Isaac Potts house, Valley Forge

A few posts ago I spoke of troops in Washington’s army catching fish to supplement their diets, and they no doubt did this with some regularity as Valley Forge was situated on the Shuylkill River where there were abundant supplies of fish. 

I visited Valley Forge recently to see where my ancestor, Thomas Gresham, 3rd Virginia, wintered in 1777/78, and am considering what conditions were like and what food was available that winter.

The huts were built per the following specifications taken from Washington’s General Orders of December 18, 1777.

The Soldier’s huts are to be of the following dimensions, viz: fourteen by sixteen each, sides, ends and roofs made with logs, and the roof made tight with split slabs, or in some other way; the sides made tight with clay, fireplace made of wood and secured with clay on the inside eighteen inches thick, this fireplace to be in the rear of the hut; the door to be in the end next the street; the doors to be made of split oak slabs, unless boards can be procured. Side-walls to be six and a half feet high. The officers huts to form a line in the rear of the troops, one hut to be allowed for each General Officer, one to the Staff of each brigade, one to the field officers of each regiment, one to the commissioned officers of two companies, and one to every twelve non-commissioned officers and soldiers.

A common theme emerges when researching the foods – shortages. 

Some 19th century sources spoke of good harvests in the area that year, but those crops were intended for the Philadelphia markets, some 20 miles away, and stores were not given freely in exchange for vouchers the new government, as yet, had not committed to honor.  Compounding the problem was the shortage of conveyances in which to transport grain and supplies.

Sgt. Andrew Kemp wrote in a letter to his mother they had gone up to a week at a time with only frozen potatoes to eat. 

Soldiers were dispatched to find hidden supplies and to confiscate them.  On one outing, they found droves of cattle hidden away in the marshes of the Delaware, also intended for the markets in Philadelphia. 

One journalist wrote that provisions were so scarce the soldiers had eaten their dogs and that, “cattle, fish, plants and roots made up their chief diet”, and another described a bowl of beef soup with burnt leaves and dirt. 

There were between ten and eleven thousand men encamped at Valley Forge along with some wives and children.  It obviously took a great deal of supplies to keep that many people adequately fed. 

The camp was about 20 miles from Philadelphia on the Shuylkill River which had fish of several kinds.  In a previous article I spoke of catfish that were caught and cooked by a soldier in Washington’s army, and there were trout, shad, and sunfish. 

Harry Emerson Wildes wrote an elaborate account of a shad run which supposedly fed the troops for several days and furnished enough for hundreds of barrels of salted fish for later consumption.  He claimed the, “famine completely ended”, however, he failed to document his source and to my knowledge no one has been able to substantiate that account. 

I doubt there were sufficient barrels and salt available for pickling anywhere near that many fish.  There are accounts, however, of the army and locals purchasing odd barrels of salted fish.

While food was never plentiful, with what they could forage from the locals, catch of their own accord, and the meager rations supplied to them, the troops managed to scrape by during that dreadful winter encampment.

Rations were:  1 ½ lbs. flour or bread, 1 lb. beef or fish, or ¾ lb. pork, and 1 gill of whiskey or spirits; or, 1 ½ lb. bread or flour, ½ lb. pork or bacon, ½ pint of dried peas or beans, and a gill of whiskey or spirits. 

Private Joseph Plumb Martin blessed us with an account of how the common soldier may have cooked such rations. 

How was it cooked?  Why, as it usually was when we had no cooking utensils with us,–that is the flour was laid upon a flat rock and mixed up with cold water, then daubed upon a flat stone and scorched on one side, while the beef was broiling on a stick in the other fire.  This was the common way of cookery when on marches, and we could get anything to cook…  – Martin, Joseph Plumb.  Memoir of a Revolutionary War Soldier.  1830.  Hallowell, Maine.

At other times he ate his fill of walnuts from a tree, roasted a half dozen foraged turnips, and boiled his part of a sturgeon, “seven or eight feet in length”, that foolishly jumped up and fell into the boat as he was helping to ferry troops across the Hudson river.  Sturgeon were also found in the Schuylkill – early accounts state they were so plentiful one could walk across the river and not get wet by stepping on the backs of the sturgeon.  – Kephart, Beth.  The Life and Times of Philadelphia’s Schuylkill.  2007.  Philadelphia.

Conditions for George and Martha Washington and other officers and their ladies were quite different.  The Washington’s ordered food, received food local women brought to headquarters, and on at least one occasion had pickled oysters and cheese confiscated from a British ship. 

Author Nancy Loane wrote that foods gracing the Washingtons’ table included fowls, partridges, onions, potatoes, cabbages, turnips, parsnips, eggs and veal.  She found those items and apples and turkeys listed on expense reports indicating the Washington’s had these items in adequate quantities for themselves and their guests throughout the encampment.  Washington also ordered a quantity of good hams.  –Loane, Nancy K.  Following the Drum.  2009. 

The kitchen at the Potts house where the Washingtons wintered was situated on the banks of the Shuylkill and was quite nice for its day.  The Washingtons had two cooks and a troop of servants to see to their needs.  Their months at Valley Forge are peppered with accounts of entertaining officers and their ladies. 

Ms. Loane’s book is well documented and she exposed several previous accounts of Martha Washington’s efforts to aid of the soldiers at Valley Forge as fictional.  In 25 years of researching she was not able to locate a single account of Martha taking food to the camps, or even knitting socks for the men, many of whom had no shoes.  She traced such glowing accounts back to Martha’s grandson who hadn’t even been born yet during the winter at Valley Forge, and whose credibility was unreliable. 

Ms. Loane noted that accounts written by other Victorian-era writers and editors are unsubstantiated accounts, influenced by Custis’s remarks, published many years after the war.  One of those writers was responsible for the myth of George Washington and the cherry tree. 

In the case of Valley Forge there are no recipes and few detailed descriptions of food the soldiers and camp followers ate.  Knowing what was commonly eaten at the time and knowledge of general food storage and preparation tells us what they at least tried to make from their scanty rations and foraged supplies.  

There was a bread oven at Valley Forge and a capable baker to supervise its use so we know they had bread made from local grain. 

Soup would have wasted nothing and could have been made from anything.  Meat or fish could have been combined with the peas or beans and any plants or roots available, and fish could have been layered with the hard bread and cooked until it amalgamated into crude chowder.  The preserved fish and pickled meat would have contained enough salt to season a kettle full of soup without adding any. 

Food was never plentiful or fancy, but the troops held together and, as they say, the rest is history.


Harry Emerson Wildes, Valley Forge, New York: The Macmillan Co., 1938

Report on Fisheries, Hazard’s Register of Pennsylvania 11, no. 14, 6 April 1833

Returns of Provisions Issued, frames 91, 31-32; 34, 250; r75, M859, RG93, National Archives.

Journals of the Continental Congress (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1908), 10:235-36.

Thomas Hughes, A Journal by Thos. Hughes For his Amusement…. ,Cambridge, England: University Press, 1947

William Kingsford.  The History of Canada.  1893.  London.

Church of Latter Day Saints.  The Young Woman’s Journal.  V. 3, No. 2.  Feb. 1902.

Taylor, Frank Hamilton.  Valley Forge:  A Chronicle of American Heroism.  1920.  Valley Forge Park Commission.

Duche, Jacob.  Washington at Valley Forge.  1858.  Philadelphia.

Carrington, Henry.  Battles of the American Revolution 1778-1781.  1876.  NY.

Helen Bryan, First Lady of Liberty Martha Washington, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., NY., New York, 2002, pgs. 218-233.
Loane, Nancy K.  Following the Drum:  Women at the Valley Forge Encampment.  2009.  VA.