It would be easy to look at those who have succeeded in life and point to their success as the product of a constant succession of kind years. It would be easy to look upon a Charles Willson Peale painting of George Washington and see the general as all-conquering. Or John Trumbull’s “Surrender of Lord Cornwallis” and see the Continental Army as an unstoppable force.
But to view success through such a short-sighted scope would be a disservice not only to those who have triumphed throughout history, but to yourself in your future.
Every year brings different perspectives. A good year, an uneventful year, or a year we wish to forget—we’ve experienced all of them, each one playing a significant role in who we are today. Our heroes of the Revolutionary War can never attest more firmly to this fact than during the late 1770s.
The Years That Forged America
Gen. Washington and the Continental Army needed the Christmas Miracle of 1776 in Trenton, New Jersey, and the follow-up victory up the road in Princeton a week later. It guaranteed the Revolution would continue because it ignited morale for the new nation and helped secure more recruits and volunteers for future campaigns. The winter of 1777–1778, however, was a different story.
The Pennsylvania defeats at Brandywine and Germantown, the Paoli Massacre, and the capture of the American capital Philadelphia brought the idea of Divine Providence into question. Although the victory at Saratoga, New York, brought relief from a dismal fall and winter, it also brought confusion and strife, as the victorious Gen. Horatio Gates began to undermine Washington and campaign for the position of commander-in-chief.
It was a position he long felt he deserved. Congress, which had fled Philadelphia and lost faith in Washington, indulged Gates’s ambitions. Not only did Gates secure a much-needed victory at Saratoga, but it‘s argued that had Washington won at Germantown and recaptured Philadelphia, it could have brought the war to an end. But that was not meant to be.
After Germantown and a standstill battle at White Marsh, the Continental Army secured winter quarters at Valley Forge, about 20 miles northwest of Philadelphia.
Lessons for Modern Times
Washington and the soldiers of the Continental Army experienced major swings in the short span of two winters. Despite not capturing Quebec City in December 1775, that year had gone well. The following year had begun excellently, then nearly fell apart, only to end on a miracle. Now they found themselves building 1,000 log huts in mid-December and, depending on which state they hailed from, struggling to find enough food or obtain proper clothing to survive the winter.
To make matters worse, local farmers preferred selling to the British, who paid in hard currency (silver and sometimes gold), rather than the American soldiers who paid with the practically worthless Continental scrip. Many of the soldiers wore cloth around their feet because they had no shoes. Blankets were in short supply. Good health was almost as elusive.
Approximately 12,000 soldiers walked into Valley Forge. After desertions, hospitalization from disease or starvation, and death, the number was down to 6,000. It was a brutal winter, not so much because of the temperature, but because of the circumstances.
As with any and every year, however, it’s about how you manage it. It is about what you do with those devastating moments that seem to drag on ad infinitum, those winters of isolation.
The Continental Army decided to make the most of it. It was time to put into practice what had been and would be required of them, moving forward. In late February, Baron von Steuben, a Prussian officer who had been elevated to the General Staff in Frederick the Great’s army, joined the American cause as a volunteer and used his superior knowledge of technical warfare to train the soldiers.
With the assistance of numerous American officers, including Nathaniel Greene and Alexander Hamilton, the Continental Army would be drilled, maintained, and organized as a professional army. The times of dropping weaponry and running wildly in a chaotic retreat, as some militiamen had done at Matson’s Ford in December, were over.
Fire! Half-cock firelock! Handle cartridge! Prime! Shut pan! Charge with cartridge! Draw rammer! Ram down cartridge! Return!
Speed was the name of the game. Be faster than the enemy. Drill so often it becomes second nature, so often you won’t think when the enemy arrives; you will simply do. The constant drilling. The continual motions. The handling of the muskets and bayonets. The daily routine of fighting with and without weapons. The recitation of formations. In the bitter cold, in the warming spring, and into the launch of summer.
The Continental Army would be pushed and primed like a musket from fire to fire.
Grit and Determination, or Discipline?
Grit and determination can win a battle. It can even supply a miracle. Discipline, however, wins wars.
Many of us meet the day-to-day grind with grit and determination. That mentality may win us some battles. But it’s never smooth. It’s never second-nature. In fact, it’s just that: a grind. We battle the same exact issues over and over, and even waking up may become a strain. The same issues we battled in 2019, we battled in 2018, 2017, 2016, and so on.
Life can be viewed as unrelated individual battles, as if each conflict simply falls out of the sky. Or life can be viewed as a war with predetermined battles scheduled for fighting, worthy of preparation.
Washington knew his army couldn’t win by mere grit and determination, although those two aspects were absolutely necessary. He knew his army required something only a von Steuben could render: discipline.
The Dividends of Discipline
The immediate battles following the winter at Valley Forge would prove the worth of the army’s training. Against major odds, more than 2,000 American soldiers and militiamen avoided capture against superior British numbers at Barren Hill, which was very close to Matson’s Ford.
In fact, the night before the battle, Gen. William Howe held a dinner in celebration of the certain victory the British would achieve. But the most important was the Battle of Monmouth, which proved to be the final battle the British would wage in the North. Although the Americans didn’t win the battle, they weren’t defeated, and it proved to the British that the Americans were now a fully trained and prepared army.
The following winter, von Steuben completed his “Regulations for the Order and Discipline of the Troops of the United States,” based on the training conducted at Valley Forge. It would be disseminated among the American officers to train the soldiers, and would prove a military roadmap for the Continental Army.
It’s interesting to note the name of the Continental Army’s quarters for the 1777–78 winter: Valley Forge. It would be hard to imagine a more fitting name for what would be required of that undisciplined army. In order to reach the mountaintop, one must begin in the valley. In order to be perfected, one must be forged in the fire.
No one enjoys their Valley Forge moments. No one in the Continental Army equated that winter with peace and tranquility. But without those moments, we can never hope to rise above the grind. And without Valley Forge, it’s doubtful that the Continental Army could have had the discipline necessary to defeat the world’s most powerful military force.
Even if this 2020 becomes a harsh winter, view it as your Valley Forge. Not as a moment to regret, but a moment to grow. A moment to become fully prepared for the future.
As much as we may not want it, we all need a Valley Forge.
Dustin Bass is the co-founder of The Sons of History, a YouTube series and weekly podcast about all things history. He is a former-journalist-turned-entrepreneur. He is also an author.
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