In eastern Pennsylvania, about 20 miles west of Philadelphia, lies Valley Forge, a potent symbol of America's struggle for independence. Here amid the rolling hills was the site of the Continental Army's 1777-1778 winter camp, during the third year of the American Revolution.
Valley Forge was no conventional battlefield. America's enemies there were hunger, cold and disease, and they attacked relentlessly from December into the following spring. "The whole army is sick and crawling with vermin," complained an officer in March 1778.
Valley Forge has long been etched into the American consciousness as a symbol of privation, determination and a fledgling nation's spirit.
Today, a snowy winter's visit still evokes the harsh conditions faced by the Continental Army. A self-guided driving tour and miles of hiking, walking and horseback trails allow visitors to imagine the hardships the Americans faced in these hills as they laid the foundations for independence.
As 1777 closed, the war for independence was not going well for the Americans. The British had defeated Gen. George Washington at Brandywine, Paoli and Germantown that autumn, and when they occupied Philadelphia in early December, the Continental Congress fled to York. Doubts over the competence of Washington and the Continental Army were growing.
The comforts provided by Philadelphia's loyalists and ladies made British Gen. William Howe reluctant to strike at the Americans holed up at Valley Forge. (Told that Howe had taken Philadelphia, Benjamin Franklin replied, "I beg your pardon, but Philadelphia has taken Howe.")
Washington's army would have until spring to become a fighting force that could sustain the conflict against the British. But first they had to survive.
Twelve thousand poorly clad, freezing men limped into Valley Forge on Dec. 19, 1777. Disease would kill more than 2,000 by spring. Supplies had to be bought from sometimes greedy citizens or by foraging parties that had to dodge British patrols. Scarce equipment was often in disrepair. Most men were poorly trained.
Still, "It is amazing to see the spirit of the soldiers when destitute of shoes and stocking marching cold nights and mornings, leaving blood in their footsteps," wrote a soldier of the march to Valley Forge.
Furious at the lack of clothing for his troops, Washington accused the Congress of believing the "Men were made of Stocks or Stones and equally insensible to frost and Snow." Congress, lacking the power to tax, failed to provide supplies for the army.
Taking the tour
Valley Forge became Pennsylvania's first state park 100 years after that dreadful winter encampment, and joined the National Park system in the bicentennial year of 1976. On recent visits, my family and I saw little of the modern sprawl that mars so many of our nation's historical sites -- a surprise given the park's proximity to Philadelphia's suburbs.
At the Valley Forge Visitor Center, get an overview from the 18-minute film and a map for the 10-stop, self-guided driving tour. In two hours you can grasp the significance of the events that occurred here so many years ago. Before leaving the center, get tickets for Washington's headquarters at Stop 5, and browse the newly renovated bookshop and store. A cassette tour guide costs $8.
The Visitor Center also features a collection of Revolutionary-era military artifacts. Highlights include muskets, bayonets and sharp-bladed weapons designed for unpleasant uses. Don't miss the "bell of arms," a cone-shaped, leather-topped canvas tent for storing arms.
Most striking is Washington's marquee, a large field tent with two compartments, where he slept, dined and kept his office. This was one of three used by Washington and may have been used at Valley Forge. His adopted son, George Washington Parke Custis, gave it to his daughter Mary -- who married Robert E. Lee.
Valley Forge's defenses were organized into outer and inner lines that aligned with the topography. About a quarter mile from the Visitor Center, replica "hutts" along the ridge above the outer defensive line (Stop 2) paint a striking portrait of the conditions the army faced that winter. The original huts were built by Gen. Peter Muhlenberg's brigade of Virginians and Marylanders, and each housed 12 soldiers.
Washington encouraged creative and speedy construction with prizes -- $12 to the first squad in each regiment to finish its hut and $100 for the best roof that did not require wood, which was scarce. Howe, rocking before a Philadelphia fireside with his mistress, derided the camp as "Logtown."
The huts provided modest shelter and great discomfort. As the area became stripped of older hardwood, acrid smoke from younger, green wood stung the eyes. Many huts were set two feet deep, which generated dampness that fostered typhus and dysentery. Records from March 13, 1778, note that "Much Filth and nastiness, is spread amongst Ye Hutts, which will soon be reduc'd to a state of putrefaction and cause a Sickly camp."
When not drilling or foraging, the troops knew how to amuse themselves. Drinking was the most prevalent recreation. Camp followers and local women were sought for dancing. Music was frequent. One diarist declared a violin "excellent in the kind of soft music which is so finely adapted to stir up the tender passions."
