For Kids: "These are the times that try men's souls." Thomas Paine
The Continental army, led by George Washington, had suffered a series of defeats. The British had moved into Philadelphia. The Continental army could not seem to get them out. Washington took his troops to Valley Forge, which was located about 20 miles outside of Philadelphia. From there, he could keep an eye on the British, while he planned what to do next.
No battles were fought at Valley Forge. But, many men died. During the six months Washington kept the Continental Army camped at Valley Forge, about one in six men died of disease, mostly influenza. Conditions were terrible. It was winter. Men were housed in crude log cabins. Food, medicine, and clothing were in short supply. By February, meat was in short supply. The men missed their families. They worried about their farms. The militia and Minutemen had participated when fighting was near their homes. But after a battle, they expected to go home. For those men who had enlisted in the Continental Army, their terms were nearly up. Washington was worried that, come spring, he might not have an army to lead.
Washington believed it was critically important to keep the army together at all costs. The Revolutionary War was not about gaining or defending territory. It was about ideals. The men knew they were fighting for liberty. Most understood what that meant. It's why they enlisted in the first place. But it did not help matters that they had lost several small battles in a row. Or, that nearby in Philadelphia, only 20 miles away, the British were warm, housed, fed, and clothed; while the Continental army was cold and hungry and dying.
Washington needed to train his men to become an actual army. He kept them drilling constantly. This helped to keep them warm. And they began to learn how to be an army.
Washington also needed men that could fight effectively, and could also be used as a symbol of freedom to give heart and hope to those at home. Washington needed the home front to be as strong and as committed as his men, so they would provide information, food, clothing, and morale.
Martha Washington was a wonderful help to George Washington's plans. His men were starving, their feet freezing in the snow, and their clothes far too thin for the weather. Martha helped to keep them warm and fed by donating as much food as she could and by sewing socks and other garments. Martha Washington was a tiny woman, just shy of five feet tall, but she had impressive organization skills. She rallied many local women to help her. The soldiers truly appreciated her efforts. Those who survived the conditions at Valley Forge knew that without her help, and her commitment to their welfare, many more men would have died. The men addressed her as "Lady Washington" in great and lifelong appreciation.
More help for the troops came in the form of a Prussian volunteer, Baron Von Steuben, a military leader. He was shocked at the lack of American fighting discipline he found at Valley Forge. Washington urged him to train the Continental Army, Prussian-style. Under Baron Von Steuben, the men learned how to march, how to fight, how to follow orders; and slowly, the men became a more professional army. As the army became stronger, they became firmly resolved.
Still more help came through the efforts of Benjamin Franklin. While the troops marched and trained and shivered at Valley Forge, Benjamin Franklin was busy securing help from the French.
In May 1778, word arrived at Valley Forge that the French had entered the war on the side of the colonists! That changed everything!
Upon hearing the French had entered the war, the British troops in Philadelphia departed the city and marched towards New York. With its many waterways, New York offered a much better position should the French send their navy.
Washington and his (by now) trained troops secured Philadelphia, cleaned up Valley Forge, and marched towards New York in pursuit of the British.
They caught up with the British at the Battle of Monmouth. The battle itself was a draw, but it clearly showed that the Continental army had learned a great deal while training during the cold winter at Valley Forge.
Washington had achieved his goal. Although there was some desertion and much illness, Washington had kept the Continental army together. With the entry of the French into the Revolutionary War on the side of the colonists, things were definitely looking up!