Valley Forge is an almost divinely chosen location for the birth of the United States, for it was a winter in this valley that forged the kind of hardened men the Colonies needed to defeat the tyranny of Great Britain.
It was during the arduous winter of 1777 that Gen. George Washington would prove to himself, to his men and to his superiors that he was a leader worth following.
While we often credit George Washington’s resilience and bravery for leading his men through the hellish winter of 1777, we seldom examine where Washington received those virtues from.
When one takes the time to look at the painting, “The Prayer at Valley Forge,” there remains little question that God was the source.
“The Prayer at Valley Forge” was painted in 1975 by Arnold Friberg to celebrate the nation’s 1976 bicentennial.
The painting stands as a reminder to Americans that our nation’s existence at one point rested upon the edge of a knife as Washington and his few remaining men faced a winter of sickness, starvation and death — with the daunting prospect of having to march on British held Philadelphia after that.
According to U.S. History, Colonial forces had fought valiantly the previous autumn at the battles of Brandywine and Germantown but failed to achieve their goal of repelling the British from Philadelphia, the largest city in the Colonies at the time.
Washington decided to withdraw twenty miles north of Philadelphia to Valley Forge — so as to be able to effectively monitor movements of British General Howe and his men wintering there.
General Howe’s men and their supplies stood in stark contrast to Washington’s Colonials, according to U.S. History.
The British were quartered in furnished, heated homes with ample access to food, medicine and clean uniforms.
A Continental soldier at Valley Forge was considered fortunate if he had access to a poorly cobbled together log-cabin with a dirt floor, which he shared with up to twelve other — often sick — soldiers with rags for uniforms.
It is estimated that Washington lost at least 3,000 men that winter to disease or exposure and hundreds more to desertion.
Food was also difficult to reliably provide to Washington’s men, as many farmers were hoarding their yields to sell in the spring at higher profits. There were also farmers supposedly loyal to the revolution who sold their grain to the British at Philadelphia because they paid in silver or gold instead of near worthless Continental paper currency, according to U.S. History.
Washington was desperate to raise morale among his suffering and dwindling army.
According to the American Battlefield Trust, Washington often read and ordered his officers to read parts of Thomas Paine’s published journal “The American Crisis” out loud to his men to harden their resolve.
The opening paragraph of Thomas Paine’s pamphlet read, ““THESE are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as FREEDOM should not be highly rated.”
Another part of the journal was meant to shame others into action, alluding back to a time when England fled in terror from a famous, young French girl with her haggard group of faith-filled followers.
“‘Tis surprising to see how rapidly a panic will sometimes run through a country. All nations and ages have been subject to them … in the fourteenth [fifteenth] century the whole English army, after ravaging the kingdom of France, was driven back like men petrified with fear; and this brave exploit was performed by a few broken forces collected and headed by a woman, Joan of Arc. Would that heaven might inspire some Jersey maid to spirit up her countrymen, and save her fair fellow sufferers from ravage and ravishment,” Paine wrote.
But even the eloquent prose of Paine was not enough to save the army and its noble mission entirely.
It was God who Washington finally turned to in his hour of desperation, when all seemed lost.
It was the sight of the Continental general on his knees, alone in the woods but for his trusty steed Nelson that a Quaker Tory gave his account that inspired the painting some two hundred years later.
According to Revolutionary War and Beyond, a British loyalist and Quaker named Isaac Potts happened across Washington praying in the woods one day during that fateful winter.
The account itself was taken from the “Diary and Remembrances” written by a Rev. Nathaniel Randolph Snowden, a Presbyterian minister who knew Isaac Potts.
Snowden chronicled a conversation he had with Potts one day while riding together near Valley Forge.
According to the diary, Potts said, “In that woods pointing to a close in view, I heard a plaintive sound as, of a man at prayer. I tied my horse to a sapling and went quietly into the woods, and to my astonishment, I saw the great George Washington on his knees alone, with his sword on one side and his cocked hat on the other. He was at Prayer to the God of the Armies, beseeching to interpose with his Divine aid, as it was ye Crisis, and the cause of the country, of humanity and of the world. ‘Such a prayer I never heard from the lips of man.'”
Potts continued, “We never thought a man c’d be a soldier and a Christian, but if there is one in the world, it is Washington.”
God answered Washington’s prayers in February of 1778.
France declared itself an official ally of the Colonies and pledged both men and much-needed supplies to the war effort.
That same month, a Prussian veteran of the Seven Years War by the name of Baron von Steuben volunteered to join and whip the Continental army into a crack force, agreeing to take no pay unless victory was achieved.
General Howe soon withdrew his forces from Philadelphia for fear of being surrounded by French and newly trained Continental forces.
According to Revolutionary War and Beyond, it was this same group of newly invigorated and trained American soldiers that defeated and besieged the British at Yorktown, where they would eventually surrender to Washington in the fall of 1781.
The power of prayer to the one true God cannot be denied, and it is certainly what saved the United States that dark winter at Valley Forge.
Our current leaders would be wise to follow Washington’s example and kneel in humble prayer before we find ourselves in a far worse winter of our own making.
This article appeared originally on The Western Journal.