Washington failed to thwart gambling, which he described as "the foundation of evil" -- "this vice shall not, when detected, escape exemplary punishment," he ordered. Exercise was encouraged. Men played "base," a forerunner of baseball. Officers played cricket and bowled with cannon balls, and the general himself occasionally stepped outside to toss a ball with his aides.
At Stop 4 of the tour, a statue of Gen. "Mad Anthony" Wayne, commander of the Pennsylvania Line, overlooks a broad panorama to the south that would have made obvious any British attack. Here we spotted deer, ubiquitous in the park in late afternoon and dusk, and a solitary Continental Army re-enactor evocatively pushing through the brown grass that protruded through the snow.
As we drove northwest toward Stop 5, we came to a 1865 covered bridge spanning Valley Creek, which flows between Mount Misery and Mount Joy and which was the encampment's western boundary. We crossed the bridge onto Yellow Springs Road, chuckling at William Penn's naming Mount Misery because he once lost his way on its wooded slopes.
A parking area on the right is the trailhead for the Valley Creek footpath and the Horseshoe Trail (the latter, not a park trail, is poorly marked on the park map; ask for a trail map at the Visitor Center). We hiked the Horseshoe in the snow along the base of Mount Misery. Impending darkness required that we take the shorter loop, which meets the Valley Creek trail at the site of one of the iron forges from which Valley Forge takes its name. (Total hiking time: 40 minutes.)
An interpretive sign explains the history, archaeology and the basics of 18th-century iron-making. The longer trail loop deposits hikers on Route 23, across from Washington's Headquarters at Stop 5.
Recross the covered bridge and turn left on to Valley Creek Road to resume the driving tour. The cluster of buildings on the left is Washington's headquarters. During the Valley Forge winter, Washington lived and worked in the Isaac Potts house, tucked into the elbow of Valley Creek and the Schuylkill River.
A park employee wearing a dashing staff officer's uniform and scarlet cape told us about the two-story dwelling, a museum since 1878. The replicated period furniture and accessories give an ambience of authenticity (a case clock on the first floor is the real thing). The general and his wife, Martha, who joined him in February, occupied the larger of the two upstairs bedrooms.
From this small house Washington beseeched Congress for supplies, planned (but did not execute) a surprise strike against the British in Philadelphia, coordinated intelligence and espionage operations, survived a conspiracy against his command, and -- his most remarkable achievement -- inspired a camp that at one point swelled to 20,000 men, larger than the population of Boston at the time.
Though menus were often meager, Washington frequently invited officers to dine with him, so he might acknowledge and assess their abilities. Virginia Col. Daniel Morgan, who in 1781 would win a brilliant victory over the British at Cowpens (depicted in the movie "The Patriot"), proclaimed that "under no other man than Washington will I serve."
Food shortages, though not universal at Valley Forge, were at times severe. Water had to be carried in buckets from Valley Creek, several miles from most of the brigades. Cooking creatively with flour became an art, since beef, the other staple of the army diet, was often unavailable.
The men mixed flour with water and baked, fried or roasted the pasty mass on a stick. Dining on one of these "fire cakes," Albigence Waldo, a surgeon from Connecticut, lamented his separation from "Ye who Eat Pumkin Pie and Roast Turkies." Capt. John Lacey recorded a recipe for preparing spoiled pork and hog fodder.
Thirty yards from the Potts House is a large culvert that takes Valley Creek to meet the Schuylkill River. Behind the house stand the replicated huts of the 50 native-born Virginians who made up Washington's guard corps. The DeWees' House is a short walk south toward routes 252 and 23. It served as camp courthouse, where whippings and prison and death sentences were meted out to deserters and thieves (the former averaged 10 per week).
En route to Stop 6, turn into the parking lot on the right labeled "map" on the park map. Painted on the asphalt is a large map showing that Virginia, North Carolina and Georgia at that time claimed territory reaching all the way to the Mississippi River.
The next four stops are along the inner-line defenses, in the park's interior. The redoubts were earthen forts that anchored the ends of the second defensive line, on the slopes of Mount Joy. They were manned by 50 to 60 men. Entrenchments are visible along the entire length of the inner drive.
Redoubt 3 (Stop 7) protected the right flank by plugging the gap between the inner and outer defensive lines, to the south of the encampment. From a platform I marveled at the remains of an earthworks whose walls were once 10 feet high, and the immense effort Washington's men expended to construct those fortifications with 18th-century tools.
A turning point
On May 6, 1778, the troops assembled at Artillery Park (Stop 8) to mark France's recognition of the United States. The treaty was read aloud, and arms and dress were inspected. Cannon and muskets were fired by brigade, "swelling and rebounding from the neighboring hills," according to a newspaper account of the event.
