To Change the Course of History (Part 1)

A Risky Political Move of George Washington at Valley Forge, the Huts the Continental Army built, Christmas 1777 pencil sketch by Wendy Harty, February 2021

Sergeant Isaac Gibbs presented his left arm as requested. The lancet from the surgeon, John Hale, pierced his skin drawing blood. An infected quarter inch long piece of thread was placed in the channel the surgeon had made. Isaac stepped to the side so his younger brother, Joshua could take his place. A nurse placed a bit of lint over the scratch to stem the blood, already clotting and bound it in place with a rag. Isaac was bandaged and released from the surgery. For the next month he would lose his taste, run a fever, experienced vomiting and be put into isolation.

Sergeant Isaac Gibbs is my fourth great grandfather, third son or fifth child of my Great Grandmother Keziah Atwood and Abraham Gibbs.

The story behind the story

A lanky Virginian boy of 19 accompanied his brother, suffering from tuberculosis to Barbados, where the climate was supposed to be more agreeable. There the lad was treated with gentlemanly courtesy and invited to many meals, meeting judges, merchants, military officers and other plantation owners. It was in Barbados, November 1751, that this boy became infected with Variola major. Back in the isolated life he’d lived on the farming plantation in Virginia there had been little chance of getting smallpox. The boy was George Washington. George was sick for one month, developing all the symptoms listed above including the festering pustules but recovered with only mild scarring. In Barbados he learned of their highly sophisticated fortified battery of defenses to ward off an island attack from any enemy.

George Washington grew up in a large wealthy farming family where he became the tallest, fastest, strongest and best horseback rider among the local boys. He was educated in arithmetic, geography, astronomy and handwriting. George’s mother read to the family in the evenings from the Holy Bible. George’s father died when he was eleven which changed everything. He moved in with his older brother, Augustine and became a surveyor.

Back from Barbados, in America, George Washington, was able to discuss the affairs of the American British Colony, with the Governor of Virginia. The American Revolution was mainly caused by colonial opposition to British attempts to control the colonies with taxation and pay for the British defense of the colonies during the French and Indian War (1754-63). George Washington obtained a commission as a major in the militia for the British during these wars. A peacetime act of aggression by Washington led to the Seven Year’s War with the French attacking and making Washington surrender. He was released on parole and returned to Virginia and built up the best militia of the time. George Washington resigned from the British Army and took up the life of a Virginia plantation owner.

When the American Revolutionary War in 1775 broke out, he was selected the commander in chief of the Continental Army. My 4th Great Grandfather, Isaac Gibbs, enlisted with the 1st New Hampshire regiment and was assigned to Enoch Poor’s Brigade. By late March, he was headed towards Canada. Isaac would march from Charleston, New Hampshire to Fort Ticonderoga, New York and then onto Fort St. John’s in Lower Canada to a place called “The Cedars”. At the Battle of the Cedars he was captured, along with his younger brother, Joshua, only 17, and swapped in a prisoner exchange. Isaac Gibbs was 20 years old. The next year Isaac and his younger brother, Joshua, would reenlist the spring of 1777, in New Hampshire into Captain House’s Company, Colonel Cilley’s Regiment and Enoch Poor’s Brigade. George Washington’s army won some, retreated some and suffered defeats at Brandywine, Paoli and Germantown, Pennsylvania. It would be Isaac and Joshua’s Gibbs third winter encampment, and Isaac would be promoted to Sergeant.

On the Rolla at Valley Forge, age listed as 21 Isaac Gibbs

As the men marched towards Valley Forge their bloodied feet traced red in the snow, almost with no provisions, without blankets to lay on, and they were within a days march of the enemy. Without a murmur but with patience and obedience they marched.

