One of my favorite haunts in the Philadelphia area is Valley Forge. It’s a curious site, as epic Revolutionary War places go, since no battle took place there. George and the boys camped out here. It was real cold too. And while the history-nerd thrill seekers could overlook it as a non-event, the story of what took place not only determined the outcome of the war but serves as a metaphor for a company or an industry going through a long, hard season of isolation, reassessment and regrouping as a body.
The backstory on the place is the British had taken up cozy winter quarters by occupying Philadelphia following a series of battles, mostly unsuccessful for the good guys. Brandywine, Germantown, Fort Mifflin and Paoli, legitimate battle sites all around Philadelphia where the Continental Army was outflanked, over-powered, out-smarted and, in one case, flat-out massacred by an early morning surprise attack bayonet charge. Men trying to surrender were shown “no quarter” by their merciless foe. The option then was to attack the Brits in Philly, risking it all and possibly razing the fledgling capital city to the ground, or retire to an encampment for the winter well outside of town and reassess the whole situation. Some firebrand generals, spoiling for revenge, lobbied for the attack. Washington, who always got the opinions of his top brass before making a decision, opted for the time out.
The decision could have been equally fatal to the founding of America if the corralling of 8,000 troops, already bone weary, starving, poorly equipped, poorly paid and haphazardly trained were allowed to wither away at their new campground. Washington sent a message to Congress, who had absconded to York, PA, that without more…of everything…the Continental Army would “starve, dissolve or disperse” over the winter.
Internally, Washington endured efforts by Generals Gates, Lee and Conway to undermine his authority with Congress. While the army struggled to stay alive, Washington began to remold the troops into a disciplined fighting unit, using foreign-born generals to instill European training and tactics. Names like Lafayette, Von Stueben and Kościuszko kept the flame of liberty alive over the hard winter months.
One of his best fighting generals, Nathaniel Greene was reluctantly reassigned to the essential job of quartermaster, procuring supplies from an equally starved surrounding populace using “script,” continental currency that had little value. Local farmers and merchants, despite their political leanings, much preferred the pound sterling offered by the redcoats. Spies, informants and British sympathizers were effectively operating across the surrounding region.
It’s no wonder, Washington took solace in Thomas Paine’s “Crisis” with the now famous lines: “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 his country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.” Washington had copies made and delivered to the troops.
In the end, and once again, our Founding Fathers, and in this case Washington himself, set the bar for how to withstand tough times, whether it was disease, invasions, shortage of resources, lack of support or plain old hardships. Washington at Valley Forge not only overcame all of that, but recast his ragged troops into a fighting unit that would eventually out-smart and out-fight the greatest military on Earth.
Having heard stories from across our industry over the past 18 months of how companies of all sizes bravely and resolutely weathered this storm we have been thorough, those lessons were not lost.
By Jim Fryer, Inside Towers Managing Editor