It was the fall of 1777, and General George Washington’s army was reeling from the crushing defeat it suffered in Pennsylvania. The British forces won the Battles of Brandywine and Germantown, and occupied Philadelphia.
Seeking a winter haven for his disheartened soldiers, and ordered by the Pennsylvania colony’s legislature to wait out the frigid season close to Philadelphia, Washington led his ragtag troops to Valley Forge, 18 miles from the city.
On December 19, what was left of the Continentals — 12,000 poorly fed, ill-equipped warriors – traveled to the place where they would spend the winter. Before the following spring, more than 2,000 of them died, and a legend of the War of Independence was born.
No battles were fought at Valley Forge. Not a shot was fired at an enemy. Yet the setting may be the best-known site associated with the Revolutionary War. The struggle for survival dramatically conveyed the courage and endurance that characterized the Colonials’ battle for freedom. For visitors to the area, that story is depicted in exhibits, a film and displays of artifacts, weapons and documents.
Earth embankments mark the lines of defense that General Washington established. Log structures, reconstructed following Washington’s original plans, represent the approximately 2,000 huts where the soldiers lived. Interpreters in period dress demonstrate the harsh conditions that claimed many lives.
The grounds are dotted by memorials, monuments and historic markers. But more than such symbols, the real story of Valley Forge is brought to life in other more meaningful ways.
Military equipment and paraphernalia recall the victory of spirit over adversity. Copies of letters between the brave men who endured such hardship and their loved ones put a human face on the suffering.
Clothing was inadequate, shoes were hard to come by and blankets were even more scarce. The rough log huts where the solders lived were damp and overcrowded. The men slept in narrow bunks stacked three high. With icy winds whipping through cracks in the structures, waves of pneumonia and other diseases ravaged the ranks.
In this bleak picture, the first ray of hope arrived in February 1778 in the person of Baron Friedrich von Steuben. A former high-ranking member of the elite Prussian general staff, this exacting drillmaster offered his services to the patriots.
He wrote a training manual, chose 100 select men, and taught them marching, musketry and bayonet charges. Their skills became the model for the entire army.
By spring, a feeling of hope and pride had begun to replace despair. When the British forces left Philadelphia and moved toward New York, it was a very different American army that pursued them.
The soldiers under Washington’s command would not celebrate their final victory over the Redcoats until 1781 in Yorktown, but they had won another important battle. They had overcome the anguish that accompanied them to Valley Forge. They themselves had been forged into a fighting force with new skills and a sense of confidence and pride that eventually would prevail.
The story of this transformation comes alive at Valley Forge. It is a place that saw not a single military victory, but rather a conquest over the lack of confidence, weariness and uncertainty that had accompanied George Washington’s army there during the winter of 1777-1778.
If you go
Visitors may follow the same roads where Washington’s troops marched, trace major Revolutionary War battles, and explore the history of that fateful winter. For more information, call 1-610-783-1077 or log onto valleyforge.org.