Hero of Stony Point - James Barnes

Valley Forge and the Long Dark Days

In spite of the gallant behavior of the American troops at the Battle of Germantown, in which, as Wayne writes, they were all but victorious, or, at least, must have been, but for certain untoward happenings and ill-judged arrangements, the British army succeeded in occupying Philadelphia. The next reverse of the American cause lay in the capture of the forts on the Delaware River, which had hitherto effectually prevented the British ships from reaching the army at Philadelphia with supplies. In the first place, lack of sufficient available forces for defense had led early to the abandonment of the post at Billingsport, in order to strengthen those at Red Bank and Mud Island nearer to the city. Both these places had been effectively fortified, and were able to withstand a determined attack by a large force of "Hessian" troops on October 22, repulsing them finally with the loss of 200 men and their commander, Count Donop. With the intention of applying a more promising method of attack, Howe then planted a strong battery on Province Island, opposite to Fort Mifflin on Mud Island, and made elaborate preparations to bombard the works. Washington, although strongly urged by several of his advisors—Wayne among them—to assault and destroy these new works, declined, on the ground that his forces were insufficient, and that nothing could be done before the arrival of re-enforcements from the north. In spite of this decision of the Commander, Wayne made the bold suggestion that he be allowed with his corps to attempt the capture of Howe's batteries, but this proposal also was rejected. So, with the policy of caution consistently adhered to, the result was that Howe completed his preparations without interference, and, in his own good time, proceeded to cannonade Fort Mifflin, compelling the garrison to withdraw, after a gallant defense, simply because there was no fort left to defend. This defense Washington characterized as calculated to "reflect the highest honor upon the officers and men of the garrison."

It seems regrettable, indeed, that no attack on the British battery was attempted, and that General Wayne thus missed an opportunity to add still further to the record of his glorious deeds. That he would have given an excellent account of himself in any such attempt cannot be doubted. He might even have been successful. Fort Mifflin fell on October 15, 1777, thus closing a campaign full of brilliant deeds of bravery neutralized by one long succession of blunders and miscarriages of plans, which served to snatch victory from the very grasp of the American patriots over and over again.

The season was then so far advanced that further operations had to be delayed until the spring of 1778, and the dreary and dismal days of Valley Forge began. While, as there can be no doubt, the American cause was largely hampered by actual poverty and the difficulty of always obtaining necessary supplies at the time required, it is also humiliating to record that further obstacles were interposed by political corruption, official incompetence and an almost unbelievable tendency to subordinate public necessity to personal considerations. Thus, while Washington's army, which had been so carefully preserved from the risks of unsupported attacks on Province Island, and other points, were suffering at Valley Forge from lack of clothing, shoes, and even food, all kinds of preposterous excuses were made for the wanton delay in supplying these necessities. Particularly conspicuous for dereliction in this respect was the Clothier-General of Pennsylvania, a certain James 14 lease, who actually refused to supply the clothing needed for the soldiers, without a properly attested Order of Council, and even then persisted in all kinds of delays until the winter was passed and spring again opened.

Unless history entirely misrepresents this gentleman, he was a wholly incompetent block-head, swelled with the pride of an important office, and far more solicitous to obtain personal adulation, and to persist in his own methods of doing things, than to see that the soldiers were properly cared for. He seems to have spent a large part of his time in traveling from home, and on his return to have observed a policy, which he may have considered "economical," of retaining as much cloth as possible in storage. In striking contrast to such a person stands the heroic figure of Anthony Wayne, who, unmindful, as usual, of the hardships suffered by himself, wrote constantly, and at great length, to the authorities, urging, protesting, complaining and demanding, as action on the matter of supplies was constantly delayed. From January until April he wrote these letters to anyone and everyone who could at all avail to assist him, if so disposed; to Richard Peters, Secretary of War, to Thomas Wharton, President of Pennsylvania, to the Speaker of the State Assembly, and to the nearly unapproachable Clothier-General himself. But even the best and ablest of these people seems to have been so hampered in his powers by party conflicts, incompetence in responsible positions and general "red tape," that nothing resulted from any of them save promises and excuses, the latter almost as ingenious as absurd. Thus, his appeal to the State President (or Governor) is answered by the allegation that the clothing asked for had been prepared, but that its delivery was being held up because of the "want of buttons." On another occasion the excuse is that an "immense quantity of clothing" had been ordered, and that its non-delivery was a real mystery. In order to expedite matters somewhat, Wayne ordered and purchased a quantity of cloth for uniforms, which he purposed having made up in camp, hut he was informed that the merchants declined to deliver "until they know where to receive their pay," and that "the Clothier-General has peremptorily refused paying Col. Miller's orders in favor of these merchants."

