On December 18, 1777, General George Washington’s army celebrated the first national Thanksgiving in Gulph Mills and on Rebel Hill. The celebration caused a one day delay in the army’s march to Valley Forge, which General Washington had decided a day earlier, was to be where the army would make its winter quarters.
The purpose of the Thanksgiving, according to the November 1, 1777 proclamation of the Continental Congress, was for “Solemn Thanksgiving and Praise” and “to inspire our Commanders both by Land and Sea, and all under them, with that Wisdom and Fortitude which may render them fit Instruments, under the Providence of Almighty GOD, to secure for these United States the greatest of all human blessings, INDEPENDENCE and PEACE…”
Reverend Israel Evans, chaplin to General Poor’s New Hampshire brigade, preached at least one of the Thanksgiving sermons. The text of his sermon was printed by Lancaster, Pa. printer, Francis Bailey, who is credited with being the first printer to name, in print, Gen. Washington as “the Father of His Country.” General Washington received a copy of this Thanksgiving sermon on March 12, 1778. The next day, he wrote this thank you note to Mr. Evans:
To REVEREND ISRAEL EVANS
Head Qrs. Valley-forge, March 13, 1778.
Revd. Sir: Your favor of the 17th. Ulto., inclosing the discourse which you delivered on the 18th. of December; the day set a part for a general thanksgiving; to Genl. Poors Brigade, never came to my hands till yesterday. I have read this performance with equal attention and pleasure, and at the same time that I admire, and feel the force of the reasoning which you have displayed through the whole, it is more especially incumbent upon me to thank you for the honorable, but partial mention you have made of my character; and to assure you, that it will ever be the first wish of my heart to aid your pious endeavours to inculcate a due sense of the dependance we ought to place in that all wise and powerful Being on whom alone our success depends; and moreover, to assure you, that with respect and regard, I am, etc.”
This first national Thanksgiving celebration was nothing like the Thanksgiving celebrations that we know today with abundant food and comfort. The 11,000 soldiers in Washington’s Army still had very little food and very little comfort, although conditions had improved for some over the last few days.
Their diaries explain:
Dr. Algibence Waldo writes, “Universal Thanksgiving – a Roasted pig at Night. God be thanked for my health which I have pretty well recovered. How much better should I feel, were I assured my family were in health. But the same good Being who graciously preserves me, is able to preserve them and bring me to the ardently wish’d for enjoyment of them again.”
Jospeh Plumb Martin, a private from Massachusetts, wrote about the first Thanksgiving in his 1830 book, A Narrative of Some of the Adventures, Danger and Suffering of a Revolutionary Soldier, Interspersed with Anecdotes of Incidents that Occurred Within His Own Observation. (His diaries have since been republished under the title, “Private Yankee Doodle”, i.e. as edited by George F. Scheer and published by Little, Brown, and Co., 1962.)
Martin writes, “While we lay here there was a Continental Thanksgiving ordered by Congress, and as the army had all the cause in the world to be particularly thankful, if not for being well off, at least that it was no worse, we were ordered to participate in it. We had nothing to eat for two or three days previous, except what hte trees aof the fields and forests afforded us. But we must now have what Congress said, a sumptuous Thanksgiving to close the year of high living we had now nearly even brought to a close. Well, to add something extraordinary to our present stock of provisions, our contry, every mindful of its suffering army, opened her sympathizing heart so wide, upon this occasion, as to give us something to make the world stare. And what do you think it was, dear reader? Guess. You cannot guess, be you as much of a Yankee as you will. I will tell you; it gave each anevery man half a gill [note: a gill is about four ounces] of rice and a tablespoonful of vinegar!!
After we had made sure of this extraordinary superabundant donation, we were ordered out to attend a meeting and hear a sermon delivered upon the happy occasion. We accordingly went, fo we could not help it. I heard a sermon, a ‘thanksgiving sermon’, what sort of one I do not know now, nor did I at the time I heard it. I had something else to think upon. My belly put me in remembrance of the fine Thanksgiving dinner I was to partake of when I could get it. Well, we had got through the services of the day and had nothing to do but to return in good order to our tents and fare as we could. As we returend to our camp, we passed by our commissary’s quarters. All his stores, consisting of a barrel about two-thirds full of hocks of fresh beef, stood directl in our way, but there was a sentinel guarding even that.
