Saturday, April 28, 2012

Valley Forge--Remembering My Ancestor, and The Long Cold Winter

In the illustration at left, we get the idea that it was cold at Valley Forge in the winter of 1777-1778. The guy on the log looks pretty miserable, and he probably is. That's where the accuracy stops.
   I doubt there were cannons there, or if there were, they were few in number. You can forget about that flag waving in the background, too...on a pole, next to a building.
   I had an ancestor by the name of Benjamin Griggs who was there. My grandfather told me about him when I was a kid, and I researched it. According to my grandfather, the ancestor was a captain. It would be a proud name with a proud title, Captain Benjamin Griggs.
   I wrote a report about him, and Valley Forge, when I was in eighth grade. I also wrote a letter to some department in Washington D.C., and for a couple of bucks, they sent me photocopies of records they had of my ancestor. Turns out he was a corporal rather than a captain, and he recieved a pension for the rest of his life after the United States became a country.
   Like a lot of people, I thought there was a battle at Valley Forge, and that in spite of the cold we've all heard about, we won the battle.
   Wrong! There were several battles at Valley Forge in that long cold winter, but none of them were the shooting kind, the combat kind of battle.

What Would It Have Been Like At Valley Forge?
   Benjamin Griggs was one of 11,000 men who went to Valley Forge in the early winter days of 1777. It was a valley, nothing more and nothing less. There were no buildings there. There was no support for them from outside the valley. They were there as a loose group of men trying to be an army.
   They were fired by the idea of independence and knew damn well their chances of beating the greatest army in the world at the time were slim. Staring down at that snowy valley, I can only imagine how scared he must have been, how cold...and how determined to make the best of it he was. I'm glad I'm not him, but I can assure you his blood is in my veins and I think I would have done what he did, and what a lot of the 11,000 men there did. They stuck it out.
   No shots were fired in anger during those months. Their clothes were inadequate for the winter. One cabin was built, and the guys who built it had to share the one axe they had between them. They built a couple of other cabins and buildings, but not everyone was housed indoors. They foraged for food. Sometimes the only food they got was flour smuggled in by folks who lived in the area. They clumped the flour with water and fried it. Then they worked.
  They were hungry, cold, and miserable. Washington, George Washington--trained by the British, and a commanding presence--was there. He provided inspiration while quietly worrying that his army, such as it was, would head back home to their families. If they decided to do that, there wasn't much he could do to stop them. Congress wanted to send aid, but there wasn't much money to buy supplies, and no good way to get them there if they did.
  They found a German who called himself a Baron, but who probably wasn't. He might not have been a baron, but he knew how to train men to be soldiers.
   That's what my ancestor and a lot of other men did at Valley Forge. They fought to survive. They fought to learn how to become soldiers. They drilled. They marched. They learned discipline, and learned how to live without much in the way of food, clothing, or comfort. I'm sure many a night was spent in the bite-ass cold, wondering if it was going to be successful, wondering if it was going to be worth it. Folks like my ancestor Ben knew they could go home if they wanted, but most of them didn't. Most of them, including Corporal Griggs, huddled next to fires and ate their flour, and grew their fortitude.
   The British weren't far away. They could have, and would have if they hadn't been arrogant enough to dismiss those men as vagabonds with no training or fortitude, crushed them. They didn't. They probably figured Ben and the boys would get tired of being cold, and head home to warmer pastures and wives, and things would go back to the way they were before a fistful of malcontents started getting uppity.

   We know that didn't happen. In fact, the cold winter of 1777-1778, that started with a lot of snow, then turned warm, then back to snow, then snow and rain...misery from the sky and ground, became our collective backbone.

   Although no battle was fought at Valley Forge, it can be said that's where we won the revolution.

   After the war, my ancestor went home and tilled the land again. He passed away, probably quietly at home, some thirty years after that cold winter. He died as an American. 

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