With their 2018 book Valley Forge best-selling authors Bob Drury and Tom Clavin turn their attention to one of the most underappreciated chapters in American history—the Continental Army’s 1777–78 transformation in that Pennsylvania winter camp. Drury, a contributing editor and foreign correspondent for Men’s Health, has authored, co-authored or edited nine books and written for numerous publications, including The New York Times, Vanity Fair, Men’s Journal and GQ. Clavin, the investigative features correspondent for Manhattan, is the author or co-author of 16 books. For more than 15 years he wrote for The New York Times, and he has contributed to such magazines as Golf, Men’s Journal, Parade, Reader’s Digest and Smithsonian. Valley Forge marks the co-authors’ sixth collaboration.
How did you light on Valley Forge as a topic?
Drury: It started years ago. My son is half-French, and when he was in his early teens, someone made a crack about the quality of the French military. My son said to the person: “You know what? If it wasn’t for Lafayette and the French army, you’d be Canada right now.” It immediately dawned on me, Wow! Lafayette during the revolution—what a good story idea.
Then, the inestimable Sarah Vowell came out with Lafayette in the Somewhat United States, and I thought the story was dead. Then Tom said: “You know, maybe the story is not dead. What do you know about Valley Forge?” I was thinking, Well, I guess I know what I learned in history class—it was cold, people starved to death, and it was a really bad winter. And Tom said, “There’s a lot more to it than that.”
Clavin: A lot of people have the eighth-grade social studies view of Valley Forge—guys freezing in the snow, and George Washington sitting on a horse and watching them freeze in the snow—and there’s a common assumption the American Revolution came to a standstill. And yet, when we started to dig (and we didn’t dig that far), we discovered during that period there was so much going on. The story is about how Washington and the Army survived Valley Forge. If they had not, we would have not been able to continue the Revolution. Just below the surface of the eighth-grade version of the story is this other, deeper tale teeming with characters and action and intrigue and developments that affect America to this day.
Was Valley Forge truly a pivotal moment?
Drury: Yes, it was. It was the point where the Revolution either turned or died. Valley Forge was essentially the capital of the United States for those six months, and Washington embodied the idea of the nation for that time. He had help of course—the Lafayettes and the von Steubens—but Washington basically held this army together. He was fighting the British, and he was also in the middle of a political battle with those—like John Adams—who wanted to replace him with Horatio Gates after Burgoyne’s defeat at Saratoga. At Valley Forge Washington had to prove to his men, “We are not defeated, it is not over, and this is the Revolution right here.”
How was Washington able to provision and shelter his men?
Drury: The supply system had completely broken down for the Continental Army, and when the force straggled into Valley Forge on Dec. 19, 1777, there was already a crisis, as far as men having no clothes and no food—people were dying of malnourishment, disease and exposure. I think there were 12,000 men who went into Valley Forge; 2,000 died. That’s by far the highest death toll of any battle that took place in the American Revolution.
A huge turning point in the Valley Forge encampment was when Washington persuaded Nathaniel Greene—one of his best, most-trusted generals—to become quartermaster. Greene pulled the system together and started to get supplies and clothing and other things to the troops. That was a big part of Washington’s success at Valley Forge; he knew how to pick the right people for the right positions. And getting the supply system was so crucial to the survival of the Continental Army.
Clavin: Foreign officers or mercenaries or idealists who showed up at Valley Forge to volunteer their services were astounded. There saw sentries standing in the snow on their hats, because they had no shoes and socks, and wrapped in tattered blankets. Their first reaction was: “This is an army which is going to defeat the most feared professional military force on the planet? I don’t think so.”
But in June 1778 the Continental Army came out of Valley Forge a different organization. The men were no longer a ragtag collection of farm boys, cobblers and miners. They were a professional army. And they shocked the hell out of the British at Monmouth Courthouse.
How important was Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben’s role in the conflict?
