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  • Writer's pictureTim Murphy

Valley Forge

The year is 1777. The patriotic fervor that once ravaged through the thirteen colonies and called for revolution was slowly losing support following key strategic military losses and morale-weakening events. The British Navy had strung together a naval blockade in late 1776 and effectively sealed off major American ports along the East Coast, causing drastic economic repercussions. The British Army had made amphibious landings at Head of Elk, Maryland, on the north end of the Chesapeake Bay late that summer and tore a path of destruction through the American countryside. They handed the Continental Army crushing defeats at Brandywine (Sept. 17) and Germantown (Oct. 4) while on campaign towards the patriot capitol of Philadelphia. To make matters worse, a separate, stronger British force of 15,000 men had amassed in New York City and started to mobilize south in September. With the British threat imminent, the Continental Congress was forced to flee to York, Pennsylvania, and watch helplessly as the British overran the city.

George Washington's Headquarters

With the loss of the capitol, tensions were high among patriot leaders. Many members of Congress placed the blame on General George Washington, lambasting him as an ineffective general on account of his few military victories. Some of Washington's subordinates expressed this same disdain, believing they could perform better in his position (albeit many of those who criticized Washington had their own best interests in mind). Needless to say, the spotlight was certainly on Washington. Facing internal and external pressures, Washington's military career, and the Revolution itself, were in jeopardy entering the winter of '77-'78.

On December 19, 1777, the weary Continental Army arrived at Valley Forge, a small Pennsylvania town located about 20 miles from Philadelphia. The village was situated on a large wooded plateau, which provided much-needed natural resources to build a camp and made the location easily defensible in case of attack. It's proximity to the captured capitol positioned the Americans far enough away to safely monitor British military activity, but close enough to launch an attack in a day's time. However, supply shortages, poor weather, and rough road conditions prevented any military engagements from either side for most of the camp's duration.

Construction for the camp began immediately. Thousands of acres around Valley Forge were cleared to make way for the living quarters and earthworks. Over 1,500 soldier barracks, or huts, were constructed within a month. These huts were 14' x 16' log cabins that housed anywhere from 6-12 men. French General Louis Duportail was the Army Chief Engineer tasked with building the defensive outer perimeter of the camp. Mount Joy and the Schuylkill River provided natural boundaries to the west and north, respectively. Duportail ordered outer line defenses to be built to the southeast to create a triangular enclosure for the camp. General Peter Muhlenberg's Virginia Brigade and 14 other units assisted in the construction of these fortifications.

Muhlenberg's Reconstructed Huts

The fortifications would eventually stretch over two miles and house nearly 13,000 people, about 400 of them women and children. The high concentration of people in the area made it the fourth-largest city in the colonies, and like many cities of its day, faced the challenges of disease and starvation. During the six months the Continental Army camped at Valley Forge, over 2,000 people died. The majority of these deaths, however, did not from starvation or hypothermia, but from diseases that festered during the warmer months, such as dysentery, typhus, and influenza. Smallpox was certainly a year-round threat, but early versions of the smallpox vaccine (coupled with more sophisticated hygiene principles) limited its effects. Food and clothing shortages plagued the camp as much as disease did. Over 4,000 Americans are deemed unfit for duty due to a lack of these basic needs. General Anthony Wayne and the 1st and 2nd Pennsylvania Brigades embarked on dozens of emergency foraging expeditions to bring much-needed resources back to camp.

Desertion was another common problem that affected the army. Many men believed that braving a grueling winter with little food, tattered clothes, and rickety shelter was too great a sacrifice for the patriot cause. Despite the threat of being court-martialed or executed, hundreds of men chose to abandon the camp for the comforts of home. Little by little, the army was withering away. In desperate need of support, General James Varnum proposed that a regiment of African American soldiers be mustered into his Rhode Island battalion. General Washington concurred and pressured Congress to pass legislation that would allow such a regiment to form. The order was approved in February 1778, and granted all those who were enslaved at the time of enlistment freedom once their terms of service were fulfilled. About 300 African Americans heeded the call before the law was repealed later that June.

Despite the uncomfortable conditions, many soldiers found ways to make camp life bearable. Some sought solace in faith. The majority of soldiers at Valley Forge were Protestant; however, there were also Catholics, Jews, and American Indian spiritualists. Other soldiers found merriment in drink. A "gill of whiskey or rum" (about 4 ounces) was issued as part of a soldier's daily rations. Music and games also helped pass the time.

