After staying the night near Philadelphia, we left the next morning for Valley Forge National Historical Park.
It was windy and very cold, the coldest day of the trip. It was a bit of a hike uphill from the parking lot to the Valley Forge Visitors Center, and the biting wind took our breath away.
The Visitors Center had many wonderful exhibits and a film, “Determined To Persevere, the Valley Forge Encampment”. The park has over 2 million visitors a year.
Valley Forge is where General George Washington and the Continental Army wintered from December 19, 1777 to June 19, 1778. In December, 1777, 12,000 soldiers and 400 women and children marched into Valley Forge to build what would become the fourth largest “city” in the United States at that time. Many of the women were married to the soldiers or had been widowed in the war. They cooked, did laundry, gathered wood, guarded weapons, served as spies and served as nurses. The Valley Forge encampment lasted six months with two miles of fortifications and 1,200 log huts made of wood with straw walls, tightly packed clay and wood burning fireplaces.
The men had limited supplies and tools, dragging logs, some weighing hundreds of pounds, through cold mud. Much like any city, there were free and enslaved African Americans and Indians, the wealthy and impoverished, immigrants from England, Ireland, Germany, Poland, Portugal, Spain, Prussia and Scotland, as well as those of different religions. Nearly 35 percent of the Army did not speak English as their primary language.
At the time the British had taken over Philadelphia and General Washington decided to winter his troops at Valley Forge, a day’s march from Philadelphia.
While at Valley Forge they could train the soldiers and recoup from the year’s battles, while sitting out the winter weather and waiting for more supplies. Even before fleeing Philadelphia, the Continental Congress had struggled to support the war effort with sufficient food, clothing and equipment. One of the displays said a letter written by a soldier said half the men were almost naked with tattered clothing, walking barefoot on frozen ground with neither coats, hats, shirts or shoes. While at Valley Forge, conditions reached their worst. While it was beneficial to have all the troops together for training and to resist British attack, it was detrimental when influenza, dysentery, smallpox, pneumonia and typhoid spread throughout the encampment. Nearly 2,000 people died of disease and malnutrition, many using clothing and blankets from infected people. Dirty water, contaminated with human waste, contributed to disease. Washington, though a controversial decision, ordered mass inoculation against smallpox. Valley Forge was the site of one of the first state mandated mass immunization programs in history.
During the first month of the encampment the soldiers mainly ate fire cake, a mixture of water and flour baked over a fire. The Continental Army’s prescribed daily ration included one and a half pounds of meat, a pound of bread and two ounces of alcohol (2,700-3,000 calories). However for much of the encampment, the soldiers received a fraction of this, often no meat at all (often less than 500 calories daily). Winter weather and impassable roads made getting food and supplies to the encampment very difficult.
During this time Washington continued to persevere and inspire his troops. He brought in experienced officers such as former Prussian officer Baron von Steuben, who spoke no English but volunteered to teach the soldiers new military skills, improved hygiene to fight disease and instruct them how to fight as a unified army. These reforms in fighting tactics and army organization became the foundation for today’s modern United States Army. Steuben’s regulations, called “The Blue Book” is used as the Army’s basic training manual today.
Benjamin Franklin and other ambassadors traveled to Paris in 1776 to court France as an ally. In May 1778,Washington received word that treaties of alliance with France had been secured. This alliance helped change the course of the Revolutionary War. The British evacuated Philadelphia and Washington and his united troops marched in pursuit.
One interesting note is that history books do not always adequately convey the impact of war on those whose land the war is fought. After the Valley Forge encampment departed, a ruined land was left behind. Soldiers had cleared forest for many miles and demanded for military purposes farm animals, food and supplies, paying with worthless Continentals currency. This left farmers and their families with little food to eat or sell. The winter weather and activity of thousands of people had turned the fields to deep mud. The fields were so damaged that no crops could be planted that first summer. The farmers quickly got to work to dismantle the huts and plow the fields so they were able to grow crops again by the next summer. General Washington returned to the site in 1787, pleased with how the land and agriculture had been restored.
We spent quite a bit of time at the Visitors Center and since it was bitter cold, we didn’t spend a lot of time looking at the outside displays. We did stop at the National Memorial Arch, dedicated in 1917, to honor the soldiers’ perseverance.
We also stopped at Washington’s Headquarters and office, a stone house that was the residence of Washington and his staff. In the rooms were furnishings and clothing from that time. In the distance was a statue of George Washington.
There are 52 monuments and markers in the park. Nearby the house was a pretty covered bridge.
Valley Forge became a state park in 1893. On July 4, 1976, on the bicentennial celebration of the Declaration of Independence, President Gerald Ford visited Valley Forge and signed legislation establishing Valley Forge National Historical Park. President Ford said, “Grateful Americans will come to this shrine of quiet valor, this forge of our Republic’s iron core”.
Near Washington’s Headquarters was a train station that is no longer used. In 1950 and 1957 the Boy Scouts held their National jamboree at Valley Forge.
With better weather it would be easy to spend an entire day or two here. There is a ten mile auto tour, trails, ranger tours and a tour by trolley to enjoy.
Leaving Pennsylvania we stopped briefly at the gazebo in Stephens City, VA where we were married eleven years ago, the first time we had been there since our wedding.
We spent two nights in Lexington, VA with a good friend and former coworker. We had a wonderful lunch visit with another former coworker in Marion, VA. Cold, rainy weather followed us. Our last night was in Lancaster, SC where we had a nice dinner with Bill’s sister and her husband.
We arrived home on November 16th, just in time to repack for our next trip.
Next up: One of us arrives home sick. Cruise or no cruise? Stay tuned!