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The Men and Boys of Winter

Complimentary Story
   The Massachusetts Colony was a hotbed of sedition in 1775.  Preparations for conflict with the British had been underway throughout the winter.  In April, British General Thomas Gage decided to counter these moves by sending a force out of Boston to confiscate weapons stored in the village of Concord and capture patriot leaders Samuel Adams and John Hancock.  

   On the evening of April 18, 1775 Adams and Hancock, along with other visitors, met at the home of the local militia leader Jonas Clark, who was the pastor of a Lexington, Mass. church.  Someone asked Reverend Clark if the people of Lexington would fight if necessary. The Reverend replied, “I have trained them for this very hour!”  

   The atmosphere was tense, word of General Gage’s intentions spread through Boston prompting the patriots to set up a system to alert the countryside of the advance of British troops. Paul Revere arranged for a signal to be sent by lantern from the steeple of North Church -- one if by land, two if by sea.  At midnight, on April 18, the lantern’s alarm sent Revere, William Dawes and other riders on the road to spread the news.  

   Riding through the countryside, Revere warned patriots along his route - many of whom set out on horseback to deliver warnings of their own. By the end of the night there were as many as 40 riders carrying the news of the army’s advancement. Revere certainly did not shout the famous phrase later attributed to him, “The British are coming!” largely because the mission depended on secrecy and the countryside was filled with British army patrols; also, most residents considered themselves British as they were all legally British subjects. 

   In the predawn light of April 19, between 50 and 70 minutemen (troops who agreed to be ready at a minute’s notice) rushed to the town green at Lexington. Soon the British column emerged through the morning fog and the confrontation that would launch a nation began.  Upon seeing a mass of armed men, British Major Pitcairn shouted, “Disperse, ye villains.  Lay down your arms in the name of George the Sovereign King of England.”  The response was, “We recognize no Sovereign but God and no King but Jesus!”  

   Within seconds, shots were fired.  The people that were killed only a few feet from the church parsonage, were members of Pastor Clark’s congregation.  Clark looked down with great anguish at the bodies of those who had died and made this statement: “From this day will be dated the liberty of the world.” 

   As relations between Great Britain and its American colonies became increasingly strained, the Americans set up a shadow government in each colony.  As soon as fighting broke out in April, these shadow governments took control of each colony and ousted all the royal officials.  Sentiment for outright independence grew rapidly.  Their options were clarified by Thomas Paine’s pamphlet “Common Sense,” released in January 1776.  This document later evolved into the forming of the Declaration of Independence later in the same year. 

   It was normal for 18th century armies to cease combat during the coldest months of the year.  A light snow fell on the 19th of December, 1777, as 12,000 weary men made their way up Gulph Road to Valley Forge, which was 25 miles west of Philadelphia. This was an area on the west side of the Schuylkill River selected by General Washington as winter quarters for his troops.  The situation was bleak. Outnumbered, Washington was seen kneeling beside his horse along the river banks, praying for guidance.  The painting “Prayer at Valley Forge” depicts this moment. 

   Lewis Hurt, age 17, Benjamin Blossom, age 31, George Ewing, age 23, and Joseph Plumb Martin, age 16, were a few of the volunteers. Some were still boys -- as young as 12 -- others in their 50s and 60s. They were described as fair, pale, freckled, brown, swarthy and black. While the majority were white, the army included Negroes and American Indians.  They came from every state, and had marched 35 miles and fought a four-hour battle on the same day.  

   “You might have tracked the army from White Marsh to Valley Forge by the blood of their feet,” so stated General George Washington.

   Each man had few possessions and his most popular belonging was his musket and cartridge box. If he had neither, the infantryman carried a powder horn, hunting bag, and bullet pouch.  His knapsack held extra clothing (if he was fortunate enough to have any), a blanket, a plate and spoon, a knife, a fork and a tumbler.  Joseph Plumb Martin said, “We had nothing to eat for three days previous except what the trees of the forests and fields afforded us, but now we each have half a gill (about half a cup) of rice, and a tablespoon of vinegar!”

When the ragged troops arrived at Valley Forge in time for Christmas, they might have thought the worst was over, but they were wrong.  There was no holiday feast. Already the mens’ diaries spoke bitterly of a diet of “fire cakes and cold water.”  A fire cake was a flour and water batter fried on a griddle.     

   The troops faced a typical winter with temperatures mostly in the 20s and 30s. During the first six weeks there were 13 days of rain or snow.  A need existed for the building of huts before the soldiers, barefoot and half naked, froze to death.  Hundreds of horses starved.  Starvation was a mortal danger for animal and human alike. “No meat, no meat,” was the constant wail.   Every 12 men shared a 16x14 foot log hut with walls six and a half feet high. Illness, not musket balls, was the great killer.  The huts were drafty, damp, smoky and terribly unhealthy.   

   Washington complained of the failure to clear the encampment of filth, which included rotting carcasses of horses.  The General even issued orders concerning the use and care of privies, but men relieved themselves wherever they felt.  In the absence of wells, water was drawn from the Schuylkill River and nearby creeks. Men and animals often deposited their waste upstream from where water for drinking was drawn.    

