British General William Howe and his officers rested in comfortable winter quarters in Philadelphia, as eighteenth century warfare remained “a seasonal business.” Howe saw no reason to fight in cold weather, as well as his having confidence they could defeat George Washington and his rag-tailed ill trained troops at any time they desired. Washington struggled at Valley Forge with baffling questions of housing, feeding, providing clothing and other essentials, as his 4,000 vagabond, threadbare men lacked even a single blanket. Some were without shoes. The Continental treasury was bankrupt. It was a scene of misery, as disease was rampant with unsanitary conditions. Men were dying as others deserted. The only thing that held the shaky army together was Washington’s moral strength.
Three amazing things happened at that most critical time. A newcomer arrived sent by Benjamin Franklin in Paris, namely Friedrich Wilhelm Ludolf Gerhard Augustin, Baron von Steuben, who had served as a Prussian captain in a European war. Von Steuben, who saw the incredibly bad conditions, was the tough drillmaster that Washington needed desperately. Von Steuben instilled discipline, eliminated unhealthy conditions and prepared the Continental army for combat, including the proper use of the bayonet.
With the projectable shortage of soldiers, a Colonial General from Rhode Island asked the unthinkable of Washington, a slave owning Virginia planter, “the right to recruit black troops.” Knowing it was an incendiary idea for southerners, Washington, desperate for manpower, approved the request. Rhode Island promised to free all slaves willing to join an all-black battalion. Massachusetts and Connecticut soon followed. Soon, 755 blacks or 5 % of the Continental Army were black. The confident Negro soldiers soon proved their merit and were excellent under arms.
As the Continental Army “huddled by fires at Valley Forge,” word reached Washington that Franklin “had pulled off a magnificent diplomatic feat in Paris – on February 6, France recognized American independence and offered a military alliance and financial support.” Washington had the treaty read aloud to his troops, followed by the firing of thirteen cannons. It was a time of thanksgiving for Continental soldiers who survived the horrid winter.
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