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Liveblogging the American Revolution: December 20, 1777: Washington's Generals

Benjamin H. Newcomb: Washington’s Generals and the Decision to Quarter at Valley Forge:

Sometime between December 8 and December 11, when the army left Whitemarsh to cross to the west side of the Schuylkill, Washington decided not to quarter in either Lancaster-Reading or Wilmington. He had been compelled to delay his decision when Howe, on December 4, advanced on Whitemarsh. Howe failed to surprise Washington, and he could not penetrate the strong American position nor get around the flank. Four days later, after some skirmishing, the British withdrew to Philadelphia. One ironic consequence of this maneuver was the capture of General Irvine in a Chestnut Hill skirmish. He, therefore, failed to see the army march off toward the encampment area that he had advocated.

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Washington made his decision to quarter the army in a location closely resembling the one proposed by Irvine probably shortly after Howe had broken off his attack. Little is known directly about his formulation of the decision. Washington told few or none of his plans to avoid having them revealed to the British. Washington’s explanations to his men and to Congress, on December 17 and 22, indicate that he had finally thought through the welter of conflicting advice, evaluated the competing arguments, and had come to see clearly what he had to do: to move west of the Schuylkill to spend the winter in a cantonment of huts in the most strategically placed location. He did not explicitly state that he was adopting the plans of Stirling and Irvine, but it seems reasonable to assume that he had come back to their suggestions, now recognizing their merit when compared to the Lancaster-Reading and Wilmington alternatives.

The troops moved out of Whitemarsh on December 11, camping west of the river at the Gulph (West Conshohocken) on the thirteenth. This maneuver shows that Washington had firmly decided on a hutting encampment west of the Schuylkill; he was not interested in Wilmington, and he would not cross the river at that point to go west to Reading and Lancaster. The sick went directly from Whitemarsh to the hospital in Reading. Washington was probably awaiting scouting reports on camp locations along the Schuylkill and perhaps at Tredyffrin and Radnor, all within a short march of the Gulph. General Wayne assisted in confirming the Valley Forge site as acceptable. On December 17 the commander-in-chief, now certain of his destination, announced in general orders that the troops would but in the neighborhood of the Gulph, but to preserve secrecy the exact spot was not revealed. Two days later the troops arrived at Valley Forge to commence a new era in American military history and mythology.

Washington termed his decision a ‘choice of difficulties.’ In the sense that he could not find his army any encampment offering complete permanent shelter and comfort, all alternatives were difficult. But there were important positive and negative features to the alternatives which, when carefully assessed, show that the one chosen was less difficult than the others. Sorting through these involved a rational process of elimination. He had always been concerned with covering the country, and this became more important in his consideration as the probability of comfortable quarters for most of the men faded. Dividing the army into small parts would dangerously weaken it.

Valley Forge had its disadvantages, but it turned out to have important positive features--features that Generals Stirling and Irvine had identified when they separately proposed an encampment west of the Schuylkill. It could not be readily attacked; its high ground actually made it a better location than the Tredyffrin valley or Radnor in this respect. Detachments could be sent out to drive off British foragers. Virtually the whole army could be drilled, an important feature of Irvine’s encampment proposal. Washington had hoped that proximity to the river would facilitate supplying the encampment from north, south, and west. Supplies were not readily forthcoming down the Schuylkill or by any other route, but this was not peculiar to Valley Forge. No matter where Washington had quartered the army, it would have suffered from lack of supplies. The brigades that he sent to Wilmington under General Smallwood were no better fed or equipped than those at Valley Forge, and they suffered considerable desertion.

The Council of War system of decision making utilized by Washington worked as it should have in this instance. The question of winter quarters was a hard test for such a system, for there was no simple correct answer. Washington allowed his generals free voice, and from a cacophony he finally was able to select a plan for cantonment that probably was the best given the circumstances. This selection was hardly immune to the strong political pressures of governments looking out for the safety and protection of civilians, but Washington, rather than being pushed into a less satisfactory encampment, saw that political demands and military necessity largely coincided in selecting winter quarters.

At the same time, he ignored the remonstrance of the Pennsylvania government that condemned his refusal to attack Philadelphia, because that remonstrance contradicted his military judgment. It is not certain that Washington recognized completely how the decision-making process had worked, since he never explained it. Had he stopped to evaluate what had happened, he would have concluded that open debate, argument, and counterargument, with everyone encouraged to contribute, permitted proposals, which at first glance seemed unacceptable, to be reevaluated more carefully and accepted on their merits.

The Stirling and Irvine proposals, at first ignored, looked far different after thorough consideration. Congress’s direction to Washington to seek advice from his generals was not merely a device designed to curtail the power of the commander-in-chief. It was a sound way of making decisions.