. Blanco, The American Revolution 1775-1783: An Encyclopedia, vol. 1, “Laurens, Henry (1724-1792)” (New York: Garland Publishing, 1993), 906; Calvin C. Jillson and Rick K. Willson, Congressional Dynamics: Structure, Coordination, and Choice in the First American Congress, 1774-1789 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994), 77-78; Carol Ganz, Samuel Huntington Governor of Connecticut, 1786-1796 History and Genealogy Unit, Connecticut State Library (Hartford: November 2007).