The National Memorial Arch

Inspector General Baron von Steuben arrived at the camp on February 22, 1778. Von Steuben saw quite a bit of action during the Seven Years' War on the European front, being wounded twice and taken prisoner. Through his experience, von Steuben rose through the ranks and even served as Frederick the Great's aide-de-camp. Post-war, von Steuben joined the King of England's personal class on war, and his rigorous studies made him one of the most knowledgeable minds on warfare strategy and leadership. Von Steuben was shocked at the lack of discipline and organization the American soldiers displayed. As Inspector General, Washington tasked him to drill and train a select group of men to create a more cohesive and unified army. Von Steuben provided hands-on training with the soldiers, who experienced immediate results from the instruction. For maximum effectiveness, von Steuben authored the Continental Army's first standardized drill manual--known as the "Blue Book"--which greatly increased tactile performance and efficiency.

Drastic changes to the Quartermaster department were made in lieu of the atrocious supply systems. In March 1778, Nathaniel Greene, one of Washington's youngest and most-trusted generals, was appointed as the new head of the department. Almost immediately did conditions improve. Greene authorized the establishment of farmers market in the camp, maintained roads and bridges around Valley Forge, and ensured clear communication between the camp and Congress.

While little military action took place during the time of encampment at Valley Forge, Americans frequently interacted with British forces. Open lines of communication were established between the camps and prisoner exchanges occasionally occurred. The most notable exchange took place in April 1778, when American General Charles Lee is released from custody in exchange for British General Richard Prescott. However, not all encounters were so civil. In one instance, David Bushnell, inventor of the submarine, launched powder kegs rigged with detonation devices into the Delaware river in an attempt to damage the British ships harbored there. The British managed to destroy the barrels and nothing else came out of the situation. This rather anticlimactic event is known today as "The Battle of the Kegs." Later that May, British forces under the command of Major General John Graves Simcoe attacked a small American picket commanded by Brigadier General John Lacey and his seventy-man militia in the Battle of Crooked Billet. The skirmish resulted in 20% American casualties and loss of the outpost.

On May 6, 1778, Washington received word from Congress that confirmed France's alliance with the colonies. The military power France provided was just what the Americans needed in order to keep the hope of sovereignty alive. In celebration of this new alliance, May Day festivities were organized on the Grand Parade grounds and Baron von Steuben displayed his disciplined, battle-ready regiments for all the army to see. Later that June, British forces in Philadelphia received word of France's alliance with the Americans and chose to withdraw from the city back to their stronghold in New York City. On June 19, 1778, Washington ordered his troops to break camp and march out of Valley Forge in pursuit. Nine days later, British and American forces met at the Battle of Monmouth (New Jersey), the first major battle since October 1777. The exhaustive engagement lasted the entire day, through blistering heat and gunpowder smoke. By nightfall, both armies remained on the battlefield; however, British General Henry Clinton decided to withdraw to resume the march back to New York City. While not a major tactical victory, the Battle of Monmouth was an incredible moral victory for the American forces.

Washington Memorial Chapel

George Washington emerged out of Valley Forge as the natural leader of the Revolution. He persuaded Congress to reform supply lines, guaranteed pensions for officers, and with help from Prussian General Baron von Steuben, drilled the soldiers of the Continental Army from a bunch of disparate militias into one military unit. The Continental Army came out of Valley Forge as a stronger, more disciplined, and more professional version of itself. The Battle of Monmouth validated this notion, and with the new French alliance, the prospect of independence seemed more attainable than ever before.

After the Continental Army evacuated the plateau, Valley Forge was left barren of resources. The heavy foot traffic that muddied the landscape made it impossible for locals to plant crops the following season. Slowly, farmers deconstructed the huts, plowed away the earthworks, and replanted trees to make the land hospitable again. Modernization eventually arrived at Valley Forge with the installation of two railroads and a limestone quarry in the mid-1800s. The memories of the camp persisted, but physical pieces of it were slowly disappearing.

After the Civil War, there was a renewed interest in the legacy of the Revolution. Inspired citizens and advocacy groups urged for historic preservation of Valley Forge. In 1893, lawmakers sanctioned Valley Forge as Pennsylvania's first state park in an effort to preserve and exhibit its rich history. All buildings constructed after the Revolution were torn down and all traces of industry were erased to create a park-like atmosphere. Today, Valley Forge is a 3,500-acre national park that features reconstructed barracks, monuments, trolley tours, reenactments, and over 26 miles of hiking, biking, and riding trails.

