Valley Forge by Bob Drury and Tom Clavin allows readers to go back in time and journey with the American revolutionaries in their attempts to defeat the British. It delves into the Continental Army’s six-month stay at Valley Forge, which enabled them to transform from undisciplined militia men to a professional army.
The authors delve into Baron von Steuben’s ability to use the knowledge he gained on the Prussian battlefields, drilling dedication, discipline, and proficiency into the Colonist army. While George Washington’s aides were fighting the British, disease, starvation, and the elements, he and Alexander Hamilton were combating those in the Continental Congress. His political enemies were calling for the General to be replaced. They saw him as unqualified after the humiliating loss of Philadelphia. Yet, Washington is able to hang on and after defeating the British at the Battle of Monmouth Court House, the momentum is never again with the Redcoats.
The authors show how Washington emerged as fallible but indispensable; succeeding in the face of so many hardships. With extensive documents, they capture the iconic characters that instilled the energy needed to defeat the British empire leading to America’s independence.
Elise Cooper: Why write about Valley Forge?
Bob Drury: I have a son who is Franco-American. Six or seven years ago he was very upset with my wife’s brother who made a crack about the US bailing out France in the two World Wars. My son shot back, ‘if it weren’t for Marquis de Lafayette and the French Army you would be Canada now and there would be no United States.’ A light bulb went off in my head to write about Lafayette and the Revolutionary War, but another author wrote it first, so we concentrated on Valley Forge, from August 1777 to July 1778. I spent time with a Valley Forge historian and realized there is so much we did not know about it, including that it was the turning point of the Revolution.
EC: There are misconceptions about Valley Forge?
BD: Most Americans think of the area as freezing and that Washington dealt with the coldest winter ever. Actually, the winter in Southeastern Pennsylvania was the mildest recorded in history. Many weeks the temperature was 40 degrees. Horses did not starve to death and the harvest of 1777 was one of the largest in decades. It was the civilian farmers that wanted to sell their items to the British who paid more for cattle, sheep, oats, and corn, while the Continental Army’s script was worthless.
EC: There were also black soldiers?
BD: John Laurens was determined to integrate the Continental Army with freed black men and slaves. There were 750 black soldiers who were paid the same as the white soldiers. This was the last time until the Korean War where black and white soldiers were not segregated, but fought alongside each other.
EC: George Washington had to battle many enemies?
BD: It was the roughest winter of his life emotionally, physically, and psychologically. He took the same risks as his troops and had to deal with the losses in New York, having Philadelphia captured, scattering those in Congress. It is amazing that he not only got through this, but did so successfully.
EC: He wanted to convert the ragtag troops to a fighting force to be reckoned with?
BD: He knew he had to professionalize his army. Although he initially fought the British with speed and stealth, using guerilla warfare, he needed a well-trained army. He also had to groom his generals and have them mature into their role, especially Pennsylvania’s Anthony Wayne, Boston’s Henry Knox, and Rhode Island’s Nathanel Greene. They basically learned on the job. He trusted them, but did not trust the colonists’ British born generals Charles Lee and Horatio Gates. Both these men were extremely jealous of Washington and were inept. As the war progressed it showed Washington’s instincts were correct.
EC: Charles Lee even ordered a retreat?
BD: Washington was astonished that Lee wanted to retreat during the Battle of Monmouth Court House at the sound of gunfire. Every time Lee was put in charge of something he showed his incompetence. The 10,000 elite British troops were driving hard for a counterattack, determined to crush the colonists’ rebellion here and now. They thought the mere sight of an endless wall of British ‘cold steel’ would send the Continental rabble fleeing in disarray. But Washington knew that having endured the mud and elements at Valley Forge he could use his presence to spur the troops to fight. Because this was the critical juncture of the war, Washington knew he had to exude a sense of urgency and inspiration, which he did. As Lafayette said, ‘His presence seemed to arrest fate with a single glance.’ Washington dismissed Lee and took command of the troops himself, turning the tide to a victory.
