The harshest winter of the war wasn’t 1777-78, but the place where the Continental Army toughed it out has become synonymous with the hardship and perseverance associated with the Revolution. It’s on every Rev War buff’s bucket list, so I had to take a day off from scanning microfilm to visit while I was in the area.
Valley Forge’s prominent place in American sentiment was evident from the crowds. Acre for acre, it was possibly the busiest national historical park I’ve visited with the exception of Gettysburg. It was one of the busiest places in America during the months the army spent there, too. In fact, the encampment was one of the country’s largest population centers.
The army’s first camp during the siege at Boston was a hodgepodge of structures. Valley Forge, for all its misery and squalor, at least had standardized cabins laid out in regular lines.
If the reconstructed accommodations for officers look quaint and cozy…
…the prospect of spending weeks in the enlisted men’s quarters is downright chilling.
The memorial arch is one of the most impressive monuments I’ve ever seen at a Rev War site. Civil War battlefields tend to be more ostentatious in their adornment.
Washington had much finer quarters than the common soldiers, but the material perks came with a crushing weight of responsibility.
He shared the home with his “family” of staff and servants, whose accommodations were more modest—though still far preferable to the cramped huts of the enlisted men.
Valley Forge was in the Goldilocks zone for a winter encampment: close enough to occupied Philadelphia to keep an eye on the British, but far enough away to provide some security. The terrain also made it a position amenable to defense. In the same way, several factors made it an ideal location for the iron production that gave it its name: abundant wood, running water, and ore. British troops burned the ironworks not long before the Continentals moved in. Archaeologists dug up traces of the forge in the twentieth century, and some of the bits and pieces are on display near Washington’s headquarters.
Henry Knox set up the artillery park in a spot from which he could rush cannon to any point in the event of an attack. Luckily for the Americans, the British never mounted an assault on the encampment. (Sir William Howe wasn’t exactly a go-getter.) The only combat at Valley Forge was a skirmish between Americans and redcoats before the whole Continental Army moved in.
The place wouldn’t be complete without a monument to Baron von Steuben…
…gazing out over the field where the Continentals celebrated the Franco-American alliance with a feu de joie.
The Washington Memorial Chapel is an active Episcopal church, and one of the loveliest features of any national historical park.
It’s also one of the few churches in the country with its own Rev War archaeology exhibit.