Over the Independence Day Holiday weekend I took the opportunity to sample a number of the shows dealing with the history of the United States. A personal high light was watching the entire 1993 production of Gettysburg, an ambitious project as a result of the movie’s four hour and fifteen minute duration. Still, history hog that I am I still managed to absorb more. One of the better series that I spent significant time watching was America, The Story of Us. Early episode were partly devoted to the American Revolution, and a large part of that talked about the “darkest hour” confronted by Washington and the Continental Army.

A few years ago I used this space for a series of columns to describe the trips that George Washington made to the region starting in the early 1750’s. Several of those journeys were military in nature. It might be said that each of the first three trips resulted in decreasing levels of military success. His roles in these were first as an envoy, second as a commander seeking to establish a fort at the forks of the Ohio, but the French beat him to it. He was involved in the skirmish at Jumonville Glen and then surrendered his force at Fort Necessity. The next trip was even worse when he served as a staff officer for General Braddock. His only expedition which ended with success was the Forbes’ Expedition which caused the French to abandon Fort Duquesne. However, in this his only exposure to combat was in a friendly fire incident. Some have noted that as Commander of the Virginia Militia for a year he increased the size and professionalism of the unit, and defended the Virginia frontier from attacks by Native Americans such that it suffered less than neighboring colonies from such depredations. This background did not seem to qualify him to command an army during a rebellion. Of course, what other choices were there? A few, but Washington was a wealthy, influential leader from Virginia the strongest of the colonies, so the mantle may have fallen upon his shoulders by political necessity. After all, successful British Officers of the highest caliber didn’t sell their commissions or resign in great numbers to come to the colonies and start new lives. Even if they had, their experience and political leanings were not likely to compel them to lead a rebellion against the King.

In any event, after driving the British from Boston, and losing New York, and Philadelphia to the King’s forces in 1777, Washington with his 12,000 man force (which was accompanied by about 400 women and children) went into winter quarters at a location near Philadelphia called Valley Forge. The site was located on a defensible plateau about a twenty miles from Philadelphia.

At the time calling Washington’s forces the Continental Army was a gross exaggeration. In reality the force was a collection of rather disorganized militias sent to the cause by each colonial governmental assembly. There was little uniformity in the mater of uniforms or armaments. Worse the matter of drill was particularly unique to each militia. For example. Getting a large fighting force, which was proceeding in a line of march to deploy into a fighting formation was a task which could take a deadly amount of time and effort when under fire. As a whole, the militias did not approach the problem in a uniform way or respond to uniform commands.  The movie Gettysburg illustrates a similar point when Longstreet tells Pickett how his attack is to proceed from a mile long front to an 100 yard focal point: “Once you come to the road you will proceed by a series of left oblique’s” to the point of attack. A non-military viewer is inclined to say “run that by me again General.” And that was problem faced by Washington in early battles. In other words at times he commanded not a force but an armed rabble. Also during the 18th and even 19th centuries a lack of good roads complicated by foul weather impeded an army’s mobility, decreased its access to food and munitions, and made Winter fighting on any large scale problematic.

At Valley Forge Washington’s men constructed over 1,000 huts each of which housed twelve men, and hunkered down to keep the British at bay. They also constructed fortifications and five miles of trenches. There were times when food was limited. However, illness was more of a problem and about 2,000 soldiers died, mostly from disease, during the six month encampment. But the rebels were not downtrodden. Although outnumbered by the 17,000 British in Philadelphia, they knew that they had held their own and come close to winning at Brandywine and Germantown in late 1777. However, owing to their lack of drill training an orderly retreat was almost impossible and could become a pure flight.

The Story of Us series pointed out that Washington used the Valley Forge period to train and form his troops into a cohesive fighting force. This effort was led by Friedrich Wilhelm Baron von Steuben. The Baron led a bit of an itinerant life as the son of a Prussian Army officer, and as an officer himself. Prussia was one of the main states which were formed into Germany in the late 1800’s. It was generally considered one of the strongest military principalities of central Europe, and its soldiers were frequently rented out to other rulers to fight their wars.

The same with the soldiers of Hesse another German principality, where in addition to its standing army, each physically able male spent a part of the year on active duty as a “reservist.”  A sizeable portion of the British force in the colonies was comprised of Hessian soldiers rented to King George III by the Margrave (Prince) of Hesse. This was not unusual, as the Margrave was a Brother-in Law to the English King, and Hess had been supplying forces to the British, for a price, for nearly a century at the time of the American Revolution. In fact, approximately 18,000 Hessian soldiers came to the colonies to oppose the Revolution.

As usual, I have digressed from my original intent which in the column was to write about the individual for whom our nearby city of Steubenville was named. More next week.