Continental Army Camp, Valley Forge, Pennsylvania
January 23, 1778
The bugler who blows reveille could be standing right outside our hut—the loud, unexpected notes penetrating the darkness set my heart racing. My eyes fly open, and I sit bolt upright as Benjamin stirs beside me. Though I lie back down, it takes me a few minutes to relax. The pile of glowing coals in the fireplace gives off the only light. “What time is it?”
He spoons me against his chest. “Time to wake up.”
As he holds me, the camp comes to life outside the hut’s walls. Somewhere, not far off, I hear retching. Closer, someone makes water on the ground.
Benjamin ignores all of it and covers my face with kisses before he leaves the warmth of our shared blanket. “You need not report for roll call, but I must. His Excellency and Major General von Steuben want to make sure we look sharp. We expect a delegation from the Board of War today or tomorrow.” He stirs up the coals and puts a few sticks on the fire before he dresses. “Oh, and our bunkmates who were on picket duty last night will be home soon.”
“Do you have time for breakfast?”
“We rarely eat before roll call.”
I reach for the strap of my haversack. “Wait. Take this.”
His lean face takes on the look of a hungry wolf at the sight of the cheese and bread I offer. He tears off a great mouthful of the bread with his teeth as he shrugs into his tattered jacket and picks up his musket on the way out the door.
I must dress before the other men arrive, though I would rise regardless, for there is nothing appealing about lying abed on the dirt floor. It takes me little time to put on Ruth’s russet woolen, my stockings and shoes, and wrap myself in the shawl, still warm from our bodies. His old blanket is sorely in need of laundering, but it looks as though a good scrubbing will reduce it to rags. I wrinkle my nose as I hang both it and the blanket from home over the side of a bunk to air.
Using a handful of kindling, I sweep the old straw, litter, and dried leaves the men have tracked inside onto a piece of bark, and the bits send up sparks as I dump them into the fireplace. Crumbled mint leaves sprinkled in the corners will discourage mice and I toss a handful of dried lavender into the flames to freshen the air.
When the other men troop in, I make a hasty introduction, offer them some of the bread and cheese, and then leave the hut. The wind whips my hair around my face as I watch the ranks assemble on the parade ground. Redoubts surround the flat field spreading out before me in a depression in the earth.
In daylight, the camp is both a sorry and a glorious sight. Most of the men wear mismatched, torn, and inadequate clothing. But I see something remarkable. I see an army of volunteers and I swell with pride at all the husbands, fathers, sons, and brothers who are taking a stand for freedom.
Around the perimeter of the parade ground, I note some half-built huts, tents, and lean-to shelters among the completed cabins. In the darkness the night before, I did not realize the structure in which I’d slept was good accommodations.
From the top of the rise I spy another group of cabins and tents set farther away. There, women wrapped in shawls stir the contents of kettles hung over campfires while poorly clothed children dart in and out of sight among their meager lodgings. How hard life must be for women who, with children in tow, follow their men to war.
The encampment is many times larger than York, and given what I know of the privations here, I expected to find a prevailing attitude of despair. But Valley Forge hums with activity and industriousness.
What will become of its inhabitants if the officers do not heed the message I delivered? Benjamin said the men revere Washington. Would his removal lead to mutiny—and if that happened, which side would Benjamin choose? If the British catch wind of such a thing, they could attack while the Continental forces are in disarray.
I give myself a little shake. It will not do to fret about the worst that could happen. I must be like the soldiers, trust the commander, and do what I can do to further the cause.
When Benjamin, Joseph, and their bunkmates return, I am frying more of the bacon. A simmering pot of beans will be ready for supper.
Joseph sniffs the air as he ducks through the doorway. “So this is what a woman’s touch does for these huts? Anna, you may stay as long as you like.”
One man whose name I can’t remember grins at me. “I’m glad you’re here, ma’am. I can’t take one more meal of soup with burned leaves and dirt in it.”
Joseph pretends to look affronted, but he cannot keep a straight face. “I’ll thank you not to criticize my cooking.”
At that, everyone laughs as they crowd around the hearth and mix their daily ration of flour with water to make what they call fire cakes. While the cakes bake on the stones, I bring out a crock of preserves. The men spread a thick layer over the flat, tasteless bread, and the rapture on their faces as they eat the simple fare rewards me for my trouble.
Benjamin wipes the last crumbs from his lips and licks his fingers, his gesture showing these men have learned to waste no sustenance. “Be sure to remind the fellows on watch the commanding officers expect us to have our cartridge boxes filled at inspection.”
Joseph asks, “Do they think we’ll need to fight while we’re in winter camp?”
“I think they’re just teaching us to prepare, like proper soldiers.”
But I wonder if Harrison’s letter warned Washington to prepare for trouble.
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