Valley Forge cannons

Although Independence was Declared in Philadelphia, the
Route to Freedom Passed through nearby Valley Forge

Dan Leeth

            On July 4, 1776, delegates from 13 British colonies approved a document unlike any the world had ever before seen.  They declared independence from their mother country.

            The former colonists soon found that proclaiming freedom was one thing.  Winning it was quite another.

            Seventeen months after the Declaration of Independence, a ragtag army followed General George Washington into the rolling hills 20 miles west of Philadelphia.  The 12,000 soldiers, many of whom were barefoot and blanketless, camped for the winter near the remains of the ironworks known as Valley Forge.  Through frigid adversity, men were hardened and leaders shaped.  By the time the army left the following June, an effective fighting force had been molded.

            The grounds have been preserved as Valley Forge National Historical Park.  In what is now a 3,600-acre enclave of grassy slopes and gladed hillsides, Washington found an ideal place to keep tabs on the British, who had just captured Philadelphia.

            The location appeared easily defensible.  The Schuylkill River provided a barrier to the north, Valley Creek cut a gorge to the west, and open farmland provided extended views to the south and east.  Attacking redcoats would face a rude swim, climb or artillery barrage.

            Today's Welcome Center offers a more hospitable greeting.  Inside the renovated structure, visitors can wander around freestanding storyboards displaying explanations and artifacts.

            "It's a broad based collection that tells about who was here and how they lived," says Park Service representative Deidre Gibson.

            The Welcome Center's gift shop sells narrated cassette tapes and CDs for independent auto tours.  The first stop is the Muhlenberg Brigade along the outer defensive line.

            HutsA series of log huts, replicas of those housing the Virginia regiments of General Peter Muhlenberg, stand beside the one-way road.  Here, on summer days and warm-weather weekends, rangers and reenactment volunteers try to explain the horrors faced during the early winter when half-naked men huddled around campfires to survive.

            "The unfortunate soldiers were in want of everything," wrote General Lafayette.  "They had neither coats, nor hats, nor shirts, nor shoes.  Their feet froze until they were black, and it was often necessary to amputate them."

            Constructing cabins to protect the troops was one of Washington's first priorities.  Each was to be 14 feet wide, 16 feet long and held bunks to house a dozen soldiers.  They were built from logs, chinked with clay and heated with a back-wall fireplace.

            "There was a park ranger last winter who did an experiment," says Linda Riley of the Valley Forge Convention and Visitors Bureau.  "He stayed several days in a hut and said it actually got quite warm inside."Huts

            Although each soldier was to be fed over a pound of beef daily, finances were short and supply lines ineffectively managed.  Some of the men supplemented their rations by eating squirrels, rabbits, opossums and raccoons.

            With bathing nearly impossible, lice infestations became commonplace.  Sanitation guidelines were ignored, drinking water became polluted, and disease ran rampant. 

            Before the seven month encampment ended, 2,000-3,000 soldiers perished from typhoid, influenza, typhus and dysentery.  When one soldier died, his blankets and britches were often taken by another, aiding the spread of communicable ailments.

            "Every individual here could have left," explains Gibson.  "Most of the enlistments were up around Christmas, but they decided to stay.  These were people who really believed it was worth fighting what must have seemed like an impossible battle."

            On the trailThe Park's Multi-Use trail lies nearby.  Popular with local residents, the paved pathway provides a place for joggers, walkers and stroller-pushing mothers to enjoy a wide open sky.

            "This is the largest open space in southeastern Pennsylvania," says outdoor guide Jake Markezin.  "People are amazed that you can come from urban Philadelphia and all of a sudden be in an area where it's all countryside."

            The trail follows the roadway to the National Memorial Arch, which straddles the point of the army's entry into Valley Forge.  Designed by Paul Philippe Cret, the glistening white monument was modeled after the Arch of Titus in Rome.

            ArchTwo eagle-capped pillars, the Pennsylvania Columns, rise beyond, marking the encampment line of Brigadier General Anthony Wayne's soldiers.  The area behind is known as Wayne's Woods.

            Six inches under the surface of Valley Forge lies the entire record of the temporary city, from hut holes and hearths to military roads and trash dumps.  It's here that archeologists verified how the brigades were laid out.

            Defensive earth works capped the crest of the hill looking toward Philadelphia.  Immediately behind were the huts of low-ranking enlisted men.  The higher in rank one got, the farther back they slept.  In the very rear was the cooking area, its remote location ensuring that food could be protected from pillaging soldiers.

            Senior generals billeted in private homes, but unlike the British who simply commandeered structures, Washington insisted on renting them.  The two-story house he leased stands along the rippling water of Valley Creek.Washington HQ

            Cognizant of his soldiers' suffering, Washington at first slept in a tent.  He moved into the home only after his men had time to complete their huts.  Soon after, Martha joined her husband at the encampment.

            The stone structure that became his headquarters is about the size of a modest townhouse.  Docents say the structure is 80-85 percent original, including much of the indoor woodwork.

            "I always tell the school kids, if you rub the bannister and study real hard, you'll do well on your next history exam," says costumed volunteer Christina Cassidy.  "But if you don't study, the magic doesn't work."

            The home's ground-floