Valley Forge: Where Pennsylvania Remembers The Revolution

Winter, I've always thought, is the time to visit Valley Forge. To feel what happened here more than 200 years ago, come on a chilly, overcast day and walk the lines of huts and entrenchments across rain-sodden ground that a tired, late-year sun doesn't have the vigor to dry. Here, for six bitter months during the winter of 1777-78, George Washington and 11,000 volunteers of his Revolutionary army sheltered themselves against the cold and wind and rain, and by simply surviving, turned the tide of the war.

Guide books tell you that no armies battled here--a surprising revelation to many visitors--but that's not entirely true. The Continental Army fought an epic struggle here against disease, neglect and inadequate supplies, a battle that claimed as many as 3,000 American lives during the six months the army camped here. In comparison, the surrender of the garrison of Charleston, South Carolina, on May 12, 1780--one of the greatest American military disasters of the Revolutionary War--cost the Continental Army about 3,300 casualties, but of these, less than 300 were killed or wounded. The rest surrendered unharmed.

The "summer soldiers" Thomas Paine wrote about were long gone by the time the army marched into Valley Forge. Recruiters trying to replenish regiments depleted by desertion and expired enlistments noticed a growing sentiment that a young man's duty to home and family outweighed any obligation to the infant nation. Only the hard core marched on toward Valley Forge in December of 1777. Cold, hunger and disease would further thin the ranks during the winter, but those who survived the encampment emerged toughened for the hard task that still lay ahead.

On the morning of December 19, General George Washington's army lay just six miles from their future winter encampment, a full day's journey under the prevailing conditions. Between them and Valley Forge, rains had turned Gulph Road into roughly the same consistency as the unleavened batter of wheat and water that made up the bread, or "fire cake," the army subsisted on. Horses and wagons had left the road rutted, and now, in the bitter cold, the uneven surface froze, making it more an obstacle than a road to troops lacking shoes. A stiff wind blew snow flurries onto bare faces and limbs. The poorly trained troops as yet knew only one marching formation--single file--which meant that their column stretched out so far along the road that by the time those in the lead had reached their destination, the rear had barely broken camp.

Many in the army, and in Congress, questioned the wisdom of wintering in such an inhospitable place as Valley Forge. The fall of Philadelphia forced a difficult decision: Washington's most cautious advisors favored a withdrawal to the west, as far as Reading at least, where suitable accommodations offered the promise of a relatively comfortable and safe winter. But abandoning the immediate vicinity of Philadelphia carried risks of its own. With the Continental Army gone, British foraging parties would be free to strip the nearby rich farmland of valuable stores, easing General William Howe's dependence on the Royal Navy for resupply.

The political considerations rubbed hard too. Pennsylvania's Supreme Executive Council threatened that if Washington moved the army outside of a 25-mile radius of the city, the state would refuse all logistical support and recall the Pennsylvania Continental troops; nearly a quarter of Washington's army.

These realities ruled out many of the proposed encampment sites and left Washington with a dilemma. No suitably defensible ground close to Philadelphia offered housing adequate to quarter the army. Wherever they spent the winter, they would have to build their own shelter.

Washington didn't record who first suggested Valley Forge. Brigadier General Anthony Wayne, whose home stood just a few miles away, seems the most likely candidate. In any event, the army's French engineer, Louis Duportail, rode to the site to survey the ground and reported it would do.

Though two centuries have altered the landscape, the advantages that impressed Washington and Duportail remain. The Continental Army approached Valley Forge along the Gulph Road, but the British, had they attempted it, would most likely have attacked using the same route visitors to the National Park use today. Where present-day Route 363 (somewhat altered to make way for the Pennsylvania Turnpike) approaches the Schuylkill River, it bisects a ridge running from the river to the southwest. Duportail erected two earthen redoubts straddling this road, from which the defenders could have caught approaching British troops in a crossfire. The Continentals named these two fortifications Fort Mordecai Moore and Fort John Moore.

In the 1950s, aerial photography revealed the faint traces of Fort Mordecai Moore (local farmers had dismantled it almost as soon as the army broke camp so the fields could be planted). Based on this evidence and historical accounts, the redoubt has been reconstructed and now lies just inside the park entrance.

The site of Fort John Moore lies outside the park on commercially owned land and isn't recognizable today, but the park has made a virtue of the necessity of constructing a replica on an arbitrary site a few hundred yards to the west of the original. These fortifications are just the thing to excite a child's imagination, and if you care to witness firsthand what an assault on one of these structures must have looked like, stake out a comfortable spot beneath a nearby shade tree. You won't have to wait long before a squad of enthusiastic youngsters "storms" the earthworks, scrambling across the ditches and up over the parapet with a determination that would have shaken the most capable defenders.

The Park Service frowns upon these impromptu assaults in the case of the authentic remains. (To discourage them, maintenance crews leave the grass around the redoubts uncut. It does deter climbing, but also close inspection.) For now, the replica of Fort John Moore allows visitors to see what a redoubt looked like without subjecting a delicate historic site to hundreds of trampling feet. In the near future, the Park Service plans to use the site for demonstrations of the art of 18th-century military fortification.

The southern extreme of the encampment ran from these two redoubts along the ridgeline toward the west. These outer line defenses consisted of a ditch, three to four feet deep and three to four feet wide, backed up by a chest-high earthen rampart. Behind this, the army built its winter quarters.

Washington's General Orders instructed the soldiers to construct, as expeditiously as possible, log huts chinked with clay, 14 feet wide, 16 feet long and 6 1/2 feet high, with a fireplace in the rear. Each of these one-room huts housed a squad of 12 private soldiers. Officers lived in slightly less cramped circumstances. According to rank, an officer shared a hut with only two to seven others, or, in the case of the few generals, actually had complete privacy.

The first squad in each regiment to complete its hut received a $12 reward. Washington posted a reward of no less than $100 to go to the man who came up with the best alternative to a roof of boards, a commodity far too scarce to depend upon for the 1,500 to 2,000 huts built during the winter. As far as we know, nobody got the $100.

A Hessian lieutenant passing through Valley Forge one year later, on his way to a prisoner of war camp in Virginia, noted that it looked "like a badly built town." In fact, the quality and design of the huts varied considerably. To some soldiers from frontier regions of the colonies, home-building was a familiar exercise, and personal experience took precedence over Washington's specifications. Excavations at the park have revealed a great deal of variation in the huts' sizes and in locations of doors and fireplaces.

The construction techniques and materials did not produce dwellings destined to last long. Although at least one roofless and overgrown hut, photographed as late as 1903, may have dated from the encampment, most of the buildings did not long outlast the war. A Pennsylvania officer visiting the site near the end of the conflict observed, "Some of the officers' huts are inhabited, but the greater part are decayed, some are split up into rails...."

The 60 or so huts in the park today are all reconstructions. The oldest of these, built by the state of Pennsylvania in the late 1940s, comply precisely with Washington's General Orders. A second group, erected for the Bicentennial celebration in 1976, more accurately reflects the variations brought to light by recent archeology. The laborers who built these most recent huts, park workers note with a wink, took one additional liberty with Washington's orders that his soldiers did not--they used telephone poles soaked in creosote.

The huts on the site occupied by Peter Muhlenberg's Virginia Brigade, just inside the outer line defenses, are among the most conspicuous in the park, by virtue of their role in the park's Soldier Life program. This weekend series of events includes demonstrations of the drill used to load and fire 18th-century muskets and cannon as well as showing how Christopher Ludwick and his company of bakers fed the army during the winter. Not surprisingly, the authentic bread-baking conditions don't meet the standards necessary to obtain a restaurant license, so the flavor of the end product is left to your imagination.

Inadequate supply crippled the army during the winter. The weather was not particularly bad, with cold temperatures and rain but little snow. Meager meals and inadequate clothing, however, magnified the weather's effects. Quartermaster General Thomas Mifflin had resigned from his post in November 1777, perhaps recognizing his own unsuitability for the job. He left, having formulated no plans for feeding the army during the upcoming winter, and the soldiers suffered for his lack of foresight until Washington appointed General Nathanael Greene to replace Mifflin in March. Under Greene's direction, things gradually began to improve.

Valley Forge itself had been a British target during the previous autumn's campaign, and local stores had been destroyed. Food and clothing were available throughout the colonies, but not the transportation needed to get them to the camp. Administrative bottlenecks rankled even more. For much of the winter, Anthony Wayne begged, cajoled and threatened Clothier General James Mease and the Pennsylvania Assembly to release uniforms stored in large numbers in nearby warehouses, for the use of his division. The authorities refused, saying the uniforms were unacceptable because the buttons were the wrong color.

Continuing along Outer Line Drive from the Muhlenberg huts lie the sites occupied by Weedon's, Paterson's, Learned's, Glover's, Poor's, Wayne's, Scott's and Woodford's brigades--the strength of the army--all strung out along the same ridgeline, which Duportail counted upon to blunt the British assault should Howe decide to attack. The slope is still formidable, but these days it is the source of enjoyment. The park designates the steepest portion of the hill, on the ground defended by the Pennsylvania Division, as its public sledding area every winter.

The southern border of the outer line defenses terminated roughly at Baptist Road--the present Pennsylvania Route 252, where the twin summits of Mount Joy and Mount Misery form a natural barrier against attack from the west.

This rugged ground along the camp's western perimeter continued northward almost to the banks of the Schuylkill River, which forms the northern edge of the camp. Like the ridgeline to the south, the Schuylkill made an attack from this direction difficult. An attacker could cross only at the Fatland Ford or, after the camp had been established, across a bridge the army built to bring supplies into camp. Duportail oversaw the construction of two more redoubts overlooking these crossings, including the largest and strongest in the encampment--Star Redoubt--and Fort Huntington.

Situated partway up the slopes of Mount Joy, with gorgeous fields of fire across land denuded of natural cover by agriculture and the need to fell trees for huts, fortifications and firewood, an inner line of fortifications backed up the perimeter defenses. Most of the army's train of roughly 60 artillery pieces remained in a park in the center of the encampment, ready to be moved to any threatened point as needed. Today, the inner line defenses are the best preserved relics of the encampment. The slopes where they were built are not suitable for farming, so these fortifications escaped the plowing that erased many traces of the earthworks to the south. On the other hand, the local inhabitants, finding no reason to tend this land, allowed it to become overgrown.

When the park was dedicated, these redoubts, essentially intact and recognizable, lay in the midst of woodlands, and young trees grew straight up through the ditches and ramparts. The park has since rescued them from nature's onslaught, but visitors unfamiliar with the local 18th-century landscape must be left wondering about the sanity of the men who chose the sites of these defensive works.

For his part, General Howe knew the area well and understood what an attack on Washington's defenses would entail. During the previous summer, the British general had sent a foraging party into Valley Forge via Gulph Road. After a successful skirmish against American cavalry under the command of "Light Horse" Harry Lee and Colonel Alexander Hamilton, the British carried off a substantial cache of rebel supplies and destroyed the iron forge from which the area took its name. Shortly thereafter, on September 21 as the British Army approached Philadelphia, Howe made a diversion in the direction of Reading, which took the entire army through Valley Forge. After feigning an attempt to cross the Schuylkill farther north, the army retraced its steps and crossed instead at Fatland Ford, less than a mile from a small house owned by Isaac Potts, the man whose forge the British raiding party had destroyed. Some three months later, Washington set up his winter headquarters in this same house. Based on his firsthand knowledge of the area, Howe later informed his superiors in England that the Continental Army's winter quarters position was too strong to take by force from an entrenched foe.

Critics 220 years ago, no less than those of today, blamed Howe for allowing the undersupplied American army to winter at Valley Forge unmolested. Looking out over the encampment from an observation platform above the parapet of Fort Washington, a strongpoint comprising part of the inner defenses, Paulette Mark, director of the park's staff of historic interpreters, disagrees: "My view is the same as Howe's, stated in 1778," she says. "I would have much rather drawn the Americans out onto an open field and fought them there than fight them behind these fortifications. Howe knew what was here and he knew it was formidable. There was no way he could gain any advantage from trying to fight this camp. Not all these fortifications were complete by the end of the encampment, but they were usable, and they could have withstood a large number of troops fighting in the British manner, without much trouble. As Duportail said, entrenchments are the means by which the weak withstand the strong."

If two centuries of accumulated hindsight hasn't been sufficient to settle the debate over whether an attack that winter could have won the war for the British, Howe should perhaps be forgiven for playing a waiting game.

Then, a victory on Christmas Day at Trenton, followed by a second victory at Princeton a few days later, forced the British to abandon New Jersey, restored American morale, and prompted a new wave of enlistment to replenish the army. Better this time, Howe may have reasoned, to avoid any battle that might result in defeat, thereby producing the "capital change" that Washington hoped for.

The change came anyway, due to the efforts of a quirky Prussian volunteer. To the Continental Army he was known as Major General Friederich Wilhelm Augustus Baron von Steuben, formerly of Frederick the Great's general staff and newly appointed inspector general of Washington's army. A prominent monument on the Grand Parade honors this man's contribution to the cause, perhaps the most colorful and unlikely military hero this country has ever known.

His credentials consisted of a combination of falsehood and exaggeration. True, he was Prussian, but he had never risen above the rank of captain. His family name originally was Steube. His father had already decided, with little justification, to preface it with the noble article "von," and young Friederich himself changed the spelling to match that of a Prussian noble family to whom he bore no relation. He did indeed serve on Frederick the Great's staff, but in the relatively minor post of lieutenant to the quartermaster general. The Continental Army boasted few linguists, however, and an imperfect translation of his title easily gave the impression that he had, in fact, held the rank of lieutenant general.

The deception, however, wasn't Steuben's alone. The Prussian officer first attracted Benjamin Franklin's attention when the two men met in Paris. Franklin immediately recognized the Prussian's very real administrative talents and knew he could be of service but apparently feared that no one would take him seriously if he submitted a scrupulously honest reĀ“sumeĀ“. For the noblest of reasons, Franklin introduced him as one of the most respected officers in the world's finest army.

Whatever Steuben's pretensions, the qualities that caught Franklin's eye served Washington well. As soon as the weather allowed, Steuben began drilling the troops, who until that time had never been instructed how to fight effectively in formations larger than a single company. He rewrote the manual of arms, simplifying it so that even an amateur army could understand it. Under his guidance, the troops achieved a level of competence they had never known before, and in the spring, the British generals found that, far from melting away, their enemy had grown more formidable.

The army broke camp on June 19, 1778, when the British, now under the command of General Sir Henry Clinton, abandoned Philadelphia and began a long march across New Jersey, bound for New York. The Continentals pursued them, eventually fighting an inconclusive battle at Monmouth Court House, near Freehold, New Jersey.

For the next century, Valley Forge remained a revered name in the collective memory of the new nation, but as a real place it existed on the edge of oblivion. Within a short time, all traces of the sacrifices and suffering that transpired there eroded away.

In the 1870s, the approach of the centennial anniversary of the encampment prompted renewed interest in the site. A local committee, the Centennial Memorial Association, purchased the house Washington lived and worked in during the encampment and, from 1878, preserved it as a museum. Known as the Potts House after the family who owned the property during the 18th century, it has undergone many alterations since, most designed to take advantage of new knowledge regarding its most likely appearance during the encampment.

A relative of the Potts family lived here in 1777 and rented the building to Washington, along with its furnishings. Today the house contains replicas of both its original contents and some of Washington's camp furniture.

Efforts to preserve the site gathered momentum, and in 1893 Pennsylvania's newly established State Park Commission took over the task of protecting the remains of the encampment--by that time reduced primarily to the redoubts on Mount Joy. In 1903, a preacher in nearby Norristown proposed that a chapel be erected at Valley Forge to honor General Washington. Construction of what is now the Washington Memorial soon began, the first of several nearly contemporaneous projects that turned Valley Forge from a hallowed memory into a national shrine. Today the Washington Memorial houses the museum of the Valley Forge Historical Society.

