Herrera, Ricardo A. Feeding Washington’s Army: Surviving the Valley Forge Winter of 1778. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2022.
Expert military leaders assert that the most successful general officers study logistics while novices study strategy. Ricardo A. Herrera provides a Revolutionary War example of this famous maxim in his short but insightful new book on Valley Forge. Contrary to popular perception, Herrera argues that Washington took more considerable risks in gathering supplies than any individual campaign decision.
Most Americans have an image of starving and sick but stoic Continental Army soldiers enduring an exceedingly harsh winter in a freezing Valley Forge camp. Historians note the soldierly sacrifices and Baron Frederick von Steuben’s training for sustaining the troops through the snow, ice, and mud without sufficient food, fuel, and clothing.
However, Ricardo A. Herrera offers a novel interpretation of the Continental Army in Valley Forge and the British Army in Philadelphia during the winter of 1777-8. First, the American Rebels did not merely sit in camp and wait for food and supplies to arrive. George Washington sensed that none were on the way and that he had two choices. First, he could disperse the army to multiple locations making it easier to feed the soldiers by not overwhelming a central location. However, in distributing the army, Washington would cede Southeastern Pennsylvania to the British and expose valuable arms and supply depots to British attack. Secondly, Washington could send out foraging parties to gather food and supplies from nearby residents. As the Continental Army’s war chests were empty, the farmers would receive worthless promissory notes for their food, forage, and supplies. Recognizing that this option would enrage some people, Washington ordered a grand forage by his best light infantry troops despite the risks.
Herrera aptly tells the story of foraging missions by Nathanael Greene, Anthony Wayne, and Henry Lee throughout Southeastern Pennsylvania and western New Jersey. As Washington’s best soldiers left camp, Valley Forge became vulnerable to British attack. Additionally, these small missions were open to individual attacks and piecemeal reduction with less than one thousand soldiers. While the prime task was to obtain food and forage, wagons were the essential items to confiscate. More times than not, there was available food for the army but not sufficient transport.
In one of the book’s most compelling aspects, the British did not attack the less heavily defended Valley Forge camp or make concerted efforts to stop the individual foraging missions. Herrera reports that, contrary to popular lore, the British in Philadelphia were not warm and well fed. Instead, he argues that the British were most worried about their foraging activities and were too busy gathering food and supplies to attack the American Rebels.
General readers and military historians will enjoy Herrera’s well-written monograph. While Herrera’s prose is easy to follow, several maps would enhance the reader’s experience, especially those unfamiliar with the geography of Southeastern Pennsylvania and Western New Jersey. Additionally, maps would help tie together the three foraging campaigns and denote areas covered by British foraging parties.
Despite this editorial quibble, I highly recommend “Feeding Washington’s Army” to those interested in assessing difficult command decisions and the real story of how the under-resourced Continental Army survived the winter. Too often, readers believe that military history is simply battle accounts. Herrera’s volume will disabuse them of that prejudice.
For those interested in hearing directly from Professor Herrera, here is a link to a recent presentation at the American Revolution Institute of the Society of Cincinnati.