Letter from Valley Forge, 1778 …

Captain William Gifford of the Third New Jersey Regiment to his best friend, Colonel Benjamin Holme of the New Jersey Militia.

Like a number of other Americans, several of my ancestors served in the Continental Army.

One of those, Captain William Gifford of the Third New Jersey Regiment, wrote the letter below while camped at Valley Forge to his best friend, fellow New Jersey militia member Colonel Benjamin Holme.

The letter is kept in the Revolutionary Era Documents section of the New Jersey Historical Society. Etymologists note that it is only one of two known letters in which American soldiers described their shelters as "wigwams." Wigwam was a cutting edge new world addition to the English language at the time.

Much as I'd like to display an image of that letter, New Jersey Historical Society curator James Amemasor informs me that the process for obtaining one is fraught with bureaucracy made worse by a lack of sufficient state funds.

A lack of New Jersey funds in 1778 to provide uniforms and other equipment -- made worse by bureaucracy -- is also mentioned in Captain Gifford's letter.

Some things never change.

I thought this 4th of July would be a good time to read Captain Gifford's letter again and consider the sacrifices those who came before us made to establish the United States of America.

Camp at Valley Forge Jan. 24, 1778

D. Col.

I should have wrote you before now, had it not been for our Expectations of going to Jersey for Winter Quarters, -- but I fancy we may give up our notions of Jersey & Content ourselves in these Wigwams this winter, -- We are encamped about Twenty Miles from Philad. at a place called the valley Forge, along the Schuylkill. The Army is divided into Two lines front & Rear, besides Corps de Reserve, and possess very Commanding and defensible ground, we are fortifying the Camp as fast as possible, tho' we are under no apprehensions of a visit from the Enemy, (Tho' such a report is current in Camp) but I am very sensible they know better things, if they shou'd come I trust in God we shall be able to give them a warm reception, perhaps a total defeat, We have a large Army in every respect fit for Action, Tho' some are very bare for clothes, I wish with all my heart our State wou'd make better provision for out Brigade, respecting Clothing & other necessaries than they do, if they had any Idea of the hardships we have & do undergo, they Certainly wou'd do more us, [sic] than they do, I assure you Sir we have had a very Severe Campaign of it, Since we came in this State,-- our Men are in huts 16 by 18, Covered with Oak Shingles, and now are pretty Comfortable -- since they have got to live in 'em, we lay in Tents until the 20 instant; an instance of the kind hardly ever known in any Country whatever, but what ca't brave Americans endure, Nobly fighting for the rights of their injured country. --

I Congratulate you on the arrival of 8 ships from France under Convoy of a 40 Gun Frigate at a port in Maryland, their Lading is uncertain but supposed to have necessaries for the Army. --

As you are acquainted with Captain Lee of Horse, I will mention Some thing that happened [to] him a few Nights past. On the 19 ins about day break, 200 of the enemies Horse surrounded his quarters, with the intent to take him by Surprise, -- but Captain Lee's vigilance baffled their designs by industriously posting his men in their Quarters, although he had not a sufficient number to allow one for each Window, he Obligated them disgracefully to retreat after Repeated & fruitless attempts to force their way into the House, leaving Two killed and four wounded, their Wounded they took off. --

We received no other damage than a Small patrole of Horse, Consisting of four fell unfortunately in their hands, as they were returning from their post, & Lieu. Lindsay Slightly wounded in the wrist. -- The Commander in Chief has returned Cap. Lee, his officers & Soldiers of his Troop, his warmest thanks in general orders for their good Conduct and Superior bravery. -- Captain Lee had in House but a Corporal and 4 privates. --

Perhaps you will think I have forgot you, in not writing to you oftner than I do, I must confess I have been careless about writing, but I assure you Sir it's owing to my not having time or Paper to write on, I shou'd be ungrateful to the last Degree, if ever I forget you my best friend. -- I wrote you immediately after the Action of Short Hills, and likewise after the Battle of Brandywine, in the first I mentioned the Person at Morris-Town, which I think wou'd be agreeable in every respect. --

When I shall have the Pleasure of seeing you is uncertain -- if you have a Safe opportunity send me warm[est] breeches & Stockings [take] great care of the Linen as that article is very dear and hard to be purchased, Colonels Ogden and Martin, with a number of other inferior officers of this Brigade have Resigned. --

I Shall be very fond of hearing from you when an opportunity offers, my best respects to Col. Jn. Holm Cap. Sayre, Jenny, Geo[rge] and your family & remain D. Col. your assured friend to serve you if in me lay. --


Dan Gifford is an national Emmy-winning, Oscar-nominated film producer and former reporter for CNN, The Mac-Neil Lehrer News Hour and ABC News.