Few place names evoke such strong emotions in the American psyche as Valley Forge, site of the 1777– 78 winter encampment of Maj. Gen. George Washington’s Continental Army. Although it was just one of seven such Revolutionary War cantonments for the Americans—including Morristown, site of a much harsher 1779–80 winter layover—Valley Forge is the one that inspired legendary stories of misery and suffering, dedication and patriotism.
Following British Maj. Gen. Sir William Howe’s textbook September 1777 capture of Philadelphia, the forces of King George III settled in for a relatively comfortable occupation. When told of the city’s seizure while in Paris, ambassador Benjamin Franklin confidently replied, “No, Howe has been taken by Philadelphia.” Indeed, the British army entrenched itself behind a system of fortifications and rarely ventured forth for the next nine months.
Meanwhile, Washington selected Valley Forge, within 20 miles of Philadelphia, as an almost impregnable position from which the Americans could readily observe the British and react to any enemy movement. Washington’s chief engineer, French Brig. Gen. Louis Duportail, diligently planned the American encampment around Valley Forge’s natural defensive features as a route of retreat. He designed a series of fortified redoubts and entrenchments, though much of the planned interlocking defensive works remained unfinished by spring.
On Dec. 19, 1777, following a six-mile march from White Marsh, the American army entered the field camp at Valley Forge (re-enactors commemorate the march with an annual ceremonial program), which lacked shelter of any kind. Washington ordered the construction of huts—14 feet by 14 feet, with proper roofs, fireplaces and doors. But in their impatience for protection from the elements, the troops ignored their commander in chief’s instructions and threw together 1,000 or so wooden cabins in whatever manner feasible with the few available tools.
Although Valley Forge for many calls to mind anguish in the face of seemingly insurmountable difficulties, it should also be remembered as the place where the American Army came together as an effective force capable of defeating the British army. Valley Forge is also where that same American Army achieved a diversity not seen again for generations: The 1st Rhode Island Regiment of General James Mitchell Varnum’s brigade, for example, comprised primarily blacks and American Indians, while other regiments represented a range of nationalities. On Wednesday, May 6, 1778, Maj. Gen. Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben’s troops conducted—much to the delight of Washington and his staff—an elaborate grand parade and feu de joie (literally “fire of joy,” a gun salute) in exact order and with precise discipline to celebrate the new alliance with France.
Valley Forge evolved into a site of national recognition when Romantic-era historians and generations of schoolteachers essentially reinvented the experience, relating stories of widespread starvation, mountains of snow and a lone Washington in silent prayer. In reality, the winter was among the mildest of the 18th century, disease—not starvation—was the primary cause of death, and the iconic image of Washington was an unsubstantiated tale promulgated by 19th century parson and author Mason Locke Weems (who also invented the tale of Washington and the cherry tree). Still, the winter at Valley Forge did bring hardship: nearly 2,000 soldiers of Washington’s 12,000-man army died.
Americans held observances to honor the Continental Army at Valley Forge as early as 1828. Campaigns throughout the 19th century sought to preserve and memorialize the area, culminating in its 1893 establishment as Pennsylvania’s first state park. By the 1960s, Valley Forge had become primarily an open green space in which visitors enjoyed many interests apart from history. Park managers did retain the camp’s lines of fortification, an artillery park, Washington’s headquarters in the Isaac Potts House, the parade grounds, recreated soldiers’ huts, memorials, monuments and markers. The dominant manmade feature is the National Memorial Arch, dedicated in 1917 to commemorate the soldiers’ “patience and fidelity” that winter. Valley Forge became part of the National Park System in 1976.
Today, Valley Forge National Historical Park [www.nps .gov/vafo] encompasses approximately 3,500 acres and welcomes more than 1 million annual visitors. A series of touring roads traverse the park, offering visitors the chance to appreciate the defensive capabilities of the encampment, a characteristic the British never managed to put to the test.
Originally published in the May 2010 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.