Valley Forge is one of the settings of this season’s AMC’s hit show, TURN. A recent episode featured a scheme involving a threat against George Washington to take place in December 1777 before New Year’s Day in 1778. The timing of New Year’s Day reminded me of stories about Valley Forge that I included in my book, Stories of Faith and Courage from the Revolutionary War (AMG, Battlefields & Blessings).
Below are excerpts that show not only “where is Waldo” (at Valley Forge) but also how Dr. Albigence Waldo came to be grateful for something as tasteless as fire cake at Valley Forge. Buy Stories of Faith and Courage from the Revolutionary War to discover more.
1. Marching from the Marsh to the Valley
Dr. Albigence Waldo was a surgeon in George Washington’s army. He was one of the medics who complied with the general’s order to gather the sick, march out of the marsh, and advance into the valley.
“We are order’d to march over the river—It snows—I’m sick—eat nothing—No whiskey—No baggage—Lord Lord—Lord. The army were ’till sunrise crossing the river—some at the wagon bridge, & some at the raft bridge below. Cold & uncomfortable,” Waldo wrote in his journal on December 12th.
“Dec. 13th.— The army march’d three miles from the west side the river and encamp’d near a place call’d the gulph and not an improper name neither—For this gulph seems well adapted by its situation to keep us from the pleasure & enjoyments of this world, or being conversant with any body in it,” he recalled of his first impressions.
Valley Forge was a remote place. Waldo thought it was better suited to a retreat for philosophers than a camp for soldiers. He knew Washington had not brought them there to turn them into Epicureans. After a little thinking, Doctor Waldo decided to evaluate the place’s merits.
“No—it is, upon consideration, for many good purposes since we are to winter here—1st There is plenty of wood & water. 2dly There are but few families for the soldiery to steal from—tho’ far be it from a soldier to steal,” he wrote.
Valley Forge’s velvety forests provided forage. The area’s topography was more solid than the marsh, making it a better place to build shelters. “4ly There are warm sides of hills to erect huts on,” Doctor Waldo wrote.
He also thought the place’s isolation would turn some soldiers into saints. “5ly They will be heavenly minded like Jonah when in the belly of a great fish.”
But Doctor Waldo also recognized the benefits of the valley’s quietness. Twenty-three miles from Philadelphia, Valley Forge was an ideal place to watch the British movements. Its creeks and rivers provided the army with natural fortifications. He concluded that life in the valley might provide some inspiration.
“6ly. They will not become homesick as is sometimes the case when men live in the open world—since the reflections which must naturally arise from their present habitation, will lead them to the more noble thoughts of employing their leisure hours in filling their knapsacks with such materials as may be necessary on the journey to another home,” Albigence Waldo continued.
More importantly Valley Forge’s remoteness might just turn the army into a fighting force. And that was what George Washington had in mind when he selected Valley Forge.[i]
“There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven: . . . a time to tear and a time to mend, a time to be silent and a time to speak” (Ecclesiastes 3:1, 7).
Prayer: God, I take a moment to quietly reflect before you and to count my blessings no matter where my life may be today.
2. Giving Thanks
While General Washington prepared to march his army to Valley Forge in December 1777, the Continental Congress also counted their markers of success. It was time to call on the patriots to give thanks for the blessings of 1777 and pray for “the greatest of all human blessings, INDEPENDENCE and PEACE.”
“It is therefore recommended by congress, that Thursday the 18th. day of December next be set apart for solemn Thanksgiving and praise,” the Continental Congress wrote in a Thanksgiving declaration. They believed it was “the indispensable duty of all men, to adore the superintending providence of Almighty God.”
As the year drew to a close, Congress decided it was time to thank God and implore him for his further blessings. “And it having pleased him in his abundant mercy, not only to continue to us the innumerable bounties of his common providence, but also, to smile upon us in the prosecution of a just and necessary war, for the defense of our unalienable rights and liberties,” the proclamation reminded the citizens.
Congress sent their declaration through General Washington to the army. Washington included the announcement in his general orders. Congress’s proclamation overflowed with a cornucopia of requests. It called on the patriots to give thanks for their harvest of victories while asking them to submit their hearts to God.
“[T]hat at one time, and with one voice, the good people may express the grateful feelings of their hearts, and consecrate themselves to the service of their divine benefactor,” the proclamation heralded.
Congress also asked for guidance for America’s sea captains, prosperity for traders, blessing on farmers, and wisdom for educators.
