Valley Forge: Victory over despair

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By Victor Block

It is the fall of 1777, and General George Washington’s army is reeling from a crushing defeat it suffered in Pennsylvania. Troops led by Sir William Howe, the commander of the British forces in North America, outmaneuvered Washington, won the Battles of Brandywine and Germantown, and occupied Philadelphia.

Seeking a winter haven for his disheartened soldiers, Washington settles on Whitemarsh, Pennsylvania. But because it is so close to Philadelphia, the troops are distracted and weakened by continual skirmishes.

Furthermore, the Pennsylvania colony’s legislature has different ideas. It demands that the Continental Army wait out the frigid season in the countryside, yet close enough to Philadelphia to keep an eye on the enemy and be able to prevent a surprise attack.

Faced with this directive, Washington leads his ragtag troops to Valley Forge, an area of rolling meadows, 18 miles from Philadelphia, which was named for an iron forge located along the banks of Valley Creek. As light snow falls on Dec. 19, what is left of the Continentals — 12,000 poorly fed, ill-equipped troops weary from battles and long marches — struggle to the place where they will spend the winter. Before the following spring, more than 2,000 of the soldiers will die, and a legend of the War of Independence will be born.

No battles were fought at Valley Forge. Not a shot was fired at an enemy. Yet the 3,600-acre setting may be the best-known site associated with the Revolutionary War. The struggle for survival in the face of hunger, disease and the bitter winter cold dramatically conveys the combination of courage and endurance that characterized the Colonials’ battle for freedom.

Today, that story is depicted at the site’s visitor center and encampment store by means of exhibits and a free film. In addition, an exhibit named “Determined to Persevere” uses rare artifacts, weapons and documents to tell the story of the encampment at Valley Forge. A trolley tour or self-guided drive through the park provides a very personal introduction to major sites and monuments.

Reconstructed earthen embankments, called redoubts, mark the lines of defense that General Washington established around the area.  Throughout the park are about 50 soldiers’ log huts, reconstructed according to Washington’s original plans and orders, which represent approximately 1,000 huts that were built during the encampment. Interpreters in period dress demonstrate the harsh living conditions that claimed many lives.

The Isaac Potts house, a stone structure that belonged to the owner of a gristmill, served as Washington’s headquarters. Nearby are reconstructions of huts that housed the 150 men assigned to guard the commander in chief.

Most cannons at Valley Forge were massed in Artillery Park. There they were stored, repaired and kept ready for immediate dispatch in case of an attack by the British.

The grounds also are dotted by countless memorials, monuments and historic markers. But more than such symbols of places and events, the real story of Valley Forge is brought to life in other, even more meaningful ways.

Artifacts and military paraphernalia recall the victory of spirit over diversity. Copies of correspondence between the brave men who endured such hardship and the loved ones they left at home put a very human face on the suffering.

Clothing was inadequate, shoes were hard to come by and much-needed blankets were even scarcer. The 1000 rough log huts, hastily erected to provide shelter for the troops from the bitter winter cold, provided little shelter indeed.

They were damp and overcrowded. Soldiers slept as best they could in narrow bunks that were stacked three high, 12 to a hut.

With icy winds whipping through cracks in the structures, and the troops jammed into confined quarters, waves of typhus, pneumonia and other diseases ravaged the ranks.

In this bleak picture, the first ray of hope arrived in February 1778 in the person of Baron Friedrich von Steuben. A former member of the elite general staff of Frederick the Great of Prussia, this exacting drillmaster offered his services to the cause of the patriots.

Because there was no standard training manual for the American troops, the Prussian officer wrote one in French, which his aides translated into English. He chose and trained a cadre of 100 men, whose growing prowess at marching, musketry and bayonet charges became the model for the entire army.

By spring, a new feeling of hope and pride had begun to replace the atmosphere of despair. Following announcement of the colonies’ alliance with France, the British forces hastily left Philadelphia and moved toward New York. It was a very different American army that pursued them.

The soldiers under Washington’s command would not celebrate their final victory over the Redcoats until 1781 in Yorktown, but they had won another important battle. They had overcome the anguish that accompanied them to Valley Forge. They themselves had been forged into a fighting force with new skills, and an increased sense of confidence and pride that eventually would prevail.

The story of this transformation comes alive at Valley Forge, a place that saw not a single military victory but rather a conquest over the lack of confidence, weariness and uncertainty that had accompanied George Washington’s army there during the winter of 1777-1778.

For more information call 610-783-1000 or log onto the website at nps.gov/vafo.