By far the most impressive monument in the park, and the only one presented by the federal government, is the National Memorial Arch, dedicated in 1917. Located along Gulph Road at the spot where the army first marched into the camp, it was intended to be a grand entranceway into the park. Modern traffic patterns make this an inconvenient route, however, and the arch now stands in a relatively quiet, isolated spot.

Several visitors' centers have been built at Valley Forge over the years. The present one lies partially underground beneath a modern glass building and houses the George C. Neumann Collection of 18th-century weapons, tools and camp implements. An adjacent building, a stone structure that used to be the visitors' center, now serves as an auditorium where visitors can watch an introductory 18-minute film.

An unconfirmed account written by a local farmer relates an unexpected encounter he had in 1796 while plowing his fields somewhere in the vicinity of the outer line defenses. He came upon a tall man dressed in black, accompanied by a Black servant. The man began to talk, asking the farmer about the methods of farming used in the area. Soon the farmer mentioned he had been a soldier in the army that had camped on the site eight years earlier.

The stranger replied that he had been there, too, and then introduced himself as George Washington. He said his second term as president was soon to end and he planned to return to Virginia, expecting never to return to Pennsylvania. But first he wanted to visit Valley Forge.

If the story is true, the park may be justified in designating 1996 a bicentennial year of sorts and claiming the General himself to be the first historic traveler to ever pay them a visit.

Bruce Heydt is managing editor of British Heritage Magazine and is currently writing a comprehensive history of the people and events of the American Revolution.

Walking Tour: Valley Forge National Park

While late fall and winter are the best times to get a feel for the trials Washington's Continental Army endured at Valley Forge, the seasons present modern-day travelers with some inconveniences. From October through April, tour buses--as well as the audio tapes available at the Visitors' Center during the summer months--go into storage, leaving visitors to roam the park with a minimum of guidance.

Maps of the park are available year-round, however, and one of these, free for the asking at the Visitors' Center's information desk, is the only guide you need to find your way through the park.

Before setting off for the historic area, head to the auditorium next to the Visitors' Center and watch the 18-minute orientation film. This historical overview of the encampment is useful and a notch above the productions you'll find at most visitors' centers at historic sites across the country. Whether you plan to explore the park on foot or behind the wheel of your car, the route starts just outside the auditorium. Follow the blue-and-white signposts, either steering down Outer Line Drive or marching off along the footpath that parallels it.

The walking path is paved and for the most part fairly level. The circuit takes in most of the historic sites but avoids the rugged slopes of Mount Joy, bypassing the statue of General Wayne, Washington's Headquarters and Redoubts 3 and 4 (tour stops 4 through 7). Even so, it takes 3 to 4 hours to walk the 4 1/2-mile path, allowing time to linger at each of the tour stops. Walkers are prey to the elements, as there are few places to warm yourself, or even to shelter from rain or snow. (I once sat out a blizzard in one of the huts at tour stop 2, in the company of about half a dozen living history interpreters dressed in authentically inadequate regimental uniforms: a classic illustration of Hegel's observation that people never learn anything from history.)

The road leaves the walking path behind to meander more thoroughly around the western end of the park, climbing Mount Joy for a closer look at the defenses along Inner Line Drive. Most of the park's surviving 18th-century earthworks lie along this road. The driving tour takes about 1 1/2 to 2 hours. There are plenty of parking areas along the way where motorists can get out for a closer look at the sites, or for a picnic lunch. The guide map provides brief descriptions of each of the ten designated historic sites (see accompanying map) for the benefit of those taking the self-guided tour, whether by car or on foot.

The Park Service has given some thought to making history accessible to the disabled. The historic buildings haven't been modernized to make them wheelchair accessible, but the auditorium offers hearing aids, and a ramp at Redoubt 3 gives wheelchair-bound visitors--and everyone else--a good perch for viewing the earthworks.

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