Elliott, Steven E. Surviving the Winters: Housing Washington’s Army during the American Revolution. Campaigns and Commanders, volume 72. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2021.

Book Review

Historians and readers often oversimplify military strategy as merely marching to and fro battles and moving units around during combat operations. In this manner, they treat armies and soldiers as mere chess pieces to be cleverly arranged to achieve victory. In his new book, Steven Elliott disputes this overly simplistic view. Instead, he asserts that finding winter shelter with nearby food supplies is equally essential in developing a winning military strategy in the eighteenth century. As an originative military historian, Elliott argues that General George Washington’s Revolutionary War decisions on housing his troops during the severe North American winters were innovative, significantly advancing military science state of the art. Starting at Valley Forge, the Rebels constructed massive log-hut cities to shelter the Continental Army during the brutal Little Ice Age winters. Elliot believes the officers and soldiers learned from this initial experience and greatly improved camp design and location to create warm and healthy huts, which “formed the backbone of the Patriots’ winning Fabian strategy (4)”.

Elliott first supports his thesis by examining the prevailing castrametation practices of eighteenth-century armies. Castrametation is the study of locating, designing, and constructing military camps to safely house soldiers between campaigns and battles. Objectives include the development of military bases protected from enemy attack, situated on the axis of secure transportation routes near food supplies, ordered to prevent disease dissemination, and near heating/wood supplies. Elliott grounds his analysis on influential European military treatises, including those written by the famous Maurice de Saxe and Frederick II, King of Prussia. These military strategy theoreticians emphasized the orderly arrangement of tent camps in temperate weather and billeting soldiers in barracks or towns during winter conditions.

Second, while Continental Army officers learned from the European treatises, the harsh North American environment required innovative thinking. Generally, the British seaborne troops wintered in port cities, with the Continental Army arrayed in the adjoining rural countryside. As a result, the Commander in chief faced difficult winter encampment decisions. If Washington dispersed his army to remote cities per the European practice, he would lose close supervision over the soldiers, and they might not return in the spring. Additionally, he wished to stay near the British forces to prevent foraging and civilian depravations. However, in doing so, he exposed his army to a surprise attack. Therefore, the Continental Army had to construct a cantonment or fortified military camp consisting of soldier-built log huts. Elliott characterized the Continental Army’s hut-making as “the doctrine of huttification. (147). Ideally, Washington sought a defensible position for a cantonment close to the British-controlled cities supported by passable highways and plentiful food supplies. As no one location exhibited all the requisite attributes, finding a site with the right combination of advantages was a balancing act. Washington solicited his officers’ views on the best possible encampment site and made the final selection before each winter.

Third, Elliott ably demonstrates that the Continental Army became better and better at adapting and implementing castramentation principles. As the war progressed, the soldiers built sturdy and healthy log huts more proficiently, critical to maintaining the army as an effective fighting force. He argues that Washington’s army critically benefited from hut-building and castramentation practices learning curves, and each winter’s camp was better suppliable and healthier. By the war’s end, the soldiers had “no longer reason to complain” about their winter quarters (148).

Elliott concludes, “By providing shelter, streamlining discipline and supply, and keeping a sizable army concentrated close to the enemy, hut complexes stood as distinct innovations that formed a crucial component to Continental strategy. The American log hut city represents one of the most important and original contributions to the art of war (176).” Descendants and public historians agree, recognizing the cantonment’s importance by preserving and memorializing the encampment locations with national and state parks. Valley Forge and Jockey Hollow are the two best-known examples.

As Elliott adeptly supports his thesis with well-argued evidence, there are few quibbles or criticisms. I highly recommend Surviving the Winters to both scholars of the American Revolution and general readers. It is a much-needed message that military strategy considerations such as logistics, healthcare, and now castrametation are equally crucial to campaign planning and battlefield performance.[i] Too often, we forget about the real concerns of officers and soldiers, including shelter from the elements, food, and clothing. Elliot’s monograph is a good reminder that practical, on-the-ground considerations, not armchair generals, drive real strategy.[ii] Fortunately, Washington’s strategic military genius extended to understanding and employing effective castrametation principles.

[i] For those interested in Revolutionary War logistics, I recommend Herrera, Ricardo A. Feeding Washington’s Army: Surviving the Valley Forge Winter of 1778. Chapel Hill: the University of North Carolina Press, 2022, for those interested in healthcare military considerations I recommend, Wehrman, Andrew M. The Contagion of Liberty: The Politics of Smallpox in the American Revolution. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2022.

[ii] British General John Burgoyne is an example of armchair analysis of military campaign planning. His strategy ignored logistics, food, and shelter considerations, which doomed his 1777 invasion from Canada and led to his defeat at Saratoga.

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