From Small Things: How a Staff Ride Became Two Articles and a Book Project

by Ricardo A. Herrera, Guest Contributor

Philadelphia Campaign Operations, August- December 1777. Image courtesy of the author.

Philadelphia Campaign Operations, August- December 1777. Image courtesy of the author.

While a historian on the Staff Ride Team, Combat Studies Institute, US Army Combined Arms Center, I spent much of the summer of 2008 researching and building a staff ride on the 1777 British campaign to capture Philadelphia, home of the Continental Congress. The research took me to Philadelphia and the immediate environs through which British and Continental forces had maneuvered, fought, foraged, and wintered.[1] My journey led me to Head of Elk (south of Elkton, Maryland), where the British Army landed in August 1777, to the sites of the first skirmish at Cooch’s Bridge in Delaware, to Kennett Square, the battlefields of Brandywine, Paoli, Germantown, Mud Island, and Whitemarsh in Pennsylvania, and the encampment site at Valley Forge. Venturing across the Delaware River, I walked the ground at Fort Mercer (Red Bank), Billingsport, Salem, Haddonfield, Mount Laurel, and Cooper’s Ferry and Cooper’s Creek (Camden), New Jersey.

For a student of military history, there’s nothing quite like walking the ground over which armies marched, fought, or bivouacked. Indeed, to write with any degree of fidelity about a war, a campaign, or a battle, I believe it’s important to walk the ground, if possible, and interrogate it as you might interrogate written evidence, artwork, or material artifacts from the event or period. Battlefields and areas of operations are, therefore, historical documents and classrooms.[2]

Philadelphia Area of Operation. Image courtesy of the author.

Philadelphia Area of Operation. Image courtesy of the author.

Some have suggested that staff rides are old-fashioned, “drum and trumpet” military history because they focus on the tactical realm. But it’s wise not to throw out the baby with the bathwater in our rush to embrace the newest evolutions in military history or in war and society studies. Tactical, and at a higher level, operational, movements are key to understanding the art and science of war and warfare. The topics—terrain, weather, the natural and manmade environments, army organization, tactical practices, weaponry, commanders’ knowledge at the time of the actions, their decisions, troop movements, the outcomes of battle, etc.—of a staff ride offer valuable insights into the nature of battle and the quotidian experiences of participants. Activity, not static positioning, is at the heart of the endeavor; thus the challenge of examining Valley Forge, an encampment.[3]

Seat of War Map

Seat of War Map, Philadelphia. Image courtesy of the author.

To ignore Valley Forge, however, is to ignore an iconic place and event in American history, and, drawing back from abstraction to look closely at details, a significant stage in the Philadelphia Campaign. It was the winter and spring home of the Continental Army under George Washington. Yet, Valley Forge is static and therefore problematic for a staff ride. Washington’s Continentals marched into winter quarters in December 1777 and emerged in June 1778, but no battle took place at Valley Forge. General Sir William Howe, commander-in chief of the British Army, declined assaulting it. What to do? Where to find movement? How best to maintain the staff ride’s tempo?

A discussion of “Feeding Valley Forge” was my answer. “How did the army sustain itself?,” I wondered, “What about security?” Drawing upon Wayne Bodle’s Valley Forge Winter, Frank H. Stewart’s, Foraging for Valley Forge, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and modern military parlance, I cast Valley Forge as an eighteenth-century anticipation of a Forward Operating Base (FOB), a fixed, albeit temporary, post that supports military operations. From “FOB” Valley Forge, the Continental Army maintained a security line to the east and south and sent patrols into the countryside to contest the space between the encampment and British-occupied Philadelphia. Soldiers from “FOB” Valley Forge marched out to forage in search of food and supplies for the army. All this was much more than passively and miserably sitting in freezing huts and starving. Here was action, here was the movement to sustain something of the staff ride’s conceptual momentum.[4]

The Grand Forage, February-March 1778. Image courtesy of the author.

