January 2010 | Christopher Lancette

Time to give thanks to the women of Valley Forge

Following the Drum cover copy.jpg
Sometimes a book comes along, smacks readers in the head, alleviates our ignorance, and leaves us with a new perspective on something we thought we already knew. 

That's what happened when I read Following the Drum: Women at the Valley Forge Encampment (Potomac Books, 2009) by former historic interpreter Nancy Loane. The title is too modest in conveying the scope and power of the book. It doesn't fully capture the idea that the work adds colorful, riveting details to the basic portrait of the American Revolution that hangs in our minds ... elements that help give us a more complete, accurate picture. The title doesn't deliver the punch of the easy-to-digest 164 pages: We owe an enormous debt of gratitude not just to the men who fought in the Revolutionary War but to the women whose sweat and sacrifice also forged our freedoms.

Much of the book is focused on the wide range of roles women played in what happened at Valley Forge. As a quick refresher, Valley Forge is where a rag-tag and seemingly hopeless band of men staggered into Pennsylvania farmland in December of 1777, endured a bone-chilling winter, trained, and exited as a disciplined army that went on to win its next battle and ultimately the war. 

That, of course, is what we all learn in school. We don't often study the full range of people who made contributions to the Revolution, including the role that more than 5,000 African-Americans played. (Robert Ewell Greene's 1984 book, Black Courage 1775-1783, is a great place to start.) 

Nor do we often learn that women were there, too. 

Women of high social class like Martha Washington provided great comfort to her commander-in-chief husband George Washington while women of the "common sort" performed countless thankless chores that helped the army survive. They ran household headquarters for officers so that they could remain focused on developing strategies to win the war. They cooked for exhausted soldiers, made clothing to help protect them from the elements, cleaned the camp to help slay the biggest enemy at Valley Forge -- the range of ailments caused by unsanitary conditions. More bravely, they risked their own lives by nursing diseased soldiers.

Following the Drum would be worth reading even if it stopped right there. The book, however, is full of surprises -- some sweet, others sorrowful.

llluminating the larger contributions women made throughout the Revolutionary War, author Loane introduces us to women such as Lucy Knox, one of my favorite ladies of the era. When her British parents forced her to choose between them and the love of her life, Boston bookseller and artillery man Henry Knox, she chose the latter. The love letters Loane quotes make it clear that she made the right choice but she never saw her parents again. 

We become acquainted with the tragic story of Catharine Greene, wife of General Nathaniel Greene. Though blessed by beauty and charm, she spent much of her life in depression. And for good reason. One of her children developed whooping cough and died in her arms. Another baby died after she took a nasty fall in the kitchen that brought on premature labor. Those were only two of the tragedies she faced. (Lucy Knox could relate: Only three of her 13 children made it to adulthood.)

Following the Drum takes us to battlefields to meet women who shed their blood for the American cause. Margaret Corbin "took up her husband's artillery position when he went down" Loane writes. "She was seriously wounded for her efforts (an arm was almost torn off
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 and a breast mangled)". She later became "the first camp woman with the Continental Army to be acknowledged by a pension."

By Loane's own account, too little is known about the women who served at Valley Forge.

"Most of the hundreds of women with the Valley Forge encampment," she writes, "remain only as shadowy, anonymous figures of a bygone war. We will never know their names. We will never know their stories, or how they individually contributed to America's freedom."

Still, her book offers a treasure trove, even if a small one, that highlights what women did to give us the country we have today. While we tend to only think of such topics during Women's History Month or Independence Day, the snow and ice gripping much of the country this winter mark an especially poignant time to express our thanks to the women of Valley Forge.