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Washington’s Instructions Regarding Deserters
and Hospital Cases at Valley Forge
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Available as part of The Alexander Hamilton Collection

Written from Valley Forge at the close of the terrible winter of 1777-1778. Commissary General of Musters Joseph Ward relays Washington’s directions for determining the status of missing men. Officers are to be given more leeway than the rank and file before labeling them as deserters (a delicacy which Officers ought to deserve”), and hospital surgeons are to be consulted as to whether a patient is “dead or alive” or “likely ever to join the Corps.” Ward also discusses an aborted “Secret Expedition” and a recent naval victory by Commodore John Barry.

Letters written from Valley Forge are rare, particularly if they relate to the condition of the troops.

JOSEPH WARD. Autograph Letter Signed to Richard Varick, [Valley Forge, Pennsylvania], March 13, 1778, 7⅝ x 11¾ in., 3 pp.

Inventory #22299      

Historical Background

The suffering of the soldiers at Valley Forge, and Washington’s desperate attempts to rally Congress and the states to their aid, has become legend. This was the first large, prolonged winter encampment that the Continental Army endured – nine thousand men were quartered at Valley Forge for a six-month period. During that time, some two thousand American soldiers died from cold, hunger and disease.

The quintessential symbol of Valley Forge – bloody footprints left in the snow by shoeless Continental soldiers, was no exaggeration. After the worst of the ordeal had ended, Washington would observe that “no history…can furnish an instance of an Army’s suffering such uncommon hardships…and bearing them with the same patience and fortitude.” The men were “without Cloathes to cover their nakedness, without Blankets to lay on, without Shoes, by which their Marches might be traced by the Blood from their feet, and almost as often without provisions as with…” (Washington to John Banister, 21 April 1778).

By early 1778, the condition and morale of the troops at Valley Forge had reached their lowest point. The supply system was in a state of collapse, and poor hygiene, malnourishment, cold, and communicable disease continued to take a relentless toll. Mutiny was a real possibility. Then, as spring approached, the situation began to show signs of improvement. The arrival of Prussian drillmaster Baron von Steuben in late February marked a turning point. Von Steuben, appointed acting inspector general, instituted a strict drill system that gradually brought discipline and professionalism to the ranks. On March 2nd, General Nathanael Greene, at Washington’s urging, accepted the position of quartermaster general and set about reorganizing that department. Under his competent management, quantities of supplies began to arrive in camp. Those troops that survived Valley Forge emerged seasoned and disciplined, a far cry from the untrained band of men that had straggled into the camp during the bitter December of 1777.

The naval adventure recounted by Ward involved John Barry, sometimes dubbed the “Father of the American Navy.” In early March, as commander of the brig Lexington, Barry had surprised two British armed supply ships and an armed schooner, the Alert. Barry’s 27 men boarded and captured all three vessels, including the 116 men aboard the Alert. Though forced to burn the transports to prevent them from falling back into enemy hands, Barry was able to report to Washington “with the Greatest Satisfaction imaginable” of the venture’s overall success.

The unsuccessful “Secret Expedition” cited here was likely Spencer’s Expedition, a late 1777 plan to surprise the British in Rhode Island. When the American commander learned that the British had received word of the intended attack, he aborted the mission.

Joseph Ward (1737-1812) was a Massachusetts schoolmaster who had fought at Lexington and Bunker Hill. After serving as secretary to his cousin Artemas Ward, he was appointed commissary general of musters, with the rank of colonel.

Richard Varick (1753-1831) was commissioned as a captain in the 1st New York Regiment in the summer of 1775, where he served until mid-1776, when he became military secretary to General Philip Schuyler. At the time of this letter, he was deputy muster master general at West Point. Varick later served as aide-de-camp to Benedict Arnold, secretary to George Washington and, post-war, as mayor of New York.