The Grand Forage, February-March 1778. Image courtesy of the author.

In small things, larger goodness often inheres. In February 2009, after arriving on the cusp of a blizzard that closed Valley Forge for a day or two (a much-appreciated irony), I led the staff ride. This and the research behind the staff ride, however, had led me to believe that there was a scholarly article in all of this, one that would examine the events at Valley Forge in the context of operational and tactical-level military history rather than old tropes of valiant and starving Continentals. I decided to focus on the Continental Army’s efforts to sustain itself by focusing on the largest operation it undertook while encamped at Valley Forge, something I termed the Grand Forage of 1778.[5]

The research on the grand forage revealed much about the Continental Army as an active field army, its maturation, and its ability to plan centrally and execute autonomously. The article, “Foraging and Combat Operations at Valley Forge, February-March 1778,” appeared in 2011. The research behind it led to a second article in 2015, “‘[T]he zealous activity of Capt. Lee’: Light-Horse Harry Lee and Petite Guerre.” The deeper I’ve dug, the more I’ve discovered, the more questions and suppositions I’ve generated, and the more I need to research, think, and write about the grand forage. From small things came larger questions and answers, and more questions. Back to foraging I must go.[6]

Ricardo A. Herrera is Associate Professor of Military History at the School of Advanced Military Studies, US Army Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. He is the author of For Liberty and the Republic: The American Citizen as Soldier, 1775-1861 (New York: New York University Press, 2015).

[1] My staff-ride teammates, Curt King and Chuck Collins, accompanied me on the reconnaissance and initial executions of the ride and were instrumental in its development. Thanks to Kevin Kennedy, my one-time team chief, for his support. Many thanks to John Grenier for reading and commenting on the draft of this short essay.

[2] I am guilty of not having followed (or having been able to follow) my own injunction regarding walking the battlefield in “Brave Rifles at Tall ‘Afar, September 2005.” In Contact!: Case Studies from the Long War, vol. 1, ed. William Glenn Robertson (Ft. Leavenworth: Combat Studies Institute Press, 2006): 125-152.

[3] From 2006-2012, I was a historian on the Staff Ride Team, serving as acting team chief in my last months before joining the School of Advanced Military Studies (SAMS), US Army Command and General Staff College. For more on the history and conduct of staff rides, see William G. Robertson, The Staff Ride (Washington, DC: US Army Center of Military History, 1987).

[4] Wayne Bodle, Valley Forge Winter: Civilians and Soldiers in War (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2002); Frank H. Stewart, Foraging for Valley Forge by General Anthony Wayne in Salem and Gloucester Counties, New Jersey, with Associated Happenings and Foraging in Salem County for the British Army in Philadelphia by Colonel Mawhood and Major Simcoe, 1778 (Woodbury, NJ: Gloucester County Historical Society, 1929).

[5] Grand forage denoted any large-scale foraging party, typically a brigade or larger.

[6] Ricardo A. Herrera, “Foraging and Combat Operations at Valley Forge, February-March 1778,” Army History 79 (Spring 2011): 6-29; Herrera, “‘[T]he zealous activity of Capt. Lee’: Light-Horse Harry Lee and Petite Guerre,” The Journal of Military History 79, no. 1 (January 2015): 9-36. Thanks to Col. Hank Arnold, Scott Gorman, and Rich Dixon, and to SAMS for their support of my ongoing research.

About Heather Stur

Heather Marie Stur, Ph.D., is associate professor of history at the University of Southern Mississippi and a faculty fellow in the Dale Center for the Study of War & Society. She writes and teaches about U.S. foreign relations, gender and war, the Vietnam War, and 20th century war and militarization in a global context. She is the author of Beyond Combat: Women and Gender in the Vietnam War Era (Cambridge 2011). Dr. Stur spent the 2013-14 academic year as a Fulbright scholar in Vietnam, where she was a visiting professor on the Faculty of International Relations at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Ho Chi Minh City.
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