I found a 1939 first edition of this fabulous book among my nonagenarian parents’ bookshelves, and I don’t think I took a breath until I turned the last page. This is the amazing story of Valley Forge told from the viewpoint of 21-year-old farm boy Allen Hale, whose New York regiment after the battle of Brandywine and the excruciating winter march into Valley Forge has shrunk to six men, none of them officers. Along with the rest of the rag-tag 10,000-man rebel army, they are largely untrained, unshod, wrapped in rags, starving and sick, carrying only their 20-pound muskets and their grudges against the seemingly well-fed and well-clothed army command under General Washington.
Hale and the other soldiers spend a nightmarish 6 months in Valley Forge, waiting for the war to resume and the British—now ensconced in Philadelphia for the winter—to overrun and decimate them come the spring. They subsist on small amounts of rum, corn gruel, and the occasional piece of game one or another manages to flush out of the frozen woods. The camp followers—mostly wives of soldiers who are left behind when their husbands either desert or die—are passed around among the regiments, providing a modicum of companionship along with disease and provoking, at times, bitter rivalries among the men. Desperate pleas from Gen. Washington to the Continental Congress for food, weapons, shoes and uniforms go largely unheeded, and the ranks are decimated by desertion and death.
Hale’s group of six includes two men who inspire the young soldier in different ways: Jacob is a fiery revolutionary, whose irrational hatred for the officers is only rivaled by his single-minded dedication to the cause of the revolution itself. He would sooner die than desert. Ely is an Indian fighter with a strong quiet way about him, who can talk the commissary out of a potato when there are none, and who is Hale’s strength. When Hale, his companion Bess and two others decide to desert, it is a doomed cause. They are starving, barely clothed, with no supplies but their muskets, walking through ice and snow in the dead of winter. It is a foregone conclusion that they will be captured, but when they are charged with murder and treason and face execution, their cause is taken up by Washington’s young aide Alexander Hamilton, and Hale gets a different view of what the entire army is facing.
Although the book ends with the march out of Valley Forge in the summer of 1778, and doesn’t go into the next five years of the Revolution, it is well known that the crucible that Valley Forge proved to be for the American army, the training provided the men by von Steuben, and the British defeat that followed soon after, constituted a major turning point in the war. In my mind, there is no greater praise I can give this book that to confess that it made me want to pick up some histories of the period. Thank you, Howard Fast, for this tremendously moving and powerful testament to these simple men and women who helped to forge our country.