DAY 8 – VALLEY FORGE

A Bit of History

Valley Forge is the location of the 1777-1778 winter encampment of the Continental Army under General George Washington. Here the Continental Army, a collection of disparate colonial militias, emerged under Washington’s leadership as a cohesive and disciplined fighting force. In late 1777 while the British occupied the patriot capital of Philadelphia, Washington decided to have his troops winter at Valley Forge, a day’s march from Philadelphia. Valley Forge was a naturally defensible plateau where they could train and recoup from the year’s battles while winter weather, impassable roads, and scant supplies stopped the fighting.

On December 19th, 1777, 12,000 soldiers and 400 women and children marched into Valley Forge and began to build what was essentially the fourth largest city in the United States, with 1,500 log huts and two miles of fortifications.

General Washington at Valley Forge

Lasting six months, from December until June, the encampment was as diverse as any city, with people who were free and enslaved, wealthy and impoverished, speakers of several languages, and adherents of multiple religions. Concentrating the soldiers in one vast camp allowed the army to protect the countryside and be better able to resist a British attack, but it became costly when lack of supplies and hunger afflicted the inhabitants, and diseases like influenza and typhoid spread through the camp. While there was never a battle at Valley Forge, disease killed nearly 2,000 people during the encampment.

Through the duration the encampment, Washington inspired the soldiers through his own resilience and sense of duty. He persuaded Congress to reform the supply system and end the crippling shortages, and attracted experienced officers to the cause, including former Prussian officer Baron von Steuben, who was assigned the task of training the troops. Von Steuben taught the soldiers new military skills and to fight as a unified army.

General Steuben Drilling the Troops at Valley Forge

These reforms in supply systems and fighting tactics, along with reforms in military hygiene and army organization, became the foundation of the modern United States Army. The Continental Army’s transformative experiences at Valley Forge reshaped it into a more unified force capable of defeating the British and winning American independence during the remaining five years of the war.

Valley Forge National Historic Park

Park Map

Everything I read or heard about Valley Forge indicates that, although the Continental Army suffered greatly during that bleak winter of 1777, under Washington’s leadership they emerged as a cohesive and disciplined fighting force.  It is unlikely that the battle they fought at Monmouth Courthouse (see Day 5 if you’ve forgotten) shortly afterwards would have been a success without their difficult experiences at Valley Forge.

The majority of my time at the park was spent following the Encampment Tour, a 10-mile route that includes important historic sites and monuments. The scenery was strikingly beautiful as I cruised along in my air-conditioned car. Thus, it was hard to imagine the harsh wintery conditions and the grueling living conditions these men endured. But I found myself being easily transported back to that time because of the exceptional historical interpretation organization of the park.  The reconstructed structures, informative placards, and tour layout were all helpful in capturing a sense of the conditions at Valley Forge in that difficult winter of 1777-1778.

Reconstructed barracks

National Memorial Arch erected in 1910.

This is one impressive monument and I have seen a lot of striking monuments, especially at Gettysburg and Vicksburg. But this one was unique in that it was erected not to honor an individual or a regiment that won a battle. No, it was erected to honor the ordinary soldier that endured. At the top of the monument is etched these stirring words from Washington:

Washington’s headquarters. I was disappointed that the house was not open for touring, but there happened to be a ranger outside that I chatted with for a bit about the house and General Stueben

A beehive oven. The ranger explained how it works and the benefits of its design. Fascinating.

A statue of the indispensable General Baron von Steuben. Washington depended heavily on this ex-Prussian officer, who spoke in broken English, to whip his men into fighting shape. And it worked. I read a bio of the General and he is just as larger-than-life as his statue indicates.

Tomorrow…Day 9 – Guilford Courthouse National Military Park!

5 thoughts on “DAY 8 – VALLEY FORGE

  1. Rick eikrem

    My gosh, it would have been a great temptation to desert at valley forge. Surely there must have been some of that. I wonder if deserters were executed.

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  2. cliffscivilwartrippart2 Post author

    There were more desertions (about 1,100) at Valley Forge than at any other period during the Revolution. One study found that of 225 sentences of death during the entire war, only 40 to 75 were actually carried out. Last-minute reprieves were common. In May 1780 eleven men were scheduled to be executed, all but one for desertion.

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  3. jeikrem

    I am learning so much! The history of Valley Forge is an amazing story of determination and commitment – not only of Washington but of the soldiers themselves. What they had to endure! How different would history have been if they had given up or not taken the time to regroup and retrain?

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  4. Barb

    This is so interesting to me. All I ever knew of Valley Forge was about the awful winter & the suffering that happened there. I had no idea of the training the army received & how this training helped with winning the war.

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