Short of Troops at Valley Forge, Fearing an Imminent British Attack, Washington Orders Recruits Be Sent Immediately to the Encampment

Even those needing smallpox vaccinations must be sent: “You will suffer none of them to be detained.”

Key Facts

  • A very uncommon letter of Washington from the Valley Forge winter encampment
  • At a dangerous moment for the Continental Army, he fears a British attack
  • He implements a new policy of inoculations, which, though unheralded, may rank with his most important decisions of the war

In early December 1777, with the British occupying Philadelphia and American fortunes sinking, Washington and his generals considered the difficult decision of where to take up winter quarters. At first the region between Reading and Lancaster, PA, or somewhere else west of Philadelphia, seemed likely. Generals Knox, Maxwell and Wayne favored such an encampment. But Generals Stirling and Irvine showed that the Valley Forge area, west of Philadelphia but close to it, had greater military advantages: it was defensible and positioned so that the army could not be cut off; it possessed needed resources; and it allowed for a concentrated encampment that would afford the opportunity for training troops. However, Wilmington, DE was the choice of almost as many generals, as they saw the small city, 25 miles south of Philadelphia, as the best quartering site that was also a defensive post. Generals Greene, Smallwood, Cadwalader, Duportail and others were among those. The arguments against Wilmington, however, were telling. General Sullivan feared that at Wilmington a British force coming down the river could easily surprise the Americans or draw Washington out of quarters. Lafayette put it, in advocating a withdrawal to an interior place like Valley Forge, "There we shall be quiet, there we can discipline and instruct our troops, we can be able to begin a early campaign, and we shall not fear to be carried into a winter campaign if it pleases General Howe." Another significant problem with Wilmington was that the troops would be spread out. General Weedon asserted that the troops training separately was a fatal flaw, saying "Cannoning by detachment is a dangerous experiment." Washington apparently agreed that Wilmington was not safe and selected Valley Forge.

Amongst the hallowed names of Lafayette, Knox, Wayne, Greene, Stirling and the rest, George Weedon is less familiar. Yet his life and career intertwined with that of Washington for decades and the two men were friends. Weedon was an officer in the Virginia Regiment led Washington during the French and Indian War, after which he was captain in the Virginia militia. When the Revolution broke out he led the 3rd Virginia Regiment, which arrived to join the Continental Army in September 1776. In January 1777 Washington named him acting adjutant general, and Congress made him a general a month later. Working closely with Washington, he wrote that Washington was “the greatest [general] that ever did or ever will adorn the earth.” Weedon was with Washington throughout 1777, and after advising him to encamp at Valley Forge remained there for a few months. He returned to Virginia to expedite its sending recruits to the Continental Army and supervise its militia resistance to British raids.

The American force arrived at Valley Forge on December 19, and they were in a miserable state (just four days later, nearly 3,000 men were reported sick or incapable of duty). The winter came on and the men suffered badly from the cold. Except for officers, they slept in six-foot square tents made of canvas, which were weak and cracked and didn't provide sufficient protection from the snowy and stormy weather. These shortages were especially bad from January to March 1778, mitigating only at the very end of the latter month. In fact, the entire effective American Army - the troops fit for duty - in March consisted of 7,316 men huddled around campfires. British general Howe, by way of contrast, had some 15,000 well-supplied men in and around Philadelphia, and many more available in nearby New York.

On March 20 there was still ice on the river. It was a nice day, but the next day the very cold temperatures would return.  That day, with spring coming and his army undermanned, he feared the  British would take advantage of this fact and attack, perhaps even that very day. He wrote Col. Stephen Moylan naming him to lead some regiments of cavalry and urging him to ready them: “Not a moments time should be lost in repairing the Saddles and other accoutrements; and getting the Troopers Arms compleated and repair'd. In a Word, the Season calls for the utmost vigilance...” He wote Gen. John Cadwalader explicitly articulating his concern, saying “I have every reason, short of absolute proof, to believe that General Howe is meditating a stroke against this army. He has drawn, some say two thousand, and others 2,500 Men from New York, which I believe are arrived at Phila., as a number of Transports have just past Wilmington in their way up the Delaware; and reports from Newport say, that the Garrison there had orders to Be in readiness to imbark by the 20th.”  Joseph Stoudt, in his book “Ordeal at Valley Forge,” quotes a source from that day as writing, “His Excellency has reason to believe that General Howe is meditating a stroke against our army...Our stores at Reading are to be removed to a place of greater safety. Our advanced pickets are to be strengthened in anticipation of an advance by the Enemy...The Marquis de Lafayette and Major General de Kalb are desired to return to camp immediately.” He added, “Col. Shepherd’s Tenth Regiment is under inoculation at Georgetown, Maryland.”

