Walking back to a hotel in Omaha recently we were assaulted by strong winds and icy snow. The temperature dropped quickly and we were trying to hurry back to get warm. Even though I was wearing adequate clothing for the conditions, I was so very cold and wind was blinding my eyes.
Since I had just finished reading an account of the winter our colonial army spent at Valley Forge during the winter of 1777-78, I thought about those brave men. Most of the 10,000 troops who arrived on the hilltop were without shoes or any form of adequate clothing. They were hungry and exhausted. Many died that winter of illness, starvation, and exposure. In fact, more than 2000 of them did not see the spring.
They lived in tents until more permanent structures could be built. The hilltop was defensible if necessary, but also open to the winter winds. What trees were there were taken down for building and firewood, and had to be hauled long distances to the encampment. Food was scarce. Snow and the cold were discouraging. They hunted for, bought, or “procured” needed food and supplies from the nearby countryside.
The pathways they walked were covered in mud from melting snow and blood from frostbitten uncovered feet. Conditions were deplorable with 12 men in a small wooden hut. But somehow, George Washington found a way to use this time to train his rabble of shopkeepers, traders, and farmers into a real army.
While I was hurrying back to the hotel, I briefly considered taking off my shoes and socks to see how it must have felt to the shoeless men at Valley Forge, but I couldn’t do it. My respect for them rose much higher.
We owe them a debt we can never repay.