A Lively Experiment

Notes on collections and events at the RIHS

Fire Cake & Water: Soldiers’ Winter Part III

Perception is reality, but how does a soldier’s own reality color his perception? For Jeremiah Greenman of the 2nd Rhode Island, who had marched to Quebec on Arnold’s expedition of 1775, eaten squirrel and dog and endured barefoot marches through snow, Valley Forge proved less remarkable an experience than it was for Albigence Waldo, the well-educated surgeon with the  1st Connecticut. Ebenezer David, Chaplain with the 2nd Rhode Island, was also there.

Here are their accounts for this week in December, 1777.

Greenman
S 20 to W 31
Continuing near vally forg / we drawed axes to build huts for ye winter / we began our huts / order’d to build them with logs 14 feet  one way & 16 ye other / Continuing building our huts / nothing very Remarkable & C  / mov’d in.

Waldo
December 21—[Valley Forge.] Preparations made for hutts. Provisions scarce. Mr. Ellis went homeward—sent a Letter to my Wife. Heartily wish myself at home, my Skin & eyes are almost spoil’d with continual smoke. A general cry thro’ the Camp this Evening among the Soldiers, “No Meat! No Meat!” —the Distant vales Echo’d back the melancholy sound—“No Meat! No Meat!” Immitating the noise of Crows & Owls, also, made a part of the confused Musick.

What have you for your Dinners Boys? “Nothing but Fire Cake & Water, Sir.” At night, “Gentlemen the Supper is ready.” What is your Supper Lads? “Fire Cake & Water, Sir.” Very poor beef has been drawn in our Camp the greater part of this season.  A Butcher bringing a Quarter of this kind of Beef into Camp one day who had white Buttons on the knees of his breeches, a Soldier cries out – “There, there Tom is some more of your fat Beef, by my soul I can see the Butcher’s breeches buttons through it.”

December 22.—Lay excessive Cold & uncomfortable last Night—my eyes are started out from their Orbits like a Rabbit’s eyes, occasion’d by a great Cold & Smoke.

What have you got for Breakfast, Lads? “Fire Cake & Water, Sir.” The Lord send that our Commissary of Purchases may live [on] Fire Cake & Water, ‘till their glutted Gutts are turned to Pasteboard.

Our Division are under Marching Orders this morning. I am ashamed to say it, but I am tempted to steal Fowls if I could find them, or even a whole Hog, for I feel as if I could eat one. But the Impoverish’d Country about us, affords but little matter to employ a Thief, or keep a Clever Fellow in good humour. But why do I talk of hunger & hard usage, when so many in the World have not even Cake & Water to eat. …

This evening a Party with two field pieces were order’d out. At 12 of the Clock at Night, Providence sent us a little Mutton, with which we immediately had some Broth made, & a fine Stomach for same. Ye who Eat Pumpkin Pie and Roast Turkies, and yet Curse fortune for using you ill, Curse her no more, least she reduce your Allowance of her favours to a bit of Fire Cake, & a draught of Cold Water, & in Cold Weather, too.

David
Decem. 22 1777
Dear Sir,
Have written you once or twice of late & missed in sending … I road through Germantown—to hear the inhabitants complain—to see the ruins of furniture, & Rooms kneedeep in feathers from beads was truly affecting—A Cow Horse or sheep was scarce to be seen for mile—After the Enemy returned we set out to Cross Schoolkill, accidentally met a large party of the Enemy at the Ford, who had drove our militia—this caused delay—since we have crossed we have lain a few days 7 or 8 Miles short of this at a place called the Gulph—The whole Army are come here to build Hutts to winter in The Huts are to be 14 feet by 16—in hight 6 ½–twelve Soldiers to a hut each mess builds their own—Those in each Regiment who build the best are to have 12 Dollars Premium—They are now laying out the ground

to Morrow I expect to take the ax—To think of the Jersey & so large a Part of this Province [Pennsylvania] lying at the Mercy of the Enemy is truely affecting—yet I believe the Measures to be the best possible in present circumstances—After Huts are provided we may send out large Scouts to check small parties—For our whole Force to be exposed for the winter as they have been we should have no Army in the Spring—Had we retired to any of the towns we should have found them crowded with Refugees—

May kind Heaven render the next Campaign prosperous & put speedy issue to this contest—we ruin the Country for miles round wherever we lay

“We ruin the Country for miles round wherever we lay:” Ebenezer David’s perspective is different from Greenman and Waldo’s. Waldo whines, he gripes, he complains, he thinks of the people who are better off than he is. Greenman observes, neutrally, for the most part.  David steps back farther and sees the effect of the war on the people and the country around him.  Each man’s record of the war is colored by his position and his education; as a minister, David has the broadest perspective and looks the most outside himself. As the best-educated and wealthiest, Waldo’s experience in the war offers the greatest contrast to his former life. Greenman, poorly educated and without a profession when he joned the Army at 17, has the most reportorial and neutral perspective of the three.

~ Kirsten Hammerstrom, Director of Collections

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