   Many makeshift hospitals were set up in the region. These places were mostly understaffed and fetid breeding grounds of disease. All were chronically short of medical supplies.  The cries of men could be heard yelling in anguish as doctors sawed off legs blackened by frostbite and without the use of anesthetic.  Despite Washington’s daily orders, there was little military discipline.  One soldier described it as a mob.  Although brave, Continental troops possessed few skills in the art of 18th century warfare. They didn’t know how to maneuver on the battlefield. The bayonet, crucial to battlefield success, was used primarily to cook over a fire.

   All this was about to change with the arrival in late February of Baron von Steuben.  He would serve without a salary.  Washington liked Steuben immediately even though the Prussian could not speak English.  But he could speak French, and when France entered the war on the side of the Americans, Washington appointed two of his French-speaking aides, Alexander Hamilton and John Laurens to work with the Prussian.  Within weeks, everyone could see a new proficiency and new pride among the formerly dispirited men.

   Philadelphia was a difficult place for the British to defend, and so it was decided to abandon the Quaker City and move their forces back to New York City.  Ready to move against the retreating British, on June 19, six months following their arrival, the Continental Army departed Valley Forge and marched to Monmouth, New Jersey, to engage the British in battle just nine days later.  The Continental Army was ready to fight.  Professionalism and pride marked those who had survived the ordeal at Valley Forge.  Of the 11,000 Men and Boys of Winter who marched into their winter camp, only 6,000 remained.  The battle at Monmouth was inconclusive, but the British were the ones who retreated this time.  It was clear to everyone that those ragged Continentals, who had suffered so much, were now a fair match for their enemies.
 
   Most people don’t realize what this nation was like at its beginning. Even as late as 1776, we see the population of our country as 99.8% Christian.   Revolutionary leaders were devout men who could not have been more empathic in their determination that our national policy rested on Scriptural foundation.  Of the 55 delegates to the Constitutional Convention, 52 were Orthodox Christians. 

   There were few laws on abortion at the time of independence, except the Common Law adopted from England.  James Wilson, a former of the Constitution, explained: “With consistency, beautiful and undeviating, human life, from its commencement to its close, is protected by the Common Law.  In the contemplation of law, life begins when the infant is first able to stir in the womb.  By the law, life is protected not only from immediate destruction, but from every degree of actual violence, and, in some cases, from every degree of danger.”  

   The earliest anti-sodomy legislation was passed in the Virginia Colony on May 24, 1610, and soon spread to all the colonies and all of the states.  Historian John D’Emilio wrote: “In every colony, sodomy was a capital offense.”  Civil liberties historian Tom Head explained: “As Spanish, French, Dutch, and English colonists began to settle North America during the 17th century, they brought with them highly specific laws proscribing various sexual acts. The purpose of all of these laws was to enforce monogamous heterosexual marriage as a mandatory institution, and to punish any and all sexual activity outside of that institution.”

   The Declaration of Independence ends with these words, “We mutually pledged to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.”  Many of the men who signed the Declaration eventually lost their lives and fortunes, but they never sacrificed their honor.  I wonder what these Patriots, who fought in the American Revolution, would say to us today about the kind of society we have created during the past 60 years. With the support of only fifteen percent of their countrymen, I doubt that the Men and Boys of Winter would have been willing to suffer and die for the values that have evolved through future generations.      

   Our world is full of people who think they have found the definition for the word “freedom.”  Tired of all the old restraints and restrictions, the media and news stands are filled with smut because of freedom of the press.  Atheists are on a war path to get any mention of God from our government, our laws, and our schools because of freedom of religion. The slaughter of 60,000,000 preborn children is justified because of the freedom to choose.  Homosexuals demand freedom to marry another of the same sex, and to have equal benefits as those of traditional marriage.  Christians and non-Christians alike divorce their husbands and wives because they need freedom to “find themselves.”  We are free to do as we please and then expect our government and fellow citizens to bail us out for our mistakes.  Surely the Men and Boys of Winter didn’t pledge their lives, their fortunes, and their honor to create a culture that promotes immorality, irresponsibility, and paganism. 

   This year, as in 1775, it would be appropriate to pause and reflect in the fact that our country’s freedom began with a pastor who was part of the “Black Robe Regiment” (because of the black robes they wore) and who preached resounding sermons throughout New England about the importance of freedom.  He, along with several courageous men of the cloth, including ordinary folks from their congregations, interrupted their normal lives to turn the world upside down, when “the shot heard round the world” changed the course of history forever.  

   The Men and Boys of Winter suffered great hardship at Valley Forge, and many relinquished their lives. Independence Day cannot be significant without remembering those patriots and the price they paid to preserve our nation.  Freedom is not free, nor is it a matter of rights, it’s a matter of what is right.  Our greatest celebration will be the day Americans repent, honor God, and reclaim the heritage for which these patriots sacrificed.  No one can be truly free until they have become a slave to something higher than themselves. God loves you. 

   “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not parish, but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16). 
   If you have not already done so, accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior. America is free because of the Men and Boys of Winter -- we are free because of Him!

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