Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Christmas at Valley Forge, 1777


With apologies to my writer friends who, I'm sure, will find a plethora of writerly errors in this first-draft manuscript, [but, DANG! I got it done in time for Christmas!] I offer my annual Christmas story.

Christmas at Valley Forge, 1777
By Suzanne Vincent

Snow fell at Valley Forge that Christmas Day.

By all apparent measures, but for the new snow, the day would be no different from the one before. Men still worked at hewing trees to build winter huts and provide firewood for the hundreds of campfires around which other sicker, weaker men huddled. The commissary still warned of perilous shortages--only 24 barrels of flour remained to feed 11,000 men and boys with no promise of supplies to come. Graves still needed digging to bury the men who had died during the night.

General Washington knew all this, as he knew every detail of the camp and the men who wintered there. The morning had seen a constant stream of Colonels and Captains coming to the command tent to report the day's conditions to him, of patrols reporting the doings of the British army, of camp doctors reporting the tolls cold and illness continued to take on the Continental army.

Near midday he refused an offered portion of gruel seasoned with a few precious grains of cracked pepper, and called an aide to his side.

"Mr. Tilghman," he said, "I wish to draft a letter to Congress."

Mr. Tilghman, as always, responded promptly, gathered paper, quills, and penknife, retrieved the bottle of ink he kept in his breast pocket to prevent it freezing, poured some ink into the inkwell, and sat at the small desk kept in the tent for this very purpose, the desk at which he had transcribed dozens of letters for the General. He expected, after the morning's grim news, that he would be sending yet another plea for food and blankets, shoes for men with nothing but rags wrapped around half-frozen feet, fodder for starving horses.

"I am ready, General," he said, his pen poised over the inkwell.

Washington did not immediately begin. He stood beside Tilghman, looking down at the empty page. He placed a long-fingered hand on Tilghman's shoulder.

"You should know," he said, "you will be transcribing my resignation."

Mr. Tilghman looked into the General's eyes. He saw nothing but weariness there and knew its source. Tilghman, one of three aides-de-camp to General Washington that December of 1777 and a member of the General's military 'family,' had seen what few others had seen. He had seen the grief and rage and tears shed for the men who had left bloody footprints on the road that climbed the hill to the Valley Forge plateau on which their camp stood, for the threats of desertion and mutiny which he could blame no one for, for the men who hungered and suffered from cold and illness with no food or coats or medicines to ease their distresses. Tilghman knew also that, were it left to him, he would have resigned long before now.

But it was not left to him. It was left to Washington, and Tilghman believed, as many others did not, that if Washington could not succeed in the cause of liberty, no one could.

"Then, it is over," he said.

Washington pulled a chair close and sat heavily in it. "I do not see how it can be otherwise," he said. "It is Christmas Day, and while our congressmen feast on goose and plum pudding and sleep in their feathered beds, the men entrusted with securing the liberty they crave starve on this God-forsaken hill." He hunched over and rested his head in his hands. "I save myself by resigning, Mr. Tilghman. It seems a conceit for me to do so, but I cannot observe the suffering of my men one more day. I sell my soul to save it."

Mr. Tilghman nodded. "I understand, Sir."

The General sat up and looked Mr. Tilghman in the eye. "I knew you would," he said. "Which is why I gave this unhappy task to you. I beg your forgiveness, Tench."

"There is nothing to forgive, General," he said.

Washington nodded and frowned. "Then we shall begin."

Tilghman dipped his pen and held it at the ready. Washington spoke.

"Addressed to Henry Laurens, President, Continental Congress, United States. Dear Mr. Laurens..."

For more than an hour, Mr. Tilghman's pen scratched gently on the paper as the General spoke, interrupted only occasionally by messengers reporting conditions, or officers bringing information from the British lines, or Tilghman's own need to cut a new nib on an overused quill. With each interruption Washington's resolve seemed to Tilghman to weaken. He paused longer before proceeding, spoke more slowly when he did. All the while the snow fell, hissing faintly on the roof and walls of the tent.