The French alliance was crucial to the American effort. French aid -- troops, naval assistance and supplies -- escalated the conflict for the British from a series of skirmishes against poorly trained and supplied rebel upstarts to a major war. To mark the occasion, an ecstatic Washington ordered the soldiers "more than the common quantity of liquor."
The drive north on the inner-line road passes the encampments of brigades under the command of Gens. Maxwell and Conway. Here, you get a panoramic view of the Grand Parade, a large field in the center of the park where troops trained. On the right stands a statue of Baron Friedrich von Steuben, the colorful Prussian drillmaster responsible for whipping the ragtag Continentals into a disciplined army.
Von Steuben codified the drill manual and taught the men to march in cadence, fire in volleys, reload fast and efficiently, and launch and defend against bayonet charges. When he discovered that bayonets were being used as meat skewers, he erupted in multi-lingual cursing.
The early 18th-century farmhouse at Stop 9 is the headquarters of Gen. James Varnum, commander of the Rhode Island brigade. Across the road are a picnic area and earthen remains of Redoubt 1, which guarded a northern escape route across the Schuylkill. Dozens of sledders were flying down the hillside on the day of our visit.
We set out on foot and mushed through the snow across the Grand Parade, imagining ourselves amid the Continentals, freezing at morning inspection. After a mile we crossed Gulph road and joined the Historic Trace, an original road through Valley Forge that runs between the Schuylkill River and Artillery Park. Washington's men left the encampment on this road. The mile-long, tree-lined trail, popular with snowshoers and cross-country skiers, took us back to the parking lot at Varnum's headquarters.
Many believed that the Valley Forge winter would cause the disintegration of the Continental Army. But when Howe moved north from Philadelphia in July 1778, the Continentals pursued and fought his redcoats to a draw at Monmouth.
Washington's moral authority, Von Steuben's teaching of soldiery to a rabble of farmers and workmen, and the cause's righteousness remade an army at Valley Forge that, some three years later in October 1781, forced a British surrender at Yorktown.
AN IDEAL DAY
9 a.m. : Explore the Revolutionary War artifacts at the Visitor Center, and watch the 18-minute video. Prevent the kids from trying to test the weapons.
10 a.m.: Begin the 10-stop, 10-mile driving tour.
Noon: Picnic areas abound for that hearty lunch you've earned. If it's cold and you don't want to re-enact the experience of Washington's men, head to nearby King of Prussia for lunch.
1:30 p.m.: Get off the beaten path: walk the Historic Trace, ski across the Grand Parade, hike the Horseshoe Trail or sled down Varnum's Hill.
4 p.m.: Pick up souvenirs and books at the Visitor Center gift shop.
6:30 p.m.: Dinner at the Kennedy-Supplee Mansion. Reservations are recommended.
WHEN YOU GO ...
Getting there: From Baltimore, take Interstate 95 north to Route 476 north to Route 202 north. Exit at Route 422 west and go two miles. Take the Valley Forge, Route 23 west, exit. Turn right at end of exit ramp and merge into center lane. The park entrance is straight ahead. The park is 96 miles from Baltimore.
Valley Forge National Historical Park, Valley Forge, Pa. 19482
Online: www.nps.gov / vafo
Hours: The park is open daily from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. Visitor Center and Washington's Headquarters are open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. The park is free, though Washington's Headquarters admission is $2 April through November. Bus tours of the park are available.
n Events: Programs run throughout the year. Check the Web site for specifics. Tomorrow, as part of the Washington's birthday weekend celebration, children ages 6-12 will be mustered into the Continental Army and given an exhibition of musket firing. Also, a program on how Washington won the war will be held at the Visitor Center. On Feb. 25, learn to research your Revolutionary War ancestor.
Accommodations: Chain hotels and motels are close by, and serve a variety of budgets. For more information about lodging, call the Valley Forge Convention & Visitors Bureau, 888-847-4883. There are also a number of bed and breakfasts in the area. Contact B&B; Connection of Philadelphia -- 800-448-3619, www. bnbphiladelphia.com.
Dining: A good choice for lunch or dinner is the Kennedy Supplee Mansion (www.kennedysupplee.com) across from the Visitor Center. The 19th-century Italianate home was built by industrialist John Kennedy and later owned by Civil War veteran J. Henderson Supplee. The restaurant features French and northern Italian fare. Call 610-337-3777.
Information: Valley Forge Convention & Visitors Bureau offers a free vistors' guide and calendar of events. Call 888-847-4883; www.valleyforge.org