What ‘Really’ Happened: Valley Forge and a Hunger for Human

Monday, 24 March, 2014

Words by Jakob von der Lippe
Illustration by Camilla Eustance

In December 1777, George Washington camped 12,000 men of the first and only Continental Army at Valley Forge. In doing so, he overcome not only the first great struggle of the American Revolution, but also history’s longest and most awkward work Christmas party. By June 1778, around 2,500 of those men had died of starvation, disease, and exposure, brought upon by a remarkably hard winter and a remarkably huge fuck up. Washington forgot that people need food and shelter, since not everyone is as much of a freedom fuelled, liberty spewing, democratic demigod as he was. Well, more accurately, it’s hard to feed 12,000 people (some of whom are wounded and dying already) when you’re in the middle of a war against, y’know, the entire British Empire (who are pretty much the King Kong of 18th century geopolitics— totally wrecking New York). It probably didn’t help that the Continental Army was also pretty wrecked at this point, having won a costly victory at White Marsh weeks prior, and were dragging along a whole lot of sick and wounded dudes into the Valley Forge encampment.

Historically, the winter at Valley Forge was a turning point in the revolution, a moment in which the drive towards secession and liberty overcame the elements, disease, and the shittiness of camping. Supply lines were resumed in February, however the desertion and death toll up until June 1778 remain remarkably hard to pin down in contemporary records. This smokescreen of missing information is pretty convenient, given the historical importance of Valley Forge, and the presence of a major figure like Washington. The big question is: where did the food they lived on through winter come from? I’m going to wrap this one in tin foil and say I’m pretty sure they started eating people, because there is nothing more suspicious than a man with wooden teeth, and logical responses are a job for real historians.

Bentley Little, a pretty good horror writer, suggested in the early ‘90s there was cannibalism at Valley Forge, but he was nowhere near serious. I am. It does answer a lot of questions that absolutely nobody would ever ask. George Washington going all Hannibal Lecter out of necessity is at least plausible, since there are a lot of discrepancies regarding the exact number of soldiers at Valley Forge, a lot of contradictions regarding desertion rates, and a lot of men simply disappearing in the (literally) logistical stew. Since battlefield medicine in the 18th century was basically butchery anyway, why not remove the middle man? Amputation fixed pretty much everything, including hunger. It’s not like cannibalism is itself outside of the American experience: Jamestown provides a historical precedent for cannibalism in the American colonial setting, illustrating harsh necessity in the even harsher North American winter.

Accounts of the winter point to a diet based heavily on bread and meat, which is consistent with the difficulties of foraging in a frozen climate, but these do not explain the source of the mystery meat found in the “pepper broth” served at the camp. Sufficient meat for 12,000 people would have to have been sourced in bulk from somewhere. Wherever this was, it isn’t immediately apparent, as local farmers were actually holding out on supplying the Continental Army. From the Army’s starting supplies of a few barrels of pork, it’s hard to see how they could find enough meat to keep at least 10,000 people alive. Washington was desperate, his troops were hungry, and hundreds of men were already dying of disease and malnutrition. Before I start sounding too serious, just remember we’re talking about a dude who could never tell a lie, but had those bone-crunching wooden teeth.

Essentially, 12,000 men walked in, and 10,000 men walked out again. Either Thunderdome’s efficiency rate has gone right down, or starvation, disease, and exposure took their toll on the Continental Army at Valley Forge. Amid the chaos of the Revolution in crisis, thousands of men disappeared, and thousands more were fed from a source of meat that could have come from anywhere, or anyone. There’s something beautifully democratic about a revolution fuelled by cannibalism: for the people, of the people.

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