As the short midwinter day began to subside, a disturbance arose in the camp. Shouts could be heard, calls and whistles.

General Washington rose, his face pale, and went to the tent door where a guard always stood. Tilghman heard the General speaking, sending the guard off to discover the cause of it then turning to his bed where his coat and hat and gloves lay.

"Your Excellency?" Mr. Tilghman said as the General began to dress.

"We've heard rumors of mutiny for some time, Mr. Tilghman," the General said. "I fear it has finally come to that."

Tilghman abandoned his inks and pens and reached for his own coat and gloves. Without waiting for the guard to return, they walked out into the sea of tents, Tilghman jogging to keep up with Washington's long energetic stride, following the noise to its source.

There, greatly to the surprise of Tilghman and Washington, they found men gathered around a large fire, stirring a pot of something boiling thickly and singing. One among them spotted the General and called out to him in a cheerful voice:
"Hail to our Chief!"

A chorus of voices joined his:

"Good Christmas, General! May God grant that Liberty prevail! Long live the United States!"

General Washington, wide-eyed with astonishment, stuttered his own greetings of Good Christmas, and God Bless, then strode on to the next fireside where he found conditions nearly identical to the last. And the next fireside, and the next.

At one fire he waved down the chorus of good cheer and asked, "Have you not suffered enough?"

A lieutenant, his head wrapped in a tattered scarf, responded: “Having come this far," he said, "we can but go the rest of the distance. With you to lead us, we can’t lose!”

Tilghman followed on as Washington completed a round of the camp. Nowhere did they find the expected misery and mutiny. Instead they found carols of Christmas and an air of celebration. With dark descending, and the night's cold with it, the General finally made his way to the command tent. He spoke not a word, but went in, picked up the letter that lay undisturbed on Mr. Tilghman's desk, folded it once and handed it to Tilghman.

"Burn it, Mr. Tilghman," he said, "then see that I'm left alone for a time, will you?"

Mr. Tilghman folded the letter again and tucked it into his breast pocket, then helped the General with his coat and hat, then turned to exit the tent again. As he did, he glanced one last time at Mr. Washington, and saw the General lowering himself to his knees.

Outside, Mr. Tilghman gave orders to the guard to see that the General was not disturbed, then started off toward the nearest fire, joining in on the song. "Noel, Noel, Born is the King of Israel."


NOTE: As far as I have been able to discern, the historical information in this story is factually correct. The Continental Army arrived at Valley Forge on December 19th, 1777. Most would still be in tents, with little time or able-bodied manpower to have made much progress building the 12' by 16' winter huts Washington had ordered. The General, in empathy with his troops, remained in a tent himself until most of the huts had been completed some weeks later. Tench Tilghman was, in fact, an aide-de-camp of General Washington's at Valley Forge that Christmas and would have been as likely as any of the other two then serving to have transcribed the letter he began to Congress. I suspect Washington might not have chosen Col. Robert Henry Harrison, as Harrison suffered from chronic illness; or that he would have chosen John Laurens to whose father (then President of Congress Henry Laurens) the letter may very well have been addressed.

Washington wasted no time seeking to rectify the lack of provisions as best he could from his end, sending out an order that Christmas Day that the following day (Dec 26th) detachments, under the order of the Commissary General, would be sent out "for the purpose of collecting flour, grain, cattle and pork for the army."

However, as the hardships of my ancestors strengthened their resolve as Mormon Pioneers, so did the hardships of that winter of 1777, and the help of a few key men, strengthen the resolve of the Continental Army and see them emerge in the spring a force to be reckoned with--as would be seen.

Among my sources, I viewed several pages of The George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress website. Most of the papers are images of the actual letters written by, for, or to Washington. Some are transcribed into a more readily readable modern font format. At any rate, they are fascinating to search and view. You can find them here:



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