The winter of 1778 was a hard one for the American troops at Valley Forge. Dressed in rags, short on food, and crowded into makeshift huts, they prompted Washington to send unusually blunt petitions to Congress for assistance. Part of the problem was that the region was short on supplies, and the provisions that did exist could command a better price if sold to the British hunkered down in Philadelphia only eighteen miles away. But the American army’s inefficient commissary and quarter master departments were also to blame. Plagued by corruption and subject to frequent Congressional meddling, the departments did a miserable job of supplying Washington’s army.
By spring, however, reorganization of the supply departments had brought some relief to Washington’s troops, but morale was also improved by the training regimen established by the Prussian émigré William Augustus Henry Ferdinand, Baron von Steuben. Boasting lengthy (but perhaps embellished) military credentials, he offered his services to Washington and the general appointed him inspector general. Von Steuben embraced the task. Although he spoke virtually no English, he produced a training manual for the American troops and took personal charge of the drills at Valley Forge. Loud, and profane—he did know how to curse in English—he entertained and won the respect of the men. By the time Washington broke camp in May, the Continental Army was a different beast.
On 20 May, this new and improved army demonstrated its skills. When several regiments, under the command of the Marquis de Lafayette, were cornered by British forces near Barren Hill, Lafayette was able to maneuver the American troops out of trouble through a series of neatly performed marches and counter-marches.
The far greater test came a month later at Monmouth Courthouse. On 18 June, British General Henry Clinton evacuated Philadelphia and marched 10,000 men toward New York. Washington set off in pursuit, but ordered Charles Lee to take an advance guard forward to harass the tail of Clinton’s long train. Lee, who had been captured in 1776 and recently freed in a prisoner exchange, was reluctant to accept the assignment. When he came into contact with the British rear guard commanded by Charles Cornwallis, his lack of enthusiasm showed. The Americans had a huge numerical advantage (5000 to 2000), but Lee provided his junior officers with virtually no direction and within minutes the Americans were in disorganized flight.
Informed that American forces had engaged the British ahead, Washington rode forward to observe. He was stunned, then furious, to discover his troops racing toward him in full retreat. The famously even-tempered Washington exploded in rage, dressed down the incompetent Lee, and assumed command of the fleeing troops. He established a defensive line in a well chosen spot: high ground that could only be accessed by passing through either a swamp or some dense woods. From there he commanded his quickly re-ordered troops as the British attacked.
Perhaps because they smelled blood once the American fell back in disarray or perhaps because they did not realize that with their new training all the American forces needed was solid leadership, the British foolishly advanced against the well-positioned American forces. After several failed assaults, Clinton removed his army from the field. And that night, it was the British army’s turn to steal away under the cover of darkness.