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That terrible winter at Valley Forge

It was 242 years ago this week.

The Continental Army, fresh off a series of defeats in Pennsylvania including the loss of the capital at Philadelphia, reached their winter quarters at Valley Forge, arriving and settling in between the 17th and 19th of December, 1777.

They were a rag-tag bunch at that point. Poorly clothed, poorly shod — or unshod, poorly fed. Worn out. Demoralized. Housed in rugged cabins they built themselves. Foraging in the countryside for food.

Valley Forge

Conditions in the camp were grim indeed for the thousands of soldiers and supporting elements who made up George Washington’s army that December:

Washington’s army was ill-prepared for the encampment that would last six months. The army’s supply of basic necessities, like food and clothing, ran perpetually short; coupled with the wintertime cold, and the diseases that ran rampant through the camp, this lack of provisions created the infamously miserable conditions at Valley Forge.

The army camped at Valley Forge consisted of as many as 12,000 Continentals, as well as smaller numbers of African American and Native American soldiers. A number of women and children, including officers’ wives, were also present at Valley Forge, having joined their husbands or family members in the encampment. While wintering in the camp, soldiers worked together to build huts for shelter, but unsanitary conditions, and shortages of food and blankets contributed to the disease and exhaustion which continually plagued the camp. The lack of clothing alone, including shoes, socks, and coats left as many as 3,000 of Washington’s troops unfit for service, creating the image of starving, wearied soldiers leaving bloodied footprints in the snow and ice. A Continental Army Private, Joseph Plumb Martin wrote that the army’s new winter quarters left them “in a truly forlorn condition,—no clothing, no provisions, and as disheartened as need be.”

Though Washington pleaded with the Continental Congress and state governors to obtain food and supplies for his suffering army, starvation, and such (diseases) as typhus and smallpox, and a lack of protection from the elements caused the death of more than 2,000 soldiers.1

As of 22 December 1777, Washington’s quartermaster told him he had only 25 barrels of flour and only a little salt pork — desperately little for an entire army. It led Washington to tell the President of the Continental Congress that, unless conditions could be relieved and fast, “this Army might dissolve.”2

All of this, and more, The Legal Genealogist learned in school. Growing up as I did in New Jersey, you always learned about the Revolutionary War and the battles fought here and the terrible winter at Valley Forge … yadda yadda yadda.

And, as a kid growing up in New Jersey, that’s about all the story was to me: yadda yadda yadda.

And then I got interested in my family’s history.

And discovered for myself how much different history can be when it’s not just a nation’s history, but your own as well.

David Baker was a corporal in the Third Virginia Regiment,3 closing in on the end of his two-year enlistment — his time was up in February of 1778.

And the Third Virginia was at Valley Forge with Washington that terrible winter of 1777-78.

William Noel Battles was then a private in the Tenth Virginia Regiment — transferred to the Sixth Virginia in September 1778.4

And the Tenth Virginia was at Valley Forge that winter, too.

Both of these men survived that winter. They returned home, David when his enlistment was up, Noel at the end of the war. They went on with their lives, married, had children.

A good thing for me… because these are two of my own forebears.

David Baker is my fourth great grandfather. I descend from David through his son Martin who married Elizabeth Buchanan, then their daughter Martha Louisa who married George W. Cottrell, then their son Martin Gilbert Cottrell who married Martha “Mattie” Johnson, then their son my grandfather Clay Rex Cottrell.

William Noel Battles is my fifth great grandfather. I descend from Noel through his son William who married Ann Jacobs, then their daughter Margaret who married Daniel Shew, then their daughter Martha Louise who married (or at least had a relationship with5) Jasper Baird, then their daughter Eula who married Jasper Robertson, then their daughter my grandmother Opal (Robertson) Cottrell.

Two of my own direct ancestors were there.

There at Valley Forge that terrible winter.

The story of that winter isn’t just yadda yadda yadda any more.

That story isn’t just part of the nation’s history.

That story is the story of David and of Noel.

It’s their story… and my own.

And that is why I love genealogy.

Cite/link to this post: Judy G. Russell, “Their story… and my own,” The Legal Genealogist ( : posted 21 Dec 2019).


Image: Valley Force National Historic Park, courtesy of National Park Service.

  1. Winter at Valley Forge,” American Battlefields Trust ( : accessed 20 Dec 2019).
  2. Mary Stockwell, Ph.D., “Valley Forge,” Digital Encyclopedia, Washington Library Center for Digital History ( : accessed 20 Dec 2019).
  3. “The Muster Roll Project,” database and index, Valley Forge Legacy ( : accessed 20 Dec 2019), entry for Corporal David Baker, ID VA32575.
  4. Ibid., entry for Noel Battles, ID VA13907.
  5. We’re not sure whether they ever married… See generally Judy G. Russell, “The matchmaker’s match,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 7 Oct 2012 ( : accessed 20 Dec 2019).
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