Location: Valley Forge, Pennsylvania
Webpage: National Park
General Description: In 1777, the governing body of the 13 British colonies, the Second Continental Congress, was still located in Philadelphia. After unsuccessfully trying to draw out the Continental Army under General George Washington, in northern New Jersey, British General William Howe advanced northward towards Philadelphia in September and occupied the city unopposed. The Congress had vacated Philadelphia, relocating first to Lancaster and then York, Pennsylvania. As winter approached with the British occupying Philadelphia, General Washington needed to position his troops far enough from Philadelphia to protect them from a sneak attack and yet close enough to protect the Congress in York. He choose Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, 20 miles northwest of Philadelphia, for the defensible 2 mile long ridge of Mount Misery combined with the Schuylkill River to the north. The location had plentiful forests to provide logs for shelters for the winter. Fresh from the Battle of White Marsh in early December, General Washington led his 12,000 man Continental Army to Valley Forge on December 19, 1777. The Continental Army was poorly fed and ill-equipped with only one man in three having serviceable shoes. The first poorly constructed hut took three days to build, while most of them took weeks, especially since they did not have many axes to fell the trees. By the first of February, over 2000 huts had been built and while they provided shelter, they did nothing to mitigate the chronic shortages of food and clothing. The conditions were so bad that General Washington was concerned that “this Army must inevitably…starve, dissolve, or disperse.” Even though the snowfall that winter was not heavy, the rainy and muddy condition took its toll. By spring 2,500 soldiers had died of typhoid, typhus, smallpox, dysentery, and pneumonia and when added to the desertions the Continental Army was very close to dissolving. With the coming of and fresh militia, the Army reformed and embarked on an extensive program of training under the command of Baron von Steuben, a skilled Prussian drill master. Under his guidance the commands used in the field to move troops and firing their weapons was unified using his system. This finally eliminated a short-coming of the Continental Army which had been using multiple training manuals and organizations. In addition, the successful defeat of the British Army by General Gates at Saratoga convinced France to enter the war with an alliance pact on February 6, 1778. News of this alliance bolstered the moral of the Army with a celebration and military review on May 6, 1778. The revived Continental Army left Valley Forge on June 19, 1778 ready to face the British as a professional army for the first time. First, they retook Philadelphia and then chased the British back to New York with an indecisive victory at the Battle of Monmouth on June 28, with the British retreating back to New York. Today the National Historical Park consists of the 3500 acre area occupied by the Continental Army with many historic structures, reconstructed huts, monuments and hiking trails.
1) The Visitor Center is built into the side of a hill and is a grand structure. The exhibits about Valley Forge are extensive covering all aspects of the history, living conditions, and aftermath of the winter at Valley Forge. There is also an excellent movie about the winter.
2) We purchase the Driving Tour CD, which added a lot to the experience. While not as important as the CDs we had purchased previously for the Civil War Battlefields, it was still worth the purchase price. The Driving Tour consists of 9 stops, beginning with the Visitor Center.
3) The first actual stop on the tour are a set of reconstructed huts at the location of General Muhlenberg’s brigade along the outer defenses. In fact, they were building two new huts while we were there.
4) The next stop is at the Memorial Arch that was patterned after the Arch’s in Paris, although at a much smaller scale. It was dedicated in 1917 and displays wonderful carvings and inscriptions.
5) The fourth stop was at Wayne Statue which is the site of the Pennsylvania soldiers commanded by General Wayne who lived nearby. The statue is facing towards his home in Waynesboro.
6) The next stop is well worth visiting as it is the location of Washington’s headquarters. It is at the location of the Valley Forge Station, which is an ornate station built to service the Reading Railroad that runs along the banks of the Shuylkill River. This station was the original Visitor Center for the park and served as the destination for those riding the railroad to visit Valley Forge for a long time. For instance, the Boy Scouts used Valley Forge for years as the location for their annual Jamboree.
7) You can take a self guided tour of the house that General Washington used as his headquarters which has been restored to that time period removing some of the changes that had been made over time and furnishing the house with period pieces.
8) They have also reconstructed huts that would have been used by Washington’s guard which was a elite unit devoted to the protection of the General. Initially they were all from Virginia, but at Valley Forge this 50 man guard was augmented by an additional 100 soldiers selected from all the colonies. This guard was then personally trained by Baron von Steuben to provide an example and help train the other soldiers in the spring.
9) The Driving Tour then winds it way up the hill to Redoubt 3. Along the way you can still see the defensive trenches the soldiers dug. Redoubt 3 was reconstructed by the CCC in the 1930s and served as the anchor of the southern end of the inner defensive line.
10) The next stop is the location where General Knox kept most of the cannon. From this central location they could quickly move the cannon to any location if an attack occurred. There are a number of period cannons at the spot.
11) The next stop is the headquarters of General James Varnum. The house is positioned at the edge of the parade field where the troop trained under the eye of Baron von Steuben. There is a statue of the Baron overlooking the troops. The stone house is open for tours at other times of the year.
12) The final stop is the Washington Memorial Chapel. It is an active Episcopal parish and at first glance it would not seem to be worth the time since it is not from the Revolutionary War time period. However, this stop is very important. First, the bell tower is the location where the Victory Bell is on display. The Victory Bell is a copy of the Liberty Bell (without the crack) used by the Women Suffragist Movement seeking the vote for women. It was chained until the Constitutional Amendment was passed at which time it was released and rang for the first time.
13) We were very fortunate to enter the Chapel at the beginning of a presentation by a Tour Guide who gave a great overview of the Sanctuary. There are well over 100 small stained glass windows, each group of windows with a different theme, like liberty or freedom. You could take days studying them all. There were also plaques in the ceiling, one for each state in the United States with room for yet more to be added. It was an amazing place.