When I asked a friend what comes to mind when I mention Valley Forge, “winter,” came the answer. True. That’s the word to describe Valley Forge, located 24 miles northwest of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on the Schuylkill River, and famous in American Revolutionary War history as the quarters of the Continental Army during the terrible winter of 1777-1778.
The American troops arrived at Valley Forge in December 1777, a year-and-a-half after the Declaration of Independence on July 4th 1776. The 12,000 man-force, and 400 women and children, actually built what essentially became the fourth largest city in the colonies at the time.
The encampment consisted of 1,500 log huts and two miles of fortifications. That population would go through the winter short of food and clothing. Supplies were not getting through and many went hungry. Disease killed nearly 2,000 people during the encampment. A mutiny was not out of the question.
At the time, the thinking of General George Washington was that the Continental Army should winter at Valley Forge which he had picked because it was near Philadelphia which was occupied by the British that winter, but far enough away to be safe from a surprise attack. Unfortunately, the Continental Congress had fled Philadelphia to York, Pennsylvania, leaving Washington, leader of the new country’s army, to keep the hope of independence alive until they could launch a spring campaign.
I visited Valley Forge National Historical Park in the summer (no snow). From reading about Valley Forge I learned that the huts had been reconstructed according to the specifications Washington gave his troops. It’s not hard to imagine these tattered soldiers slashing trees to build these rows of log huts.
So I ducked into one of those cabins – a reproduction of the structures that the soldiers constructed so they could build fires for warmth and cooking – no heat or electricity. The small huts stood at 14 feet by 16 feet with a dozen men to a hut. Within two weeks, 1,500 to 2,000 huts were set up. Inside the structures, was a fireplace made from fieldstone and lathed with mud. In some cabins, I could see that their bunks had been padded with straw.
Much of the hunger of the troops could have been avoided that winter. But the wheels of the fledgling colonial government moved slowly and inefficiently. In fact, Congress failed to allocate transport money for the encampment. Supplies dribbled in throughout the winter, but it wasn’t until a new quartermaster, Major General Nathanial Greene, was appointed, that conditions improved.
AFTER VISITING the huts, I walked along the parade grounds where I knew from reading up on Valley Forge, that even with the hardships, things began to change in February for the army. I imagined the ringing out of a voice with a German accent. They were the commands of a new officer who had arrived at the camp with a high recommendation from Benjamin Franklin in France.
His name was Friedrich Wilhelm August Heinrich Ferdinand von Steuben. He retrained the American troops with strategies from the famed Prussian army; a uniform system of drills. Because of those drills, the Americans soon began to feel like trained soldiers. No wonder Valley Forge is considered by some as the birthplace of the American army.
I stood at Artillery Park, where the army repaired cannons. Like at Gettysburg where I had been a few weeks earlier, the guns were silent.
Not far from Artillery Park and the parade grounds stands a historic site: the stone house that General Washington and his military staff called home during the encampment. Known as the Isaac Potts farmhouse, it was more comfortable than the “ubiquitous huts.” It was also where rumor reached Washington that France would aid the Americans.
On May 4, the Continental Congress unanimously ratified treaties of alliance with France, and immediately sent couriers to Valley Forge with the news. Two days later, the entire encampment was summoned to the parade grounds by booming cannon to hear the treaties read aloud.
More than 10,000 men “still shoeless, muskets oiled and polished,“ staged a grand review, writes Joseph J. Ellis in his book The Cause: The American Revolution and its Discontents, 1773-1783. “The official occasion was the French Alliance. The unofficial occasion was the survival of the Continental Army,” Ellis adds.
During the war
During the war, the Continental Army contained about 100 American Jews. Only about 2,500 Jews resided in the colonies, a tiny percent of the population which is estimated at approximately 2.5 million. “For Jews, participation in the war marked the first time since their exile from Jerusalem that they could take their place alongside their Christian neighbors as equals in a fight for freedom,” writes Norman H. Finkelstein in an article in American Jewish History: A JPS (Jewish Publication Society) Guide. ”Jews were present at…Valley Forge and other battle sites throughout the colonies,” he continues.
Among those with Washington at Valley Forge, it has been said was Lt. Col. David S. Franks, who was on the general’s staff, according to Bernard Postal and Lionel Koppman in, “A Jewish Tourist’s Guide to the US.” Also, Dr. Philip Moses Russell was one of the handfuls of surgeons who cared for the freezing, naked and hungry men at Valley Forge. Dr. Russell received a letter of commendation from Washington for his assiduous and faithful attention to the sick and wounded, according to Postal and Koppman.
In June 1778, having survived the cruel winter, Washington’s men were now able to give the British a tough fight at Monmouth, NJ. The war would last another five years.
A moving monument at Valley Forge is The National Memorial Arch, built in 1917 by an act of Congress, commemorating the “patience and fidelity of the continental soldiers.” According to Postal and Koppman, many of the sculptures on the monument are the work of Leo Friedlander, a noted American sculptor.
For the visitor to Valley Forge, a stop at the Visitors Center (www.nps.gov/vafo) is a must. Tourists at this historic site can make use of roads, bike paths and horse trails that traverse the Valley Forge National Historical Park. Walking and biking is enjoyable here, but one can also take trolley tours.
Nature abounds. The commemorative landscape, it has been said, “embodies the peace that the continental army earned for Americans, and honor their sacrifice and triumph at Valley Forge.” Well worth a visit.
Ben G. Frank, travel writer and travel lecturer, is the author of the recently published, Klara’s Brother and The Woman He Loved; A Travel Guide to Jewish Europe, 4th edition; and The Scattered Tribe: Traveling the Diaspora from Cuba to India to Tahiti & Beyond.”