2003 Choice Outstanding Academic Title
Of the many dramatic episodes of the American Revolution, perhaps none is more steeped in legend than the Valley Forge winter. Paintings show Continentals huddled around campfires and Washington kneeling in the frozen woods, praying for his army’s deliverance. To this day schoolchildren are taught that Valley Forge was the “turning point of the Revolution”—the event that transformed a ragged group of soldiers into a fighting army. But was Valley Forge really the “crucible of victory” it has come to represent in American history? Now, two hundred and twenty-five years later, Wayne Bodle has written the first comprehensive history of the winter encampment of 1777–78.
The traditional account portrays Valley Forge in the 1770s as a desolate wilderness far removed from civilian society. Washington’s army was forced to endure one of the coldest winters in memory with inadequate food and supplies, despite appeals to the Continental Congress. When the mild weather of spring finally arrived, the Prussian baron Friedrich von Steuben drilled the demoralized soldiers into a first-rate army that would go on to stunning victories at Monmouth and, eventually, at Yorktown.
Bodle presents a very different picture of Valley Forge—one that revises both popular and scholarly perceptions. Far from being set in a wilderness, the Continental Army’s quarters were deliberately located in a settled area. And although there was a provisions crisis, Washington overstated the case in order to secure additional support. (A shrewd man, Washington mostly succeeded at keeping his army supplied with food, clothing, and munitions. Farmers from the interior provided food that ensured that the army didn’t starve.) As for Steuben’s role in training the soldiers, Bodle argues that it was not the decisive factor others have seen in the army’s later victories.
The freshness of Bodle’s approach is that he offers a complete picture of events both inside and outside the camp boundaries. We see what happens when two armies descend on a diverse and divided community. Anything but stoically passive, the Continentals were effective agents on their own behalf and were actively engaged with their civilian hosts and British foes. The Valley Forge Winter is an example of the “new military history” at its best—a history that puts war back into its social context.
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Wayne Bodle is Assistant Professor of History at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. His articles have appeared in numerous journals, including Pennsylvania History, the Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, and the William and Mary Quarterly.Review:
“This important study challenges most of the accepted views of Valley Forge.”
—J. C. Bradford, CHOICE
“Wayne Bodle’s The Valley Forge Winter is the first comprehensive study of the Continental Army’s most famous encampment, despite its prominence in Revolutionary War historiography and popular memory.
Overall, this is an important book that deserves a wide readership. Bodle addresses a rich array of social, political, military, and economic topics that greatly enhances our understanding of Valley Forge and the Revolutionary War.”
—Michael P. Gabriel, Journal of American History
“[The Valley Forge Winter] is not a retelling of the quintessential American morality play of military virtue, stoicism, self-sacrifice, and eventual moral and battlefield triumph set against the backdrop of previous defeats and civilian neglect. Rather, it is a model study of war and society that argues convincingly for the Continental Army’s service ‘as a partial proxy for faltering civilian political legitimacy’ in Revolutionary Pennsylvania. . . . This book is a welcome contribution that should be considered seriously by scholars and interested readers.”
—Ricardo A. Herrera, Journal of Military History
“An excellent book by a scholar who has written extensively on the Middle Colonies and served for some years on the staff of the National Park Service at Valley Forge. . . . Bodle rescues Washington and his comrades-in-arms by looking at Valley Forge in the context of a nine-month campaign that began with British General Sir William Howe’s invasion of Pennsylvania in the fall of 1777 and American reversals at Brandywine and Germantown. . . . As Wayne Bodle says, Valley Forge may offer fewer morality lessons for schoolchildren than previously believed, but it ‘forged a temporal—and especially a spatial—template for the rest of the war in the north.’”
—Don Higginbotham, William and Mary Quarterly
“While iconoclastic in one sense, Valley Forge Winter actually makes Washington and the American army look better than does the conventional story of Valley Forge.”
—Mackubin T. Owens, Claremont Review of Books
“Wayne K. Bodle strips the Valley Forge account of many layers of legend to craft a carefully researched, well-written, and judiciously argued interpretation that places the Valley Forge experience in political, cultural, and military context.”
—Charles H. Lippy, History: Reviews of New Books
“The Valley Forge Winter is not a simple retelling of the oft-repeated story about the famous encampment of the Continental Army during the winter of 1777–1778. Author Wayne Bodle proposes that while it was a difficult experience to endure, the conditions were not nearly as bad as retained in our national memory. He does so with an interesting, informative and well-documented narrative that supports his thesis. Credit must be given to Bodle for a well-researched effort.
Valley Forge Winter may provide different explanations than what some readers may be aware of, but it is a well-crafted history in which the substance and conclusion of the story of the winter of 1777–1778 survives unscathed.”
—MAJ Glenn Williams, AUS-Ret., On Point: The Journal of Army History
“The book is a wordy and detailed analysis of the time and events of the period, and should prove worthwhile for readers who want a more accurate picture of the real lessons learned at Valley Forge.”
—Al Holliday, Pennsylvania Magazine
“What’s fresh about The Valley Forge Winter is the depth to which Bodle’s scholarship goes. It sets the stage both militarily and politically for the encampment, and through reminiscences by those who were there, recounts what really happened among the troops who were coached into shape by Von Steuben.
Bodle takes a look through the patriotic sheen that often blurs the Valley Forge experience. He cites what has become legend, explaining how (even then) the guys at the top saw the need to put spin on facts. Why Washington had to, or thought he had to, is worth knowing. And he didn’t even have a press secretary.
Development of Valley Forge into legendary status was needed to give a potential country something to hang its three-cornered hat on. As this study shows, the reality of citizen soldiers would have been enough.”
—David Sallinger, McKeesport Daily News
“Readers will develop a broader understanding reading The Valley Forge Winter: Civilians and Soldiers in War of life in this area during that winter. It will enhance libraries’ history area and give historians information as they do their own research. The lay historian will enjoy a well presented documentation of that famous winter. History classes in high schools and colleges will find this an outstanding resource for their students.”
—Mary Smith, Reviewers Consortium
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