In December 1777 the Revolution was not going well for the Americans. They had just surrendered their largest city (Philadelphia) to the British and the army was on the verge of disintegration. On December 19, George Washington lead about 12,000 men into winter quarters on a densely forested plateau near the small village of Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. His men were cold, hungry and ill-equipped, certainly no match for the powerful British army occupying Philadelphia under Sir William Howe and certainly no match for the harsh winter.
Washington set his men to building the camp that his army would call home for the next six months. The forests nearby provided ample wood to build log huts as well as to build fires and to incorporate into defensive works. Within three days the first huts had been constructed. The forests in the area contained numerous species of tree, like beech, maple, walnut, sycamore and pine amongst others. By the end of the winter few trees remained standing, such was the need for wood and much to the chagrin of local farmers.
For the army the supply situation was also dire. Men walked barefoot through the mud in tattered clothing. Food consisted of a flour-water mix that formed a tasteless cake and about 2,000 men died of various causes during the winter. Some generals believed that a mutiny was imminent. With food supplies all but exhausted Washington appointed his most trusted subordinate, Nathanael Greene, as chief quartermaster and implored the Continental Congress to help with supplies. Greene scoured the countryside for supplies and impressed what he found since he had no money to pay for it. Not realizing the conditions Congress did nothing until late January when five members visited the army. By the end of February supplies were flowing.
There were positives for the army during their stay at Valley Forge. The Prussian Baron Friedrich von Steuben embarked on a drilling program instilling in them then-modern European techniques and skills and creating an esprit de corps that helped to return the army’s morale and turned it into an effective fighting force. News came in of Horatio Gates’ victory over the British at Saratoga in late 1777 and the subsequent entry of the French into the war (though many were also calling for Gates to replace Washington in command). Also in June of 1778 the British evacuated Philadelphia and began returning to New York. Washington now had his opportunity to strike at them and win a hopefully decisive victory. The new discipline would serve the army well on June 28 at Monmouth in New Jersey.
With the army gone and the forests decimated the farmers who lived in the area wondered what was to become of them. Needing wood, they immediately began to reclaim the wood used in the defenses and the huts for their own uses. That wood would be used to build fences, tools, homes and anything else that could be constructed from wood. The fields were planted and much of the area was reforested. The land rebounded and after three years the the farms were producing fine harvests. When he returned to the area George Washington was pleased to find that the land had rebounded so well. The forests of Valley Forge had helped to shelter and protect our army and like a volunteer soldier when the conflict passed it returned to the fields and the harvest and is today preserved as the Valley Forge National Historic Park.