The following is an excerpt from Feeding Washington’s Army: Surviving the Valley Forge Winter of 1778 by Ricardo A. Herrera available everywhere books and e-books are sold.
Faced with the collapse of the commissariat and the all too real potential of scattering the army across eastern Pennsylvania so that it might feed itself, Washington was on the horns of a dilemma. Without food, the army would be compelled to abandon Valley Forge and surrender all hope of challenging the British for control of southeastern Pennsylvania. Choosing the more difficult path—maintaining the army’s position at Valley Forge—Washington set in motion the Continental Army’s riskiest and most complex operation it executed while there, the Grand Forage of February 1778. Washington had nothing but poor prospects before him. The army had to maintain its position in the Great Valley. Faced with by this, Washington acted decisively so that his soldiers might survive, so that the army might take the field in the spring and continue the war for American independence. The Grand Forage of 1778 was an act of desperation and a demonstration of Washington’s willingness to accept risk while meeting a crisis. By February, the army was on the verge of dispersal or dissolution. Its logistical system had collapsed. Without food, soldiers faced starvation. Without food, Valley Forge could not be held. Confronted by a stark range of choices, Washington acted, and launched a grand forage to gather up as much livestock, forage, flour, and other needed goods to feed the army.
The expedition involved some fifteen hundred to two thousand soldiers of the Continental Army, a substantial portion of the roughly sixty-five hundred able-bodied, armed, and uniformed Continentals at Valley Forge. It included elements of the Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, and New Jersey militias and contingents of the Continental and Pennsylvania navies. The forage spanned southeastern Pennsylvania, southern New Jersey, northern and central Delaware, and northeastern Maryland. It lasted nearly six weeks and engaged an estimated twenty-three hundred British soldiers (about one-sixth of the able-bodied British force in Philadelphia), as well as several vessels and crews of the Royal Navy.
“Without food, Valley Forge could not be held.”
The Grand Forage of 1778 is largely unexamined. Historians and biographers of the major actors have treated it narrowly or failed to grasp the full picture. Generally, works that do treat the American encampment and the British occupation of Philadelphia have given the forage only the most casual attention. The uneven coverage of the forage is due to two central factors. First, compared to the campaigns and battles that bookended it, the Grand Forage was small indeed. In terms of raw numbers, the thirty-eight hundred or so Continentals, Britons, Pennsylvanians, Delawareans, Marylanders, and New Jerseyans who took part quite simply paled in comparison to the several thousand soldiers who had fought at Brandywine and Germantown before the encampment, or would fight at Monmouth afterwards. Yet, while the forage was smaller than the Philadelphia Campaign or the Battle of Monmouth, a closer study reveals in fine detail some of the operational, logistical, and civil-military complexities, constraints, and opportunities commanders in the War for Independence faced. An examination of this foraging expedition reveals a side of warfare that that the larger battles of the War for Independence cannot, the vital efforts at sustaining the soldiers who fought. Hence, a closer study of the combatants’ military and logistical operations reveals the great extent to which they devoted their time and energy at feeding themselves and how they accomplished those tasks. By considering operational and logistical efforts together, a better and more nuanced picture of the armies’ capabilities emerges.
Ricardo A. Herrera is professor of military history at the School of Advanced Military Studies at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College.