The American Revolution was an 18thc war, and like most 18thc European wars, it was fought primarily in the warmer months. Armies went into camp for the winter months, and while their hostilities didn't cease, large battles and troop movements were put on pause until spring. The armies used winter encampments to regroup, restock supplies, drill, and strategize. For the American army, winter encampments were also a way for Washington to keep his troops of largely non-professional soldiers from scattering and disappearing to distant homes and families.
The Continental Army's encampment for the winter of 1777-1778 was at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. The location was strategically important for several reasons. It was on high ground, offering an open view of the surrounding countryside. It was located beside the Schuylkill River, which provided transportation of supplies and troops. It was also near enough to Philadelphia, then occupied by the British forces, to keep track of the enemy and their movements.
One drawback of the site, however, was the lack of a large manor house or estate to use as the army's headquarters. Chester County was farmland, with farms and related businesses owned primarily by prosperous but middle-class Quaker farmers, and the larger houses that best served the army's purposes didn't exist in the area. The only house available was a two-story stone house originally built by the ironmonger Isaac Potts; in 1777, it was being rented by a widow, Deborah Hewes, who in turn rented it with furnishings to the army for the six months of the winter encampment.
The small house - two rooms downstairs, three upstairs, plus a summer kitchen ell and a garret - served not only as the main office of the army, where meetings were held, plans made, letters and orders by the dozen written and sent - but also as sleeping quarters for Gen. Washington and his staff. The first floor rooms became the General's personal office, and the office for his staff. Upstairs, the General and Mrs. Washington occupied one bedroom, the second, smallest bedroom was reserved for visiting guests, and the third was shared by the staff officers. The officers' servants as well as the enslaved servants brought from Mount Vernon by the Washingtons slept wherever they could: in the kitchen, the stable, or on mattresses or blankets on the floors of the hallways. At any given time, the house could be sheltering as many as twenty-five people.
Among those crowded together at headquarters that winter were seven aides-de-camp, educated men who served Gen. Washington, and were so trusted by the general that they were referred to as his "military family." These aides-de-camp included Lt Col. John Laurens, Lt Col. Richard Kidder Meade, Dr. James McHenry, Tench Tilghman, and, of course, Lt Col. Alexander Hamilton.
Today Washington's Headquarters is part of the Valley Forge National Historic Park. The house has been restored and furnished to appear as it did in 1777, and is open and free to the public (more information about visiting here.) The photos above shows the outside of the house, and the office where they would have worked, writing letters and orders and anything else that the general ordered. Below is the bedroom shared by the aides-de-camp, although in 1777 there would have been more folding camp beds packed into the small space. Imagine seven men packed in here to sleep, with the only heat coming from the fireplace, and the only "conveniences" were several chamberpots (which wouldn't have been emptied until morning) stored beneath the cots.
Alexander Hamilton most likely first met Elizabeth Schuyler in Albany in the late autumn of 1777, and shortly before the army settled into Valley Forge. Standing in this bedroom today, I can't help but wonder if Alexander thought of Eliza late at night, when at last the army's work was done for the day and the other men around him were all asleep. Alexander and Eliza wouldn't meet again until another winter encampment two years later in Morristown, NJ - and the rest, as the saying goes, is history.
Photographs ©2017 Susan Holloway Scott.
Read more about Eliza Schuyler and Alexander Hamilton in my latest historical novel, I, Eliza Hamilton, now available everywhere.