During the winter of 1777-1778, George Washington’s army was encamped at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, twenty miles outside of Philadelphia. Although we are taught in school about the sufferings and hardships endured during the bitter winter, we often forget how difficult it was to procure supplies during a time of war.
George Washington appointed Nathanael Greene as Quartermaster General at Valley Forge, charging him with obtaining supplies for the army. Greene wrote to merchant Joseph Webb, requesting portmanteaus (large, hinged suitcases), valises, and canvas for tents, knapsacks, and mattresses.
Nathanael Greene free frank on Valley Forge cover »
This folded letter was sent on April 2, 1778, and franked “On publick Service,” a typical marking for military mail sent for free through the Constitutional Post. The franking privilege is a practice dating to the 17th century that allows certain public offices to send official government correspondence for free. During wartime, soldiers can have their personal mail sent for free, as long as it is franked by an officer in charge.
The letter most likely traveled on a westerly route, starting in Valley Forge, heading north to Easton, Pennsylvania, on the Delaware River, and continuing northeast to Fishkill, New York, and finally through Hartford, Connecticut, only three miles north of Wethersfield, Connecticut, its final destination.
This letter is featured in the Out of the Mails exhibit, which ended January 31, 2008, at the National Postal Museum
A Note on Conservation:
Did you ever wonder why letters survive from two hundred years ago but modern photocopies look faded after only a few years? The answer is their relative rag content and the level of acidity. Colonial paper was often made out of cotton rags. Today, paper is usually made out of wood pulp, the processing of which results in highly acidic paper. The acidity causes the paper to turn yellow or brown and become brittle. The cellulose fibers breakdown, and the paper quickly deteriorates.
Despite the quality of the colonial paper, the Valley Forge letter still needed conservation treatment before it could go on exhibit. Conservation is the active approach to stabilizing artifacts using reversible techniques. The conservator flattened the creases as needed for stabilization of the artifact and for mending purposes. She then mended the tears and holes, filling any loss areas with Japanese tissue paper applied with starch paste. Any extraneous pencil notations made by previous collectors that were not original to the document were noted in the conservation report and then erased.
Camp. Valley Forge, 2d of April 1778
In order to lessen the Quantity of Baggage in the Army &
enable it to move with the greater Ease, it is proposed to lay aside.
as much as possible, the Use of Chests and Trunks: A large Number
of Portmanteaus and Valeeses is therefore become necessary for the
Officers; and as I am informed some of these may be collected in Connec-
ticut, I request the Favour of you to procure as many good leather
Portmanteaus, of about the middling Size, as can be got ready to send
forward by or before the middle of May—the Number I shall expect
from you will be about 200. at least; and 20, or 30 Valeeses for
Matrasses to be made of pretty strong Canvas. If you can
meet with any Canvas, Ticklenburgs and Oznaburgs suitable for
Tents, Knapsacks &c, I should be glad you would purchase it for
me. As fast as you can collect any of these Articles in any
considerable Quantity, be pleased to forward them to the Care of
Mr. Hugh Hughes, D. Qur. Master at Fishkill who will send them
on to Camp.
I expect in very short Time to remit you Money sufficient
to pay for the Articles you may purchase, so that I think you
may rely on being enabled to make punctual Payments, which
I doubt not will not only facilitate the Business but enable you
to do it on better Terms than it could otherwise be done. In the
mean Time I beg you will inform me what Quantity of these
articles are likely to be procured in Connecticut within the Time
I have mentioned, and that you will give me the speediest Informa -
tion when any Goods shall be sent forward.
I rely on your Zeal in the Publick Service to take upon you
this Trouble, and to employ such Persons in the Business, as you
shall think most likely to effect it to the best Advantage & with
the greatest Dispatch, allowing them such Compensation as you
shall think reasonable; and for your own Troubles, besides your
Expences of which be pleased to make a Charge, you will be allowed
a Commission adequate to the Business.
I take it for granted you have been informed of my Appointment
to the Office of Quarter-Master-General of the Army of
the [sic] United States, and it is in that Character I now apply to you.
I am, with Regard, Sir,
Your most obedient
Q M General
To Joseph Webb Esqr.
Preserving Your Letters and Documents
Pollarine, Barbara. Great & Capital Changes: An Account of the Valley Forge Encampment. (Thomas Publications, 1993)
Stein, R. Conrad. Valley Forge. (Children’s Press, 1999)
Thayer, Theodore. Nathanael Greene: Strategist of the American Revolution. (Twayne Publishers, 1960)
By Allison Marsh