Clavin: He had almost immediate impact. He was this Falstaffian character who arrived with a whole slew of regal horses pulling his carriage and presented himself as Maj. Gen. von Steuben, though he had never risen above the rank of captain in the Prussian army. Washington could easily have said, “This guy is a nut, and I want nothing to do with him.” But he saw something in von Steuben and knew the Army needed that kind of European military discipline. One thing that impressed the men in the Continental Army right away was von Steuben’s willingness to get down and dirty.
Drury: Washington suspended all training not overseen by von Steuben, who started off with the most basic things. His very first lesson was to teach a group of men how to stand at attention. It started from there.
What kinds of primary sources are available about Valley Forge?
Clavin: There are Washington’s letters—which, thankfully, are readily available—and letters Alexander Hamilton wrote. The officers around Washington were, for the most part, very literate men. So, it was customary for them to express themselves, even with notes to each other, but also to family and friends.
Drury: As I mentioned earlier, my son is half-French, and he’s bilingual. We hired him to go into the French archives and specifically look for any contemporaneous research regarding von Steuben. We found out the French were having secret conversations, basically using von Steuben as a spy. His letters back to the French certainly informed our attitude toward what was going on overseas. We do have sections with [U.S. Minister to France Benjamin] Franklin and the American delegation over there, cajoling and persuading and scheming.
Clavin: Lafayette was also quite a letter writer. It was interesting to get his perspective, because he came to idolize Washington. His letters are very passionate and evocative of the time. He was kind of self-involved, but that’s good for us, because he was writing about everything he experienced and observed.
What surprised you the most about the story?
Drury: One surprise is that the winter of 1777–78 was actually one of the mildest winters ever recorded in southeastern Pennsylvania—the mercury only went into the single digits. It would snow, but then the temperature would go up to 40, all the snow would melt, and then it would rain for six days—and the camp was just a morass of mud. Washington said he would much rather have his troops training and wintering over on frozen ground.
A second surprise was that while nearly half of the men who died at Valley Forge starved to death, the farms in the area had actually just enjoyed one of their best crop yields of the decade. But the farmers didn’t want the basically worthless scrip being offered by the Continental Army in payment for their poultry, grain and cattle and were instead selling them to the British, who were paying either pound sterling or sometimes gold. There was plenty of food to go around; it’s just that the Continental Army couldn’t get their hands on it, and even if they did, they had no wagons with which to transport it.
Clavin: One of the things that surprised me the most is what an intersection the Valley Forge story is for so many of the major and important minor characters of the entire Revolutionary War. In addition to Washington, Lafayette and von Steuben, you have another European officer, Baron Johann de Kalb, who played a very pivotal role. Then there’s Horatio Gates, the Continental Congress, John Adams, Patrick Henry, Alexander Hamilton, future President James Monroe, Franklin and his group of commissioners in Paris and the French officials they were dealing with. On the British side you have the Howe brothers. You have Major John André, who was later hanged as a master spy, spending his time in Philadelphia seducing Benedict Arnold’s future wife. You had all of these characters who had an impact on the American Revolution. In a lot of ways the six-month period at Valley Forge was a microcosm for the entire Revolution.
Tell us the background of your writing collaboration.
Drury: Tom and I decided for the very first book we did together, Halsey’s Typhoon , the book has to have one voice; you can’t have two guys writing a book. But we’ve established this really good Henry Ford–style assembly line. Tom is a wonderful researcher—he just finds this stuff. Then we confab together, and I’ll write what we’ve taken to calling a “clothesline” on which to hang the story—the high points we have to hit. Tom will look at it, and he’ll kind of twirl it around in his mind and say, “If we go in this direction, then that will lead us back to this direction we want to go to next.” We keep sending things back and forth, and it keeps kind of working like that. I’ll be working on something, and he’ll be a step ahead of me working on something that he’ll send to me.
Clavin: It’s kind of an organic process. But a lot of times the work is starting to tell us where it’s going. Here’s what seems to be the story that wants to be told. Let’s not get in the way of the story. It’s a darned good story. That’s why we wanted to do it in the first place. And let’s not mess it up by trying to make it something it isn’t. Let’s just make it the best story possible about something we think is very important to talk about. MH