Upon arriving at Valley Forge, I was in sheer awe at the size of the park! The land is quite expansive, and it's hard to imagine that 240 years ago, every corner of this camp was teeming with activity. To learn more about this significant encampment, I stopped by the Visitors Center and browsed through the exhibits they have on display. Their museum has an extensive collection of colonial firearms, weapons, and camp equipment and dozens of primary documents from the time. There is also a very informative exhibit on camp life and the diverse individuals who called Valley Forge home for those six months.

After spending some time in the Visitors Center, I hopped in my car and started the 10-mile driving tour around the camp. My first stop was the Muhlenberg Brigade Area--a reconstructed camp site of Muhlenberg's Virginia Brigade on the outer defenses--fit with log huts, gravel company street, and reenactors who describe the living conditions of the camp. About a half-mile down the road is the National Memorial Arch. Paul Phllipe Cret was the architect who designed this monument, which took nearly seven years to build. The Arch was dedicated in 1917, the 140th anniversary year of the camp. After eighty years, the arch was in desperate need of repair. In 1996, the Freemasons of Pennsylvania donated $1.5 million to restore the arch to its original grandeur.

Stop number 3 was the General Anthony Wayne statue, which stands on the site of the 1st and 2nd Pennsylvania encampments. A little ways away is the P.C. Knox Estate and Brigadier General Henry Knox's headquarters. While the headquarters are a private residence, there are still trails you can use to walk around the premises.

My fifth stop was Washington's Headquarters, located on the banks of the Schuylkill River. General Washington and his staff stayed at the residence of Isaac Potts, son of John Potts--an industrialist who operated several iron furnaces in the area. Over the course of six months, twenty-five people stayed at the Potts House, including Washington's wife, Martha. Martha regularly hosted formal affairs and entertained officers. Her presence--and other women in the camp--boosted the morale of the men around them and were integral to the camp's operation. They acted as nurses and cared for the sick, sewed much-needed clothes, mended shoes, and cooked meals for the soldiers. Washington's personal servants, such as Hannah Till and William Lee, also played crucial roles in the camp, acting as housekeepers, stewards, cooks, and even spies.

Washington's Aide-de-Camp Office

The first thing I noticed when I arrived at the site was the Reading Railroad and train station a couple hundred feet from the headquarters. The Reading Company built this line in 1842 and served as a tourist depot for the Valley Forge Park. The train station was used as the park entrance for 70 years until the Visitor Center on the eastern part of the park was constructed in the 1960s. Today, the station displays exhibits on General Washington and his living quarters.

The Isaac Potts House is a two-and-a-half-story stone building furnished in late colonial fashion, much like how Washington would've had it. In addition, the wood floors and handrails on the stairs are all original! Being able to touch the same things Washington and members of his staff touched 240 years ago is a surreal feeling. Outside the house in one of the barns is a very informative exhibit about the colonial iron industry at Valley Forge, which was a major producer of raw iron prior to the war.

Stop numbers six and seven were Redoubt 3 and the Artillery Park. Brigadier General Henry Knox, who commanded the Continental Artillery, placed cannon here so that they could be mobilized quickly in case of attack. Stop eight was General Varnum's Headquarters and the Baron von Steuben statue. The stone farmhouse that Varnum resided in originally belonged to the family of David Stephens, a modest livestock farmer. Unlike other officers who confiscated property, Varnum offered to pay rent to Stephens for the time he occupied the house. Stephens agreed. Varnum and his staff resided there until mid-April 1778 when they moved to newly-constructed barracks. The final stop on the driving tour was the Washington Memorial Chapel. The church was built in 1903 not only to honor George Washington, but serve as a memorial site for American soldiers who lost their lives in military engagements.

I had a great time exploring Valley Forge National Historical Park! The struggles these men and women faced during the time of encampment were certainly put into perspective after visiting the park for myself. It took about 3 hours for me to tour the entire camp, but you could easily spend an entire day there. As mentioned previously, Valley Forge features miles of recreational trails and plenty of park-organized events. As for the layout of the park, it feels more like a community park than a historic park, given the wide-open grassy terrain and the fact that many of the original structures were destroyed shortly after the Revolutionary War. However, thanks to efforts from historic preservationists and the citizens of Valley Forge, the park has been restored to its original 1777 layout. All in all, it was an incredible experience to learn about this truly inspirational story of American perseverance and determination.

Click on any of the links below for more information on Valley Forge:

If you'd like to read some first-hand accounts about the conditions of Valley Forge, check out these primary sources!

If you'd like to see the British perspective of Valley Forge, click HERE


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