Since recently learning that my fifth great-grandfather, Joshua Deweese, was a Revolutionary War veteran who encamped with General George Washington in the winter of 1777-78 at Valley Forge, I’ve wanted to visit the historic site. I had that chance earlier this month while on a family visit to eastern Pennsylvania.
The 3,452-acre Valley Forge National Historical Park lies in lovely rolling hills, 18 miles northwest of Philadelphia. It brings American history to life with its well-designed landscape, preserved structures, monuments and guided tours. Instead of the 90-minute trolley tour, I purchased the CD auto tour in the visitor’s center, which provided me with an excellent overview of the park and the significance of each location. It was well worth it and very easy to follow.
Valley Forge, a day’s march from the patriot capital of Philadelphia, was the winter quarters for General Washington’s Continental Army from Dec. 19, 1777, through June 19, 1778. After several battlefield defeats in the fall of 1777, including losing Philadelphia to the British, the American patriots retreated for winter encampment at Valley Forge, which was defensible due to its high ground and position near the Schuylkill River.
The spirit of the brave Americans reached a low point during the harsh winter of 1777-78. At Valley Forge, where 12,000 men and 400 women were encamped, there were shortages of food, clothing and medicine. Under the direction of the army’s engineers, the men built nearly 2,000 16x14 foot log huts to endure cold conditions while the Redcoats kept warm in colonial homes.
The enlistment terms for many of Washington’s soldiers were ending. There were some desertions. The general was uncertain if he would even have an army once spring arrived.
While Washington continued to inspire his men with his strength of character and sense of duty, he was greatly aided at Valley Forge by an unlikely source, a Prussian volunteer, Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben (that’s how Steuben County, Indiana, got its name). Von Steuben, recruited by Benjamin Franklin in Paris, was in the Prussian general staff under Frederick the Great who commanded the most professional army in the world.
Von Steuben reported for duty on Feb. 23, 1778, at Washington’s headquarters. He did not speak English, but could communicate in French with some of the officers, including senior aide Alexander Hamilton and General Nathanael Greene. They assisted Von Steuben in establishing a training program for the soldiers.
The Americans were taught new military and organizational skills under Von Steuben. He instituted reforms in supply systems and military tactics, which became the foundation of the modern United States Army.
Von Steuben was harsh in his training aspects, yelling and swearing at soldiers in both German and French. When that tactic was unsuccessful, be recruited a French-speaking captain to curse at them for him in English.
Von Steuben began with a model company of 100 chosen men. He instructed them in drill, maneuver and a simplified manual of arms. These 100 men then were sent out to other units to repeat the process until the entire army was trained. Eventually, the soldiers became more professional and their confidence grew.
Washington’s army was fewer in numbers at the end of the long winter. Between 2,000 and 3,000 men died of influenza, dysentery, typhoid and typhus in that six-month period. (My fifth great-grandfather, Joshua Deweese, suffered from frozen feet and lost part of a foot to frostbite.) Another thousand men either didn’t re-enlist or deserted. But the survivors, while weary, were better trained, disciplined and confident.
The year 1778 was a turning point. While Washington’s army endured the hardships at Valley Forge, Benjamin Franklin worked to secure the alliance with France. On May 6, 1778, Washington’s army celebrated the official announcement that the French were joining the Americans’ cause.
This led to the British evacuation of Philadelphia and return to New York. Learning of the departure of the British from Philadelphia, Washington and his army left Valley Forge in pursuit of the enemy on June 19, 1778. With the help of the Marquis de Lafayette and the French, they were eventually victorious, winning the final battle at Yorktown, Virginia, in the fall of 1781. It resulted in peace negotiations that ended in the Treaty of Paris signed on Sept. 3, 1783.
One of the highlights of the park is visiting Washington’s Headquarters, known as the Isaac Potts House, built around 1773. The restored three-story stone structure is decorated with period 18th-century furnishings and artifacts related to Washington and the Continental Army. Washington, and later his wife Martha, occupied the house from Christmas Eve 1777, until June 18, 1778, Washington conducted his official business in the office on the ground floor. His bedroom is in an upper floor.
Along the pathways at Valley Forge are a number of monuments to such heroes as Baron von Steuben and General Anthony Wayne (the namesake of the city of Fort Wayne). It’s a beautiful setting for hiking or bicycling.
For any history buff, Valley Forge is a must-see.
It is an inspiration for all people who cherish freedom.
Terry Housholder is president and publisher of KPC Media Group.