EC: Baron von Steuben was instrumental?
BD: He taught the troops how to march in formation. He would sleep, eat, and lived with the men he drilled and drilled. He taught them how to read the terrain, use the quick step, and if retreat was necessary, it had to be orderly. He never tolerated mistakes; yet, the men loved him. He instilled discipline while at Valley Forge and taught them how to become a professional army who worked together.
EC: The British were also war criminals?
BD: The British born Captain John Simcoe green coated Queen’s American Rangers were brutal who earned the description of ‘partisan hunters.’ They rarely took prisoners. In May 1778 at the Battle of Crooked Billet, Simcoe ordered an attack on the Philadelphia American regiment, while they slept. Simcoe and his men wiped out nearly all of the men, by running through bayonets and then heaving the American wounded onto pyres of buckwheat straw, burning them alive. Incredibly, the British said the rules of war did not apply because they were not fighting a sovereign army, but a bunch of rebels.
EC: What would you like readers to understand?
BD: How our Founding Fathers sacrificed for future generations. The spirit they had is in our DNA. Washington showed that Americans have a steely backbone with a steely composure.
ABOUT THE BOOK
The #1 New York Times bestselling authors of The Heart of Everything That Isreturn with one of the most inspiring—and underappreciated—chapters in American history: the story of the Continental Army’s six-month transformation in Valley Forge.
December 1777. It is 18 months after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, and some 12,000 members of America’s beleaguered Continental Army stagger into a small Pennsylvania encampment 23 miles northwest of British-occupied Philadelphia. The starving and half-naked force is reeling from a string of demoralizing defeats at the hands of King George III’s army, and are barely equipped to survive the coming winter. Their commander in chief, the focused and forceful George Washington, is at the lowest ebb of his military career. The Continental Congress is in exile and the American Revolution appears to be lost.
Yet a spark remains. Determined to keep the rebel cause alive through sheer force of will, Washington transforms the farmland plateau hard by the Schuylkill River into a virtual cabin city. Together with a dedicated coterie of advisers both foreign and domestic—Marquis de Lafayette, Baron von Steuben, the impossibly young Alexander Hamilton, and John Laurens—he sets out to breathe new life into his military force. Against all odds, as the frigid and miserable months pass, they manage to turn a bobtail army of citizen soldiers into a professional fighting force that will change the world forever.
Valley Forge is the story of how that metamorphosis occurred. Bob Drury and Tom Clavin, the team behind such bestsellers as The Heart of Everything That Is, The Last Stand of Fox Company, and Halsey’s Typhoon, show us how this miracle was accomplished despite thousands of American soldiers succumbing to disease, starvation, and the elements. Here is Steuben, throwing himself into the dedicated drilling sessions he imported from Prussian battlefields. Here is Hamilton, proffering the shrewd advice that wards off his beloved commander in chief’s scheming political rivals. Here is Laurens, determined to integrate the Continental Army with freed black men and slaves. Here is Lafayette, thirsting for battlefield accolades while tenaciously lobbying his own king for crucial French aid.
At the center of it all is George Washington, in the prime of his life yet confronting crushing failure as he fends off political conspiracies every bit as pernicious as his incessant military challenges. The Virginia planter-turned-general is viewed by many as unqualified to lead the Continental Army after the humiliating loss of Philadelphia, and his detractors in and out of Congress plot to replace him. The Valley Forge winter is his—and the revolution’s—last chance at redemption. And, indeed, after six months in the camp, Washington fulfills his destiny, leading the Continental Army to a stunning victory in the Battle of Monmouth Court House. The momentum is never again with the Redcoats.
Valley Forge is the riveting true story of a nascent United States toppling an empire. Using new and rarely seen contemporaneous documents—and drawing on a cast of iconic characters and remarkable moments that capture the innovation and energy that led to the birth of our nation—Drury and Clavin provide the definitive account of this seminal and previously undervalued moment in the battle for American independence.