James Irwin first enlisted in Fall 1777 Cumberland County, Pennsylvania – he served 2 months under Captain William Graham in General Potter Brigade near Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. It appears that his tour of duty was over in October or November 1777.
In the midst of the American Revolution (1775-1783), in 1777, the British devised a plan to capture Philadelphia which had become the de-facto capital of the 13 colonies. Sir William Howe brought nearly 17,000 British troops into the colonies by having them land at the head of the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland. General George Washington marched his 12,000-man Continental Army from New Jersey to meet this invasion. Although their British counterparts won two key battles, as well as Philadelphia, the Americans gained confidence in their fighting abilities and realized they only needed a little more training to reach their full potential.
As winter approached in 1777, Washington had to find a place for his army to make camp. In doing so, he had to balance the wishes of the Continental Congress to organize a winter campaign to push the British out of Philadelphia with the needs of his weary and poorly supplied men. By mid-December, General Washington picked the area in Valley Forge to make camp just 20 miles northwest of Philadelphia. The army would be close enough to maintain pressure on the British forces, yet far away enough to prevent a surprise attack. One reason that Washington choose the section of land was because it offered natural defenses against such an attack. He knew the British would not come from the north or the east, because of the Schuylkill River, and not from the west because of Mount Misery. The only way they could attack Valley Forge would be from the south which would mean suicide for the British forces as the area of the park sits higher than the land to its south and at that time it was open farm land.
On December 19, 1777, when Washington's poorly fed, ill-equipped army, weary from long marches, staggered into Valley Forge, winds blew as the 12,000 Continentals prepared for winter's fury. Only about 1/3 of them had shoes, and many of their feet were leaving bloody footprints from the marching. Grounds for brigade encampments were selected, and defense lines were planned and begun. Though construction of more than a thousand huts provided shelter, it did little to offset the critical shortages that continually plagued the army.
The men were under cover within six weeks. The first properly constructed hut appeared in three days. One other hut, which required 80 logs, and whose timber had to be collected from miles away, went up in one week with the use of only one axe. These huts provided sufficient protection from the moderately cold, but mainly wet and damp conditions of the mild, but typical Pennsylvania winter of 1777–1778. Snow was limited, and small in amounts. Alternating freezing and melting of snow and ice made it impossible to keep dry and allowed for disease to fester.
Soldiers received inadequate supplies of meat and bread, some getting their only nourishment from "fire cake," a tasteless mixture of flour and water. However, due to the talents of Baker General Christopher Ludwig, the men at Valley Forge more often than not received fresh baked bread, about one pound daily. So severe were conditions at times that Washington despaired "that unless some great and capital change suddenly takes place ... this Army must inevitably ... Starve, dissolve, or disperse, in order to obtain subsistence in the best manner they can." Animals fared no better. General Henry Knox, Washington's Chief of Artillery, wrote that hundreds of horses either starved to death or died of exhaustion. So, Washington appointed Nathanael Greene as Quartermaster General, who is in charge of the supplies. Greene found caches of food and clothing and hauled them here for the troops and horses.
Clothing, too, was wholly inadequate. Many wounded soldiers from previous battles died from exposure. Long marches had destroyed shoes. Blankets were scarce. Tattered garments were seldom replaced. At one point these shortages caused nearly 4,000 men to be listed as unfit for duty.
Undernourished and poorly clothed, living in crowded, damp quarters, the army was ravaged by sickness and disease. Typhoid, jaundice, dysentery, and pneumonia were among the many diseases that killed 2,500 men that winter. Although Washington repeatedly petitioned for relief, the Continental Congress was unable to provide it, and the soldiers continued to suffer. Women, relatives of enlisted men, alleviated some of the suffering by providing valuable services such as laundry and nursing that the army desperately needed.
Upgrading military efficiency, morale, and discipline were as vital to the army's well-being as was its source of supply. The army had been handicapped in battle because unit training was administered from a variety of field manuals, making coordinated battle movements awkward and difficult. The soldiers were trained, but not uniformly. The task of developing and carrying out an effective training program fell to Baron Friedrich von Steuben. This skilled Prussian drill master, recently arrived from Europe, tirelessly drilled the soldiers.
A group of people called Regimental Camp Followers also helped increase the morale of the soldiers and provided necessary support to the men. Camp Followers at Valley Forge consisted of the families, wives, children, mothers, and sisters of the soldiers.
These camp followers often served as laundresses, cleaning and mending the uniforms of the soldiers. Washington understood a soldier would die quickly from disease if his uniform was dirty and threadbare. These women and children also provided the emotional support to a soldier, allowing them to remain at camp and continue on training and soldiering during the winter months. These women gained half the rations of soldiers, half the wages of a soldier as well as a half pension after the war—if they had done enough work. Children would receive quarter rations if enough work was done.
Women were relegated to the back of the column when marching and were forbidden to ride on wagons. Camp followers faced the issues of disease along with the soldiers. While excellent scavengers, some women lost their lives on the battlefield trying to obtain goods from wounded or dead soldiers. At Valley Forge women averaged 1 to every 44 men, adding up to around 500 women.
Soon word of the British departure from Philadelphia brought a frenzied activity to the ranks of the Continental Army. On June 19, 1778, six months after its arrival, the army marched away from Valley Forge in pursuit of the British, who were moving toward New York. The war would last for another five years, but Washington and his men had won a decisive victory.