The town of Valley Forge was named because it was a thriving town in the Valley of the Forges about halfway between Philadelphia and Reading. Nearby Pottstown was named after a prominent iron master with the surname of Potts. From our elementary school days we all know Valley Forge as the place where George Washington stayed during the winter of 1777-1778. I guess I also thought that Valley Forge had been a National Historic Park for a long time. I was surprised to learn that it came under the National Park Service in 1976. Before that it was a Pennsylvania State Park. At one time there was a railroad depot at the state park and visitors would ride out from Philadelphia to visit and picnic.
We came on a Saturday and it was good we did. Had we come the next day, we’d have been in the middle of a crowd for a 5k event. If we’d come during the week there would have been no special events and we wouldn’t have learned as much. The Living History exhibits are given on weekends from April through October. We started by watching the movie at the Visitor Center and then it was time for a Ranger led tour. As with most of our tours, the Ranger was very knowledgeable and added a lot to what we already knew.
He began by asking “Why did George Washington pick this location?” Standing on the hilltop where the encampment was located you quickly realize the advantage of the high ground. Sentries posted here and on nearby Mount Joy and Mount Misery would prevent British regulars from surprising the Continental Army. The Continental Army had some early success but by 1777 the British Regulars had landed and controlled both New York and the Continental capital of Philadelphia. The Continental Congress had fled to York, PA. Washington determined that to try marching south to Wilmington would be too dangerous. The Patriots had a supply depot in Reading to protect. Lastly the colony of Pennsylvania had told Washington if he took his troops more than 25 miles from Philadelphia they’d withdraw their troops, funds and resources. So Valley Forge was chosen. The replica troop cabins you see pictured represent just a few of the 2,000 shelters that were built atop the hill.
Armies of that time normally withdrew to winter quarters and battles were seldom fought. That is why Washington’s crossing the Delaware on Christmas 1776 had been such a surprise and so effective. Many wanted him to use the same tactics again the next winter but he did not think that prudent. Most people think Washington was encamped here just for the winter but they were here from mid-December 1777 to June 1778. Much of that time was spent drilling and perfecting skills so that when the Continental Army left Valley Forge they were as professional as any army in the world. They needed to be. At that time Britain had the best military in the world. So who was responsible for this transformation? A young man named Baron Friedrich Wilhelm Augustus von Steuben. He had been a lieutenant in the Prussian Army. He met Ben Franklin in Paris and offered his services. Sensing von Steuben’s talents, Ben Franklin suggested he introduce himself to Washington as General von Steuben. Steve bought a book the Ranger suggested about von Steuben. Once again we are reminded of how fragile this American Revolution was and how tentative those first years were.
Another change that occurred here was conversion from a militia style army with short term enlistments (1-2 year) to a regular army with three year or “duration of the war” commitments. To lure men to take these longer enlistments the Continental Congress offered land bounties and monetary bonuses. Many of the enlistees were foreign born so that the military was multinational as well as mixed races. There were numerous women in the camp as wives followed husbands and performed nursing, seamstress or laundress.
Contrary to the popular view of starving soldiers in rags there were supplies enough to provide a subsistence level of food. If a soldier was found to be “naked” he was not allowed out of his hut. The term as used then meant that the soldier did not have the proper uniform to perform his duty. Transporting enough supplies across rutted dirt roads clogged with snow was more the issue than one of supply. Farmers did however play both sides and often preferred to sell for the more stable British currency than the almost worthless Continental script. It was disease (influenza, typhus, typhoid and dysentery) rather than starvation that took most of the 2,000 men who died at Valley Forge. Most of them died during the last 3 months when supplies were more plentiful. There never was a battle here.
In May 1778 Valley Forge received word that the French had entered the war. In later years there would be help from the Polish military, the Dutch and Spain. With France now sending troops the British had to rethink their strategy and withdrew from Philadelphia in May 1778. Washington engaged the British at Monmouth, New Jersey and demonstrated his forces new prowess by routing the British from the field. Valley Forge might better be thought of as drawing a line in the sand than a season of deprivation.
Here’s some food for thought. The Ranger said this was really America’s first Civil War. Families were torn apart as some sided with the Tories (British sympathizers) and others with the Patriots. Even Ben Franklin’s family was divided. The Pennsylvania Dutch who are not Dutch but German fought against the Hessians. He also called the War of 1812 America’s second War of Independence.
After the tour we looked at the replica encampment and listened as living history actors spoke of military tactics, guns and clothing. There was a table set up with medical tools and medicines of the day. A quick trip back to the museum at the Visitors Center held an unexpected surprise. There is a cave on the Valley Forge site where fossils of saber toothed tigers, mastodon, giant sloths and flat faced bears have been found. The picture below shows a black bear compared to the flat faced bear. I wouldn’t want to meet him in a dark alley or anywhere else for that matter.
We ended our day by driving to the opposite end of the park to see Washington’s headquarters. As with many other officers’ wives, Martha Washington came for a visit and stayed most of the time the camp was here. George Washington had a few house slaves from Mount Vernon with him.
So ends our two day visit to the Valley of the Forges.