As the Thanksgiving weekend comes our way, I know that there will be some homes in American that will postpone the holiday feast until the first weekend of December.  This is because many poor people in America receive their pay on a once-a-month basis, issued at the beginning of the month.  But Thanksgiving comes toward the end of the month, at a time when not much money is in many of these American homes.

If a little American history may serve as some consolation for the people in these homes, let me be the one to bring the message, because I love United States history.  If you have ever had a difficult time clearing the way for Thanksgiving while adrift in a seas of adversity, just consider the kind of Thanksgiving George Washington had to host for his young and battered army at Valley Forge in the winter of 1777-78.

He had ended up in Valley Forge after losing three straight battles to the British in late 1777 in Pennsylvania.  The last battle in Germantown enabled the English to take over the neighboring city of Philadelphia which had been serving as the capital city for the American people.  Traditionally when an army lost its capital city it had lost the war.  However, since the main Founding Fathers including Washington had already been scheduled for hanging there was more of an incentive from American leadership to keep the war going through the final American bullet.

Washington had to practically drag by his own will power his exhausted and beaten-up army to what was in Valley Forge in the most isolated and least livable place in the area.  But he knew that since the British could now live very comfortably in Philadelphia – then America’s largest and most luxurious city – they would be tempted to wait out the winter there and elsewhere where there were much better billeting accommodations.   So the very repulsiveness of Valley Forge protected Washington that winter from the genteel British.

But meanwhile America’s single proud holiday was coming up – that was the Thanksgiving Day of gratitude.  Washington must have wondered what there was for his bashed-in army to be grateful and thankful for at this Valley Forge hellhole.  But one of Washington’s central characteristics was that he never stayed long at a particular point of a problem – he just kept moving with the faith that he would finally move into a better situation.  The two excellent Washington biographers I derive these thoughts from today – James Thomas Flexner and Ron Chernow – both verify in their Washington biographies the determination and talent our first president had in moving into solutions.

By the time the seasonal holidays started, Washington had lost about a third of his army to disease combined with malnutrition and exposure-- the First Continental Army went from 12,000 men to about 8,000 still alive.  In his letters to the Continental Congress, Washington begged for food and appropriate clothing and blankets for the harsh winter.  However, the president of the Continental  Congress – John Hancock – seemed to have continued to struggle with his wounded vanity after losing his bid to command Washington’s army.  In answer to Washington’s pleadings to feed his men, Hancock only sent a salted fish for Washington’s own table.  The sarcastic letter Washington sent back – “thank you for the fish” – was probably also a miracle in restraint as Washington recognized he still had to keep the Continental Congress on his side no matter how impossible the vain John Hancock could become.

Thanksgiving came and went, but there was still no food for any kind of holiday camp dinner.  Finally Washington’s foraging crew captured a huge pig that served as a late camp thanksgiving meal on December 18.  A doctor in the camp described this belated holiday feast as the “Universal Thanksgiving” because the pig was so huge that everyone at Valley Forge could get some meat from it.

It was a turning point in Valley Forge.

The foraging crew finally became more productive after getting that big pig.  The real story is that Washington’s foragers finally started disobeying orders not to take food by force from outlying farms.  So at last the soldiers started top grow stronger and healthier into the Christmas holidays.  They also became more confident with the training help of a unique kind of Prussian soldier-of-fortune, the Baron Munchausen of his day.  The man’s actual full name was “Baron Frederick Wilhelm August Heinrich Ferdinand von Steuben.”

Von Steuben had once as an army captain been an aide- de-camp of Frederick the Great.  But in the years following the Seven Years War he was virtually driven out of Europe war and its aftermath because of complicated financial issues and problems of this homosexuality in his life.   He was so anxious to leave the whole scene of Europe that he came to the aide of George Washington as a surprise unpaid volunteer.

At Valley Forge Washington – who always had a great sense of theater and loved to attend plays– stage-directed the image of a great German general coming to the American camp to help Americans win freedom (actually, Von Steuben’s rank in the Prussian army never rose higher than captain, and his being named as a “Baron” was only a technical requirement for his military service in court.)  

Belief in this mysterious Baron turned him into a miracle coach in this camp of Bad News Bears.   The young American soldiers hung onto every instructional word that Von Steuben had attributed to his supposed experience as a protégé of Frederick the Great.  Included in Von Steuben’s presentation of a vast military culture was his lessons in camp hygiene that dramatically lowered the sickness and the death in local army-camp infections – a subject that Americans had known practically nothing about.. 

While Von Steuben did his Prussian performances, everything finally started to get  looser and more enjoyable for the Americans in Valley Forge.  Meanwhile, everything among the English and Hessians was just getting tighter and more stagnant.  Washington who was a keen aficionado of the comic plays of Richard Sheridan finally even brought some comic theater into Valley Forge by staging a scarecrow dress-up contest into the camp.  As the British called Washington’s young men  “that ragtag” army, Washington gave awards to the soldiers who could dress the scarecrow with the grossest rag-tag rags.

By the Christmas Day came around, Washington had a different army – no longer hungry, but looser, happier and ready to go.  “Are you now ready for some adventure with me, lads?” he asked them and the young men blended into one approving roar.  But like so many great generals and adventurers Washington was not going to describe the adventure until an hour before it was to start. 

The day after Christmas Washington brought his army to the City of Trenton in New Jersey, which had become the garrison city for the mercenary  Hessian Army allied to the English.  Like the English, the Hessians had heard that the Americans had been practically starving to death in Valley Forge and during the Christmas festivities the day before the Hessian commander  had not seriously fortified the garrison.  The result was that Washington was able to invade the garrison overnight and practically immediately captured the entire Hessian Army in what became known  as the turn-around Battle of Trenton.  

The English could not believe that the Americans had won this battle in normal circumstances – they blamed the Germans for drinking too heavily during Christmas and being too hung-over the next day to do anything military-like against Washington. So the British army under General Lord Charles Cornwallis seriously charged at Washington in Trenton on January 2 in the Battle of Assumpink Creek.  Just as seriously. Washington charged them back and sent the English army into remission. So Washington with what the European papers described as the worst army in the world defeated one-two what were considered the two greatest armies – the enormous armies of Great Britain and Germany.  But Washington wasn’t through with them.  He sensed that these two defeats had brought the English to a collapse of rational thought.  While British were meandering in this stupor Washingtom continued to ride hard to Princeton after winning at Assumpink Creek and defeated the British garrison there as well in the Battle of Princeton.   From there, Washington never looked back.  

So while Washington couldn’t afford to feed his young troops for Thanksgiving at Valley Forge, he got them that big Thanksgiving dinner down the road, and his kids came out of those holidays as history’s most surprising winners.   Any American family who is worried about budgeting Thanksgiving today for the kids may take note .  Let freedom ring.


Chris Sharp- Commentary

Chris Sharp is an Educator and a prize-winning professional writer. He has recently published a new book titled How to Like a Human Being . His commentaries represent his own opinions and not necessarily the views of any organization he may be affiliated with or those of The SCV Beacon.