In that dreadful winter at Valley Forge, while General Washington’s army was freezing, the British sat smugly in Philadelphia, growing fat on American bread and beef, their barracks warmed by American firewood.
Each day the mournful cry rose from our enlisted men’s huts: “No meat! No meat!” And Washington himself was filled with an overwhelming sense of helplessness. Only a few months before the Valley Forge encampment, late in 1777, he had exclaimed to a New Jersey leader, Elias Boudinot, that he could not do everything. He was general quartermaster and commissary. Everything, he felt, fell on him, and he was “unequal to the task.” His desperation was summed up in the cry he emitted at the end of the year in a letter to the Governor of New Jersey: “Our sick naked; our well naked, our unfortunate men in captivity naked!”
The painting on these pages depicts an American legend—an unverifiable story handed down by tradition from earlier times. No letter or diary survives to give eyewitness testimony that George Washington prayed that cruel winter at Valley Forge. Still, legends usually incorporate an element of the truth.
As far as we know, George Washington never chopped down a cherry tree in his youth. But he was the kind of young man who would unflinchingly admit a mistake. In the same way, this painting bears witness to another thoroughly verifiable aspect of his character—his profound faith that America was a nation under God.
Again and again throughout the Revolution, Washington testified to this faith. On March 13, 1778, when his Army was emerging from the worst of Valley Forge’s travail, he wrote to his favorite chaplain, Rev. Israel Evans:
“It will ever be the first wish of my heart to aid your pious endeavors to inculcate a due sense of the dependence we ought to place in that all wise and powerful Being on whom alone our success depends.”
From our detailed knowledge of those harrowing months at Valley Forge, it is not difficult to believe that Washington prayed. In the painting, he has obviously been on some sort of military mission—inspecting one of Valley Forge’s outposts, perhaps. As he rode back to his starving, freezing soldiers who were struggling to defend the infant United States in spite of their countrymen’s apparent indifference, where else could he turn but to God?
So there may have been this moment in the snowy woods. We will never know. But there is no doubt that in the greatness of Washington’s character, which looms larger in history than any legend about him, there was a profound sense of humility before that being whom he called “the all-powerful guide and great disposer of human events.”