Value of Valley Forge Documents

The place of writing penned on this document is “Head Quarters;” many document written during the war have that heading. In this case, Head Quarters was Valley Forge, Pa. Documents written from Valley Forge have always been rare and desirable. For example, at Matthew Bennett auction, on October 7, 2005, lot 189, a 1¼ page April 2, 1778 Nathanael Greene ALS with free frank to Connecticut army agent Joseph Webb, on laying aside excess chests and trunks to allow the army to move with “greater ease,” sold for $82,500 net. In my opinion, that was an above-market fluke, but had a letter with the same content been written another time, from anywhere other than Valley Forge, it would have been worth about $3,500.


Formerly folded, fold-tears some of which are mended, a few small dampstains and traces of mounting in left margin. Evidence of old scotch tape repairs, though the tape has been professionally removed.

Complete Transcript

Head Quarters March 13th, 1778

Dear Sir         

Your favour of Jany 28th, came to hand Febry 27th. And yours of Febry 20th. I received this day, inclosing your Abstracts &c.

            I am much obliged to you for the particular account of matters relating to the late intended Expedition.  I conceive, with you, that it was more wisely laid aside, than undertaken.  However, it is possible some advantage may accrue from the Design, as the British Court will doubtless hear of it long before they can know the consequence, and may thereby be the more puzzled to plan their operations.

            Your Letter directed to Major Fish, I left with Col. Cortland, with whom he quarters, he being out of Camp.  As soon as he returns, I shall favour him with the reading of your account of the Secret Expedition.

            The difficulties you mention, respecting Furloughs, men left in Hospitals, &c., are too much experienced here, as well as with you.  I consulted his Excellency general Washington on these matters, and his direction was, that Soldiers who did not join their Corps at the expiration of their Furloughs, (unless their Officers, or others, could make it appear that they were necessarily detained) should be returned Deserters.  If upon joining their Corps, they should then make it appear they had been necessarily detained, they will notwithstanding their have [2]having been returned Deserters, draw their whole pay.  Officers, are not to be returned Deserters, unless they have been long absent after the expiration of their Furloughs, but are to be answerable to the Commander in chief of the Department, for absence beyond the limited time.  But when their [sic] is good reason to apprehend an absent Officer will never join his Corps, or that he has any fraudulent design to keep out of Camp & at the same time draw pay, you may strike him off the Roll, until he joins and does duty.  This I think may be a more eligible method than to return them Deserters, and more consistent with that delicacy which Officers ought to deserve.

            With respect to men in Hospitals, their Officers ought to know from the Surgeons what their state is, whether dead or alive, and whether they are likely ever to join the Corps; but when men have been left sick at a great distance and their Officers cannot obtain proper information respecting them, immediately, they must be notified to obtain such information against the next muster; and if the Officers neglect a proper attention to this duty, they must answer for the neglect before a Court-martial.  When you are satisfied any absent men who were left in Hospitals or elsewhere, who by reason of incapacity, desertion, or other cause, will never join their corps, you may strike them out of the Rolls.  You are not obliged to wait for proof of their [3]death or desertion.  If any such should after being struck out of the Rolls, join their Corps, and give reasons for their absence sufficient to justify them, they may be inserted in the next Roll for the whole time of their absence; by which means no honest man will suffer by being struck off the Roll –

            One piece of News only have we in this Quarter, Capt. Barre with some armed Boats a few days since took on armed Vessel [sic] of 8 Carriage Guns, & two other Transports, as they were coming up the Delaware about 30 miles below Philadelphia; as some men of war were apprised of this event & were making towards Capt Barre, he was obliged to take out the most valuable articles & burn the Transports.

In great haste

I am Sir Your Obedient Humb Servt

Joseph Ward C.G.M.


P.S. The Instance you mentioned of an Artillery Officer refusing to swear to his Muster Roll, & yet was found worthy to be reprimanded only, is to me unaccountable. However, I don’t conceive that a Mustering Officer is obliged to accept any Roll until it is sworn to.  If he thinks it proper under certain circumstances, to receive a Roll that is not sworn to, he may; but it is at his option whether he will accept it or not.

To Col. Richd Varick DMMG

[docket:] Head Quarts March 13. 1778 / from Colo Ward

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