Isaac Gibbs, his brother Joshua listed on the Muster Roll and Pay Roll of Soldiers in Captain Houses Company and Col Cilley’s Regiment March 17, 1777 paid 30 pounds

My 4th great grandfather was at Valley Forge! It was time for the Continental troops to seek a winter quarter. In the words of Washington, the troops had been defeated time and time again and fallen so low as to “starve, dissolve or dispense.” Isaac’s letter to his brother (maybe Thomas) is preserved in the 1st New Hampshire Regiment’s records. Seemingly on the verge of collapse would they even exist come spring?

Isaac Gibbs appointed Sergeant March 10, 1777 and his Discharge March 21, 1780

They arrived in Valley Forge late December 1777. The scent of snow was in the air as a cold dawn brightened the hills of Valley Forge. The men were short of everything but spirit. From records and accounts the army took charge of their own destiny, rather than sitting about waiting for deliverance. With the barest of tools, 12000 soldiers and 400 women and children cobbled together approximately 1600 rude huts. They went foraging for the wood. The men had to yoke themselves together to move the wagons for horses and oxen were in short supply. They made makeshift carts. The huts were supposed to be standardized but varied in size, materials and construction techniques. Some dug below ground to reduce wind exposure. Some had straw or brush roofs with canvas or scavenged boards. There would be no windows so were very dungeon like. There were no meat supplies. By December 23rd a heavy snow blanketed the region, in three days of the worst blizzard. George Washington set up a defacto capital of the United States in between the Valley Creek and the Schuylkill River where Quakers had cleared the low hills for farming. Here amongst soldiers from militias from many states, the regiments would live for six months. The sounds heard were axes, saws, and hammers hard at work by a skilled and capable force, under direction of military engineers. By Christmas afternoon the housing was half built. Too many bodies squeezed into cramped and musty lodgings. By Christmas afternoon, the snow continued to fall. The holiday dinner they shared was sinewy mutton, lucky if you didn’t get the burnt offerings and some watery grog, with hickory nuts for dessert. They shuffled back past the sentry guards who stood on their hats to protect their feet from the frozen ground. Their feet were in wrapped rags, many did not have shoes. When feet and legs became black it would become necessary to amputate them. Many slept beside the fires outside which was warmer than the huts but did not make for a decent rest. One quarter of the force were declared unfit for duty, with 3000 freezing, nearly naked, starving men. The appointed Board of War, although reorganized, had not come through with the supplies needed for the army, and the snowstorm and road conditions impeded the supply wagons coming. With no meat, they made their own concoctions and with only 25 barrels of flour in the commissionaires the soldiers added the flour to water, made a cooked tasteless firecake cooked on heated rocks. Some loyal women from Philadelphia smuggled in 2000 shirts and drove ten teams of oxen fit for slaughter into the new camp on January 7, 1778. By March the river thawed and supplies were transported easier and the weather and road conditions improved. The troops were busy constructing miles of trenches, five earthen redoubts or forts and a magnificent bridge over the Schuylkill River.

Why did this ragtag Continental Army win? They knew the land, had foreign allies, motivation and had an inspirational leader. George Washington felt acutely for his army. On February 5, 1777, he had written to Congress. 90% of the deaths in the camp were caused by disease, typhoid and dysentery from contaminated food and water, influenza and pneumonia, typhus caused by body lice but most viscous of all – the festering disease of smallpox. In a risky stroke of genius, with few surgeons, fewer medical supplies and no experience, and in a covert communication to his commanding officers George Washington ordered them to oversee a mass inoculation of three quarters of the army who had never had the virus as well as all new recruits. My 4th great grandfather, Isaac Gibbs, complied and was a part of changing the course of history! He was part of a fighting force of men who could have just sighed in discontent; instead he placed upon his countenance one of satisfaction and cheerfulness and learned to sing the patriotic and military songs.

Inoculation gave the patient a milder form of smallpox with better recovery rates than the progression naturally of the disease. It also provided life time immunity which before inoculation had resulted in up to one third dying from smallpox. In June 1778, when the Continental Army marched out of Valley Forge, the first large scale campaign in history had been completed. Without George Washington taking a risky, unproven inoculation program his troops may have continued contracting the smallpox and been unable to fight the British and history may have had a very different outcome! Thus the Revolutionary War might have had a different outcome.

