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On December 19 in 1777, commander of the Continental Army George Washington, the future first president of the United States, leads his beleaguered troops into winter quarters at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania.
Things could hardly have looked bleaker for Washington and the Continental Army as 1777 came to a close. The British had successfully occupied Philadelphia, leading some members of Congress to question Washington’s leadership abilities. No one knew better than Washington that the army was on the brink of collapse–in fact, he had defied Congress’ demand that he launch a mid-winter attack against the British at Philadelphia and instead fell back to Valley Forge to rest and refit his troops. Though he had hoped to provide his weary men with more nutritious food and badly needed winter clothing, Congress had been unable to provide money for fresh supplies. That Christmas Eve, the troops dined on a meal of rice and vinegar, and were forced to bind their bleeding frost-bitten feet with rags. “We have experienced little less than a famine in camp,” Washington wrote to Patrick Henry the following February.
Desperate to keep the army intact, Washington tried to stem desertion by resorting to lashings as punishment and then threatening to shoot deserters on sight. For those soldiers who remained with him, Washington expressed deep gratitude and awe. He described men marching without clothes, blankets or shoes–leaving bloody trails in the snow–who displayed “patience and obedience which in my opinion can scarce be paralel’d.”
Meanwhile Washington faced the displeasure of Congress and rumors of plots to replace him with his typical stoicism and composure. On December 31, he wrote to the Marquis de Lafayette that he would continue “to observe one steady and uniform conduct, which I shall invariably pursue, while I have the honour to command, regardless of the Tongue of slander or the powers of detraction.” Furthermore, he told the press that if Congress could find someone better suited to lead the army that he would be more than happy to resign and return to private life at his Mount Vernon estate.
Now today, in a quiet grove at Valley Forge, there is a heroicsized monument to Washington. He is depicted not astride a charging horse nor overlooking a battlefield of glory, but kneeling in humble prayer, calling upon the God of Heaven for divine help. To gaze upon the statue prompts the mind to remember the oft-heard expression, “A man stands tallest when upon his knees.”
Thomas S. Monson, Be Your Best Self [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1979], 24