This week, some 246 years ago on December 19, 1777, General George Washington lead his battered 12,000-man army into their winter quarters having just failed to retake Philadelphia. The war for America’s independence was well into its third year going back to the first battles at Lexington and Concord, and Bunker Hill in the spring of 1775. It must have seemed long ago that his army had chased the English out of Boston and his crossing of the Delaware to beat the Hessians in Trenton.
As he entered Valley Forge that Christmas Washington had no way to feed or adequately clothe his soldiers. They were alone. French assistance wouldn’t begin in earnest until the spring. That winter about 1,700 to 2,000 soldiers died from disease, possibly exacerbated by malnutrition.
"To see men without clothes to cover their nakedness, without blankets to lay on, without shoes by which their marches might be traced by the blood from their feet, and almost as often without provisions as with; marching through frost and snow and at Christmas taking up their winter quarters within a day's march of the enemy, without a house or hut to cover them till they could be built, and submitting to it without a murmur is a mark of patience and obedience which in my opinion can scarce be paralleled."...George Washington
Washington would spend most of the winter begging the U.S. Congress for just the minimum of what was needed.
I imagine Ukraine’s soldiers can relate to the soldiers of America’s Continental Army that winter as they enter their third winter since the full-scale invasion began in February 2022; both cold and uncertain as America’s Congress dithers. President Zelensky can surely relate to George Washington. Both of these great men were/are reduced to beggary. And glad to do so to keep their armies going. Washington continued with a dire warning to Congress:
"…unless some great and capital change suddenly takes place in that line, this Army must inevitably be reduced to one or other of these three things: starve, dissolve, or disperse, in order to obtain subsistence in the best manner they can."
Some years later, Lafayette recalled that "the unfortunate soldiers were in want of everything; they had neither coats, hats, shirts, nor shoes; their feet and legs froze till they had become almost black, and it was often necessary to amputate them."
In the end Washington and his army survived the winter and came out of it a more disciplined and stronger force. They had used the winter to drill and become a more professional army that would take the British on in myriad battles leading to the decisive victory at Yorktown three years later. It would not have been possible without its key ally France. Lafayette was a general in the campaign and was in large part responsible for the French fleet that kept England’s at bay.
Valley Forge could have been the end of America’s quest for independence. Americans were weary of the war without even knowing about the severe privations their soldiers were experiencing as camp leaders did not want the English to know the state of America’s army.
America’s fight for independence lasted six years or so from the battles for Boston through Yorktown. If we infer a similar timeline for Ukraine beginning with Russia’s full-scale invasion in February 2022, we might expect a war that will go through 2027. Tragic, but not unexpected. If we want to look back even further we could compare the protests to the Stamp Act – including the Boston Tea Party and Massacre - beginning in 1763 with the Maidan Protests which began in 2013. To carry the timeline even further America’s final battles with its former empire were still decades to come with the War of 1812. Empires don't give up easily.
Once again, Ukraine is holding a mirror to America’s own proud heritage as they fight on – no matter the sacrifices. Similarly, as they struggle on – with the help of key allies like the USA - they will obtain the fruits of their struggle just as we enjoy the fruits of America’s struggles at Valley Forge almost 250 years ago.