George Washington had to make sure it was a covert operation. If the British had found out they could have decimated the recovering soldiers, by attacking Valley Forge. He had seen after the five month siege of Quebec, his troops fleeing up the St. Lawrence River, after 900 British regulars had come to help the Quebec garrison. His men with smallpox had struggled through knee deep snow alongside the healthy and mingled with no quarantine. At the sighting of British sails the men were forced to retreat again to the Isle Aux Noix. Lice and maggots crept over the victims of smallpox. Two mass graves were dug and thirty bodies per day placed in them. When his army moved to Ticonderoga, every tent had a dead or dying man in it. After “The Cedars”, where Isaac Gibbs had been captured, the natives who had helped the British expel the Americans were plundering the fort and fell ill, from their exposure to Variola virus called smallpox. The contagious disease circulated widely.

My thoughts today as I blog the story of Valley Forge and my great great great great grandfather, Isaac Gibbs, born March 14, 1756 at Greenwich, Massachusetts, son of Abraham and Keziah Atwood Gibbs: Keziah you did fine job raising a man that would be strong and resilient enough to survive Valley Forge. Keziah you were probably the one to educate your son enough to write this historical letter for me to find with the help of David Gibbs. Keziah, today it is -30C outside, snow on the ground, but I am warm and fed and live in the freedoms of Canada. I am truly grateful and trying to comprehend the life of my ancestors as they lived by Proverbs 15:13 A joyful heart makes a cheerful countenance.

A part of the letter that Isaac wrote addressed to his brother (probably Thomas) addressed from Army Camp, at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, March 8th, 1778 reading from paragraph 3, 4 and 5 as follows:

We stayed two or three days after this, then marched again. Crossed the North River, went through the New Jersey’s and so on to Pennsylvania, where we are now. We joined General Washington’s Grand Army, the 22nd of November and were very glad by received by him. During this long and tedious march we underwhelming many hardships, but all of our men succeeded to bare it with noble spirit.

We live now in Hutts or small log houses of our own building. the country, to be sure, is good but the inhabitants are chiefly what we call Quakers, an I believe the great number of the not friend to the cause we are engaged in ,but so the contrary, which causes us to suffer much on account of provisions, that sometimes we have been obliged to go out and take their provisions by force, allowing them reasonable prices for their provisions, cattle, etc. Thus we suffer for want of the common necessities of life.

Our money does not half maintain us if we were to buy our provisions, and we also suffer much for want of clothes, shoes, etc., which we ought to have had long ago from our own states. This causes great uneasiness among our troops which I I could see that the State in General knew how much we suffered for thier not fulfilling their engagements. It is very remarkable that our troops, admidst all their hardships which they suffered, still keep a steady. Solid fortitude ofmind so much so that General Washington, a few days ago prclaimed his public thanks to the whole of General Poore’s Brigade for their peaceable and man-like behavior.

From your loving brother, (signed) Isaac Gibbs

P.S. Dear Grandfather Isaac: To find your letter that was preserved for over 243 years that confirms the basic ideas of my blog was invaluable. I have been so encouraged by your courage in the face of such hardships and circumstances and yet I can hear you whistle as you marched. I have a decision to make regarding covid-19 pandemic vaccinations. Your story makes it easier to make my decision. Your story illustrates for me the theme, “For the greater good of all!” Love Wendy

Isaac Gibbs 1756 and Lydia? unknown; Abraham Gibbs 1806 and Annie Saxe ; Hiram Garner Gibbs 1846-1913 and Mary Elizabeth Smith 1850-1940; George Arthur Gibbs 1875-1963 and Lydia Wise 1883-1923; Olive Vivian Gibbs 1899-1919 and Gordon Reid Waddell 1891-1978; John Gordon Waddell 1921-2003 and Jeane Waddell 1926-2008 and me Wendy Jean Waddell Harty – not done yet!

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