George Washington’s troops could easily be followed as they trudged through the wintry expanse of southeastern Pennsylvania in late December 1777. The soldiers, many of them ragged and shoeless, left bloody footprints in the snow, marking the grueling progress of this army of the American Revolution toward winter quarters at Valley Forge.
There was no shelter for the men when they reached the exposed, hilly landscape of that misnamed redoubt, actually a plateau Washington chose largely for its defensibility. (A nearby hollow had once been the site of a smithy, hence the designation.) Tents provided their only barrier against frost and wind. Their commander in chief insisted that he, too, would shelter in a tent until his troops were able to cut down trees and construct log huts for themselves.
Washington despaired for the fate of his army. “The whole of them,” said his comrade-in-arms, Gen. John Sullivan, were “without watch coats, one half without blankets, and more than one third without shoes . . . many of them without jackets . . . and not a few without shirts.” None had enough to eat; some had gone hungry for days. Exhausted and ill, men were deserting in great numbers, heading home to their families and farms. It was a dark moment for the Revolution and for Washington. From his makeshift headquarters, he wrote to warn Congress: “unless some great and capital change suddenly takes place . . . this army must inevitably. . . starve, dissolve or disperse.”
At that instant, says Revolutionary-era historian Edmund Morgan, Washington was indeed “giving Congress the facts of life: you can’t fight a war without an army. He was operating at a big disadvantage; the state militias offered larger bounties than Congress did for serving in the Continental army.”
Yet even as Washington attempted to keep his army from disintegrating, he found himself challenged on another front. Prominent figures in the independence movement—most notably, some members of Congress—had begun to question his very fitness to command. Over the course of the next several months—until mid-March—Washington would be plagued by a small but vocal contingent calling for his ouster. They engineered a very real distraction at a moment of grave crisis.