Smallpox was the scourge of its time, and it wasted no time in impacting on the Revolution. In December 1775 and early 1776, it decimated the American force sent to conquer Canada, causing as many casualties as British guns.  The Americans retreated and the chance to take Canada passed. But Washington was initially hesitant to have his troops inoculated against the disease, writing “Should we inoculate generally, the Enemy, knowing it, will certainly take Advantage of our Situation.” However, by late 1777 it became clear to Washington that the spread of smallpox through the ranks presented a graver threat to the army -and would kill more individuals - than the Redcoats. And faced with mounting smallpox epidemics, battle delays caused by illness among the troops, and fear among potential fighters of getting smallpox if enlisting, Washington made a critical decision: he ordered mandatory inoculation of all recruits who had not had the disease. The inoculation campaign had to be conducted with secrecy, as though it would protect soldiers in the long run and decrease fear of enlistment, it would also incapacitate large numbers for weeks at a time, rendering the Continentals vulnerable to attack. The inoculations started at Valley Forge in January 1778, but mostly they were given to recruits at their mustering points around the country, and only after the effects of it wore off were the troops sent on to the Valley Forge encampment. In Virginia, that local inoculation point was at Alexandria, and at Alexandria there had been recently installed a new commanding officer: Gen. George Weedon.

But Washington soon discovered that the plan of inoculation was robbing him of soldiers he desperately needed, and needed now. According to Elizabeth Fenn in her authoritative book, “Pox Americana,” the definitive study of smallpox during the Revolution and Washington’s responses to it, “Increasingly suspicious that Gen. Howe was drawing his reinforcements together for an attack the American commander-in-chief had to weigh the benefits of remote inoculation against the delays it caused. Not only did the current policy postpone the arrival at Valley Forge of the new enlistments, but it also tied up the many immune men who nursed the inoculees in the distant hospitals. In March, Washington consulted with his medical staff. It was time, they decided, to change their policy. The first set of revised letters went out on March 20.” In a letter to the commanding officer at Alexandria, Virginia, Washington explained that after much consultation, he had determined to inoculate troops in Valley Forge rather than locally, and ordered that no recruits be detained but instead sent right on to his encampment. He also requested that Weedon inform his counterpart in North Carolina of this order.

Washington's unheralded and little-recognized resolution to inoculate the Continental forces must surely rank with the most important decisions of the war. The general had outflanked his enemy.

This is that very letter, cited by Fenn. Letter Signed, two pages, Head Quarters, Valley Forge, March 20, 1778. “The Director General and the other Gentlemen of the Faculty having determined that it will be more convenient to inoculate all the Levies that have not had the small pox, at or near the Camp, I desire that you will suffer none of them to be detained at Alexandria or George Town for that purpose. If the small pox should be in either, the troops are not to halt at or enter them. The Officers commanding the different detachments are to be directed to march them slowly that they may not be over heated by exercise and thereby put into a habit prejudicial to inoculation. They are to make diligent enquiry whether the small pox be at any Houses upon the Road, and if it is to avoid them carefully. When the Officers arrive within a day or two's march of the Camp, they are to send forward to inform the Surgeons, that proper accommodations may be prepared for them. Should there be any places intended for small pox Hospitals below Alexandria, a Copy of these orders is to be sent to the Officer commanding who is to obey them punctually. This is intended to extend to the Troops of No. Carolina as well as Virginia.” The text is in the writing of Tench Tilghman.

Our research of records over the past 35 years discloses only some half dozen other letters of Washington from Valley Forge during December 1777-March 1778, the time of the greatest desperation and patriotism, and only a few were on matters of this importance. This letter was recently de-accessioned by a state historical society.

Howe did not leave Philadelphia to attack quickly as Washington feared, and as the spring went on the Continental Army augmented in size, received training, and obtained needed supplies; its prospects brightened. And as for his policy on smallpox, Fenn writes: "Washington's unheralded and little-recognized resolution to inoculate the Continental forces must surely rank with the most important decisions of the war. The general had outflanked his enemy."