However, one of my messmates purloined a piece of it, four or five pounds perhaps. I was exceeding glad to see him take it; I thoguht it mught help to eke out our Thanksgiving supper, but alas! How soon my expectations were blasted! The sentinel saw him have it as soon as I did and obliged him to return it ot the barel again. So I had nothing esle to do but to go home and meke out my supper as susual, upon a leg of nothing and no turnips.
The army was now not only starved but naked. The greatest part were not only shirtless and barefoot, but destitute of all otehr clothing, especially blankets…I was to endure this inconvenience (moccassins made of cowhide) or to go barefoot, as hundredso f mycompanions had to, till they might be tracked by their blood upon the rough frozen ground.
The army continued at and near the Gulf for some days, after which we marched for teh Valley Forge in order to take up winter quarters. We were now in a truly forlorn condition–no clothing, no provisions and as disheartned as need be.”
General Washington’s orders for that day largely focus on setting up the camp at Valley Forge, where the army will march to on December 19. (The first part of his orders focus on military discipline–court martials.) His is particularly focused on the procedure for “hutting”–building the huts where the army will spend the winter. His very specific orders follow, including an award of $12 for a soldier in each regiment who finishes his hut first, and an award of $100 for any officer or soldier who comes up with a covering for the huts that is cheaper and quicker made than boards, which are in short supply.
“GENERAL ORDERS Head Quarters, at the Gulph, December 18, 1777
The Major Generals and officers commanding divisions, are to appoint an active field officer in and for each of their respective brigades, to superintend the business of hurting, agreeably to the directions they shall receive; and in addition to these, the commanding officer of each regiment is to appoint an officer to oversee the building of huts for his own regiment; which officer is to take his orders from the field officer of the brigade he belongs to, who is to mark out the precise spot, that every hut, for officers and soldiers, is to be placed on, that uniformity and order may be observed.
An exact return of all the tools, now in the hands of every regiment, is to be made immediately to the Qr. Mr. General, who, with the Adjutant General, is to see that they, together with those in store, are duly and justly allotted to the regimental overseers of the work; who are to keep an account of the men’s names, into whose hands they are placed, that they may be accountable for them. The Superintendents and Overseers are to be exempt from all other duty, and will moreover be allowed for their trouble.
The Colonels, or commanding officers of regiments, with their Captains, are immediately to cause their men to be divided into squads of twelve, and see that each squad have their proportion of tools, and set about a hut for themselves: And as an encouragement to industry and art, the General promises to reward the party in each regiment, which finishes their hut in the quickest, and most workmanlike manner, with twelve dollars. And as there is reason to believe, that boards, for covering, may be found scarce and difficult to be got; He offers One hundred dollars to any officer or soldier, who in the opinion of three Gentlemen, he shall appoint as judges, shall substitute some other covering, that may be cheaper and quicker made, and will in every respect answer the end.
The Soldier’s huts are to be of the following dimensions, viz: fourteen by sixteen each, sides, ends and roofs made with logs, and the roof made tight with split slabs, or in some other way; the sides made tight with clay, fire-place made of wood and secured with clay on the inside eighteen inches thick, this fireplace to be in the rear of the hut; the door to be in the end next the street; the doors to be made of split oak-slabs, unless boards can be procured. Side-walls to be six and a half feet high. The officers huts to form a line in the rear of the troops, one hut to be allowed to each General Officer, one to the Staff of each brigade, one to the field officers of each regiment, one to the Staff of each regiment, one to the commissioned officers of two companies, and one to every twelve non-commissioned officers and soldiers.
The army and baggage are to march to morrow in the time and manner alreadydirected in the orders of the 15th. instant, Genl. Sullivan’s division excepted, which is to remain on its present ground ’till further orders.”
Thanksgiving now over, it’s on to Day 7 and Valley Forge….
You can read more about these momentous six days in my novel, Becoming Valley Forge, and my nonfiction ebook, Six Days in December: General George Washington’s and the Continental Army’s Encampment on Rebel Hill and Gulph Mills, December 13 – 19, 1777. #RevolutionaryWarRealness