Excerpt from Finding George Washington • Valley Forge, February 22, 1778 • A new freeze gripped the valley, and a few inches of virgin white covered the now-frozen ruts in the roads. When they first arrived at this winter encampment two months before, rain and cold had compounded the misery of the men. Lately it had been freezing and snowing, making the hardened ground easier to traverse than the sleety, slippery mud had been.
A small farmhouse made of tan and brown fieldstone sat in flat bottomland near the creek. The back door opened and a splash of warm light lit the new snow. From inside came the sounds of a party—a fiddle, laughter, and high-energy conversation. A tall man in a heavy cloak and three-cornered hat stepped off the small porch at the rear of the house and into the cold. A sentry snapped to attention.
“Just getting some air, lad, stand easy,” the General said. “No need to follow.” He trudged off north, away from the house, enjoying the brisk chill.
Ah, he thought, it’s fine to have my dear wife here with me these past couple of weeks! She and the other wives provide such a boost to the morale and hopefulness of the men. It’s worth a wee party to celebrate the difference they make … and my birthday.
The dreadful winter weather and the spread of disease had cost him one-fourth of his army in the early going, but at last there were signs of hope. Foraging for food was still a daily struggle, but now the men were finally housed in hundreds of hastily constructed wooden huts. The eager effervescence of the Marquis de Lafayette for the past half year, the appearance of the Polish nobleman Pulaski a few months before, the continued loyalty of so many of the troops, the imminent arrival any day now of the Prussian Baron von Steuben, and the General’s wife coming to stay with him during the winter encampment—all these events gave him hope.
Perhaps we have survived a low point. And moved beyond it.
The snow had stopped some time before, and now the night was crisp and clear, stars twinkling above the snowy landscape. As he reached the top of a small hill overlooking the Schuylkill River, the sky lit up. A faint green glow on the horizon grew and grew. Great shimmering swaths of chartreuse and mauve dove and dodged across the heavens to the north. He had heard of the aurora borealis from Franklin, but he hadn’t known it could be seen as far south as Pennsylvania.
The General watched as the Northern Lights spread, shimmered, and swirled through the sky like the smoke from God’s own cigar, now rising, now dipping, now twirling and pulsing.
Though soldiers often considered the aurora a bad omen, at that moment it thrilled him. To the east, he could see the glow of sentry fires of some of the closer regiments, the troops hunkered down for the night. A short distance to the south, the men of his personal guard occupied their own group of makeshift huts within sight of the farmhouse.
It’s cold. I should get back before Patsy and the staff begin to miss me.
He paused and took a deep breath of the night air. He was a durable and determined man who had survived cold and wintry weather during his early life as a surveyor, and later as a British officer. He would show his Continental Army troops that the cold didn’t bother him, that staying strong was a state of mind. Certainly they had it worse than he did, but they respected that he had refused to move out of his tent into the stone farmhouse until his men had moved out of their tattered shelters into log huts.
The fluid, ethereal display of light in the skies danced and pulsated. Before he could climb down the hill and head back toward the farmhouse, the ground under his feet began to shake and vibrate slowly, providing a percussive, geological drumbeat to accompany the green and red light in the sky. As the terrain rolled, he lost his footing on the ice, just at a point where a crisp moonbeam seemed to hit the patch of turf he was crossing.
The earth came up to meet him, banging his head on the frozen ground. Woozy and lightheaded, teetering on the edge of consciousness, he felt a great sadness, felt the bones in his body melt in the shard of moonlight, even as, in his remaining awareness, he realized the moon was not out that evening. He felt his body scooped up off the ground, as if by a vengeful wind, then tumbled in a heap onto something hard and unyielding that swept him along at a great rate of speed. Then all went dark.