Valley Forge – A Triumph Over Hardship

While staying in the Lancaster, Pennsylvania area we were fortunate to be fairly close driving distance to Valley Forge, the wintering camp in 1777-1778 of General George Washington and his troops.   Managed by the National Park Service, this is a beautiful historic park with a modern, well equipped visitor center where we began our visit.  Not only was this a place to wait out the winter, but also a camp where Washington trained and unified his army to prepare them for upcoming war.   At this time in history, Washington’s efforts as General of the Continental Army was not seen in a favorable light.  The Army had lost several battles including the loss of their capital Philadelphia to the British.  Members of Congress as well as some of Washington’s own generals were doubting his ability to lead.  I learned some things I didn’t know about Washington during our visit here.  He had risked everything to lead this Army against the most powerful army in the world.  If the British won, Washington would probably have been hanged and his family’s property confiscated.  He was in a tough spot during this eventful winter.

In December 1777, Valley Forge became the fourth largest city in the U.S. when 12,000 soldiers and 400 women and children marched into the area and began to build new quarters including 1,500 log huts and two miles of fortifications.   The soldiers were concentrated  in one large camp so they would be better able to resist a British attack.  This proved difficult when there were not enough supplies and diseases like influenza and typhoid spread through the camp.  Although there was never a battle fought here, disease actually became a killing force with nearly 2,000 dying.   Knowing little about Valley Forge before my visit, I assumed that severe winter temperatures was the worst part of the encampment.  I remember in school learning about the men freezing in the cold, snowy weather.   But I learned that the winter was not worse than usual, it was made harder by the lack of proper clothing and a balanced diet.   The Army was just not able to provide adequately for the troops.  Above is a picture of replica log huts of the type the troops would have lived in.

In spite of the hardships, it was also a time of improvements for the military as Washington worked with Congress to reform the supply system so the troops would not face shortages.  He also attracted experienced officers to train the troops including a Prussian officer named Baron von Steuben.   There were additional reforms in military hygiene and army organization that became the foundation of the modern U.S. Army.  Some historians believe that the army’s efforts while waiting out the winter at Valley Forge are what enabled them to defeat the British in the Revolutionary War.  As you can see from the photo above, the park is very green with forested rolling hills and wide meadows.   In this area to the right of the path is where the troops would have received their training.    This is one of the best historic parks I have seen for walking or biking as a paved path goes throughout this large park.

The National Memorial Arch is a splendid large monument in the park.  It was erected to commemorate the arrival of General Washington and his army into Valley Forge.  Traditionally, a triumphal arch was erected to honor Generals or Emperors, a tradition started by the ancient Romans.  This arch was completed in June 1917 and has these words of Washington inscribed on it:  NAKED AND STARVING AS THEY ARE WE CANNOT ENOUGH ADMIRE THE INCOMPARABLE PATIENCE AND FIDELITY OF THE SOLDIERY – February 16, 1778.

The 1768 house where Washington had his headquarters is still standing.  The only major change has been replacement of the mortar between the bricks.  This is the centerpiece of Valley Forge Park and I was amazed by how well the house has held up over so many years.  Washington rented the house from the Potts family.  Valley Forge was actually a village with an iron forge.  Mr. Potts was an iron master and one of the owners.  We were able to tour the inside of the house which is furnished as to the time period.  In this home would have lived 15-25 officers, aides and servants so it would have been very crowded as there are not that many rooms.  Martha Washington also came here to live in February of 1778 bringing with her some domestic staff.  In the photo above, the structure to the left of the house is the kitchen.

In the picture above is the room used by officers both for meetings and sleeping.  The woodwork and cabinetry is all original.  Washington’s office can be seen in the picture below.  It was here that he entertained visitors and met with advisors to make battle plans.  Washington’s bedroom was located upstairs.

Washington had his own security force who stayed in huts in a field across from his house.  They protected the General, his family, equipment, supplies and papers.  Washington required that each “life guard” as they called themselves be native born Americans as it would be assumed they would be loyal and have a vested interest in the army being successful.  These soldiers also served as a model company for training the entire army.

Located in the Park but not managed by the National Park Service is the Washington Memorial Chapel.  It is a magnificent building dedicated to George Washington and also an active Episcopal church.  It was built in 1903 in a gothic style with a tall bell tower.   The church has a replica of the LIberty Bell (not in the tower) called the “justice bell” which traveled around all the counties of Pennsylvania in 1915 to support a proposed amendment to the State Constitution giving women the right to vote.  The bell was not rung until after it was passed in 1920.

The inside of the church was so beautiful and medieval looking that it took my breath away.  There were lots of stained glass windows on all sides and interesting looking pews in this high ceilinged building.

I hope you enjoyed learning about our trip to Valley Forge, an important place in the history of our country that we enjoyed seeing.

Thanks for checking in – more exploring in Pennsylvania to come!

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