Saratoga topped their list of blessings. Brandywine, however, revealed this was an incremental war. It was not a neat chain of victories with each link leading directly to success. The Revolution was a tug of a war, a pushing-and-pulling, progress and regression. To the patriots, victory sometimes seemed as unreachable as the clouds. This was not the quick and easy victory they had hoped for in 1775. This war was a slog.
Resolutions of thanks such as this one reminded the patriots to count their blessings and to pray for the ability to live another day in their efforts to secure liberty from the English lion’s lair.[i]
“There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven: . . . a time to love and a time to hate, a time for war and a time for peace” (Ecclesiastes 3:1, 8).
Prayer: Dear Lord, thank you for the blessings you have given me. Thank you for the times of peace, the times for enjoying food and reflecting on your goodness.
[i] George Washington, “Headquarters, White Marsh, Nov. 30, 1777,” Writings Washington Original, 1745–1799, ed. John C. Fitzpatrick; and Samuel Adams, “Resolution of the Continental Congress, Nov. 1, 1777,” in Gutenberg Writings Samuel Adams.
3. Building a City on Fire cake
What was for dinner at Valley Forge? Smoked fire cake.
Dr. Albigence Waldo probably wasn’t sure which was more deplorable: fire cake or campfire smoke. The soldiers had to build their own huts and roads at Valley Forge. As a result, the only way to keep warm in the camp’s early days was to continually burn campfires. Waldo’s skin was so sore from the smoke that he feared his eyes were “spoiled.”
And while they labored on their huts, the men relied on fire cake for sustenance. But this manna was far from heaven to Waldo. “A general cry through the camp this evening among the soldiers—‘No Meat!—No Meat!’—the distant vales echoed back the melancholy sound . . . What have you for our dinners, boys? ‘Nothing but fire cake and water, Sir,’ At night—‘Gentlemen, the supper is ready.’ What is your supper, lads? ‘Fire cake and water, Sir,’” Waldo wrote.
Fire cake was a tasteless pancake, a mixture of a little flour and water cooked over a fire. Waldo preferred quail but he knew any kind of meat was as precious a commodity as money.
“Our division is under marching orders this morning. I am ashamed to say it, but I am tempted to steal fowls if I could find them—or even a whole hog—for I feel as if I could eat one. But the impoverished country about us, affords but little matter to employ a thief—or keep a clever fellow in good humor.”
About this time the Continental Congress issued a proclamation calling for a time of giving thanks (see entry above), especially for the victory of Saratoga and other blessings from the year 1777. General Washington made sure his men were aware of the call for giving thanks.
Though Dr. Waldo doesn’t directly refer to this time of Thanksgiving, his entries suddenly turn, as if something inspired him to count his blessings despite the hardships of building Valley Forge.
Even though he complained for the thousandth time about fire cake and water, this doctor cheered himself with a common antidote.
“But why do I talk of hunger and hard usage, when so many in the world have not even fire cake and water to eat,” he wrote, counting his blessings as best he could.
“Huts go on slowly—cold and smoke make us fret . . . But man kind are always fretting, even if they have more than their proportion of the blessings of life. We are never easy—always repining at the Providence of an all wise and benevolent being—blaming our country—or faulting our friends,” he wrote, knowing that somewhere, somebody else lived under worse conditions.
Waldo spent Christmas in an uncompleted shelter and mourned the “sweet felicities” he left at home. But he learned to survive by way of distractions. A friend taught him to darn socks. Another taught him how to lay bricks for a chimney. The doctor also treated the sick. The New Year brought him hope.
“1778. January 1st.—New Year. I am alive. I am well. Huts go on briskly and our camp begins to appear like a spacious city,” he wrote.
Valley Forge eventually reached a third the size of Philadelphia. Through fire cake and excessive cold, Albigence Waldo and the army built Washington a city.[ii]
“It is man’s fuel for burning; some of it he takes and warms himself, he kindles a fire and bakes bread” (Isaiah 44:15).
Prayer: God, thank you for providing the necessities in my life. Thank you that I am alive and have food to eat.
[i] Doctor Albigence Waldo, “Washington at Valley Forge—Conditions Described by Doctor Albigence Waldo,” in America, Vol. 3, 235–43.
[ii] Jackman, Patton, and Johnson. History American Nation, 609–31.
Author Jane Hampton Cook is known for making history memorable and relevant to today’s news, current events, and modern-day life. A frequent guest on the Fox News Channel and other outlets, Jane is the author of eight books, including American Phoenix, America’s Star-Spangled Story, and Stories of Faith and Courage from the Revolutionary War. Jane is also a former White House webmaster. She lives with her husband and three sons in Fairfax, Virginia.