The Winter of Red Snow: The Diary of Abigail Jane Stewart, Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, 1777

When the Revolutionary War began, there seemed to be very little chance that these tiny colonies could defeat the great British empire. Britain had a population of eight million people and the best army and navy in the world. The total population in America was only two and a half million, but not all of these people were patriots. Half a million Americans stayed loyal to the British and another 200,000 decided to be neutralists, not pick a side. In addition to being outnumbered, colonists had no army, no navy, and almost no factories to manufacture the weapons and other supplies they would need. They knew it was going to be a hard battle to win. One person who made it possible was George Washington.

George Washington quickly became a general in the new American army. Because he was a good general, he was put in charge of the entire army. In 1777, he brought his troops to Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, for the winter. Food and clothing were so scarce that as many as 4,000 soldiers — about a third of the army — were barefoot and starving. While this could have permanently destroyed the solders’ willpower, these struggles ended up making them stronger. The troops spent the long, cold months being drilled and trained in military tactics. By the time spring arrived, the formerly inexperienced Continental army had become a group of skilled professional soldiers. It was the turning point in the war.

Meet Abigail Jane Stewart

Abigail Jane Stewart lived with her family in Valley Forge the winter George Washington and his troops were camped there. In her wartime diary, Abigail captures the harsh conditions the young army faced.

I have felt heartsore all day. When I told Mama about the soldiers, I buried my head in her lap and cried. Elisabeth also came to the hearth.

“They’re dying from the Pox,” she told us, trying to hold back tears, “and the Putrid Fevers. Mama…I watched a surgeon saw off a man’s leg, right before mine eyes.” Elisabeth could not stop weeping. Mama stroked her hair.

Sally sat next to us, nervously rocking Johnny’s cradle. “Why must his leg be cut off?” she asked.

Papa’s voice came from the doorway. “Because the soldiers have no shoes, the snow freezes their feet...a soldier whose hand or foot freezes must have it removed if it turns black, otherwise the black turns to green. Green means infection. The only way to get rid of such an infection is to cut it off. I’m sorry, daughters, that ye had to see such suffering.”