Late in March, after nearly three months of hunger, cold and nakedness in camp, Wayne dispatched Colonel Stephen Bayard to Lancaster with requisitions for the sorely needed supplies. Nearly four weeks later, on April 23, this officer wrote from Lancaster, as follows;

"Mr. Mease came home yesterday, and consented at last to let me have linen for twelve-hundred shirts, provided it could be made up here. Mr. Howell, Major Werts and myself engaged it should, and for that purpose we have been in and through every family in this town, in order to get them made up, and I have the satisfaction to inform you that they are to he ready in eight days from this. As the expenses of staying here are great, I would gladly know whether I must remain, and bring them with me, or come immediately to camp. It gives me pain to relate the difficulty of getting anything from Mease. Waiting his slow motion, dancing attendance, etc., are insufferable. Had I full powers, it should be otherwise, but he prides himself upon his being confined to no particular state."

Even at this late date matters progressed with the familiar slowness. Supplies of necessities that should have been promptly dispatched to camp continued to come in in small quantities. On one occasion, Wayne relates in a pathetic letter to Mr. Peters the whole situation and gives a pen picture of Valley Forge: "I hoped to be able to clothe the division under my command, but the distresses of the other part of the troops belonging to this state were such as to beggar all description. Humanity obliged me to divide what would have in part clothed six hundred men among thirteen regiments, which was also necessary in order to prevent mutiny."

In another letter to Mr. Peters, he writes, after a brief absence: "On my arrival in camp I found the division in a much worse condition for the want of clothing and every other matter than I had expected. I am endeavoring to remedy the defects, and hope soon to restore order, introduce discipline and content, all which was much wanting and desertion prevailing fast. I flatter myself that I have so much the esteem and confidence of my troops that desertion will no longer take place. I am happy to inform you that there is not a single instance since my return."

In another place he remarks in a way that shows the depths of misery achieved at the camp: "I am not fond of danger, but I would most cheerfully agree to enter into action once every week in place of visiting each but of my encampment (which is my constant practice), and where objects strike my eye and ear whose wretched condition beggars all description. The whole army is sick and crawling with vermin."

The bitter fruits of official incompetence and corruption, including the excuseless blunder of retaining such creatures as Mease in important positions, and the preposterous wranglings of opposing parties in the state councils, had doomed hundreds of brave men to the hardships mentioned. For they did not suffer from cold alone, nor even from difficulty in always securing food, as was perhaps inevitable, but from the utter lack of necessities that could readily have been supplied by a well-organized and efficient management, for the government, though sometimes pressed for money, was by no means bankrupt. As late as May 4,1778, Wayne wrote to President Wharton:

"Enclosed is the return of the thirteen regiments belonging to the state of Pennsylvania. You will observe that they are very weak. The chief part of those returned sick at present is for want of clothing, being too naked to appear on the parade. Our officers in particular are in a most wretched condition. I can't conceive the reason why they are not supplied. I purchased cloth, etc., at York, last January sufficient to clothe a great part of them, but have not heard what has been done with it. I know it must be distressing to your excellency to hear so many repetitions of our wants, but whatever pain it may give you, I hourly experience much more from the complaints and view of worthy fellows, who are conscious of meriting some attention, and whose wretched condition can not be worse. They think any change must be for the better, and too many have risked desertion. The enclosed order has lately put some stop to it, and had we clothing I am confident that we should not have any more leave us, where we now have twenty."

In view of all the difficulties besetting him daily, it is scarcely remarkable that Wayne writes in one of his letters to Peters, in the latter part of January, as nearly a complaint as ever escaped him. "I am too much interested in the freedom and happiness of America," he says, "to withdraw from the army at this crisis. I believe I have a much greater share of care and difficulty than ought to come to the proportion of one officer. Unfortunately, there is no other general in the Pennsylvania Line belonging to this army. We derive but little assistance from the civil authority, and every let and hindrance in the power of the Clothier-General seems to be thrown in the way. So that I am almost tempted to. But I will, at all events, provide for my poor fellows before I consult my own ease and happiness."

There was never any intention in Anthony Wayne's mind of resigning. He only hoped to convey the bitterness of his feelings. But while he and other commanding officers were engaged in struggling to keep their soldiers from dying of starvation, cold and disease, Congress saw fit to still further embarrass their efforts to secure order and efficiency by the passage of laws cutting the pay of military officers, or rather providing that they receive their remuneration for services in the form of half pay for seven years after the end of the war. This may have been a necessary step—it probably was, in the almost exhausted state of finances, but it created great opposition and disaffection among those immediately affected, many of whom were by no means wealthy, none of them favorably impressed with the idea of the buying power of the then greatly depreciated currency. Wayne, as usual, sincere patriot that he was, took the most favorable view of the matter, and registered no complaints whatever on his own behalf. His remarks upon the matter were concerned solely with the sufferings of others. In a letter to a good friend of his, Sharp Delany, in May, 1778, he writes:

"The difficulty I experience in keeping good officers from resigning, and causing them to do their duty in the line, has almost determined me to give it up, and return to my Sabine fields, but I first wish to see the enemy sail for the West Indies . . . . For my own part. I have a competency, and neither look nor wish for any gratuity, other than liberty and honor; but the discontented say that seven years' half pay would not near make up for the depreciation of the money."

Only the spirit of self-sacrifice and the great devotion to a great cause kept the little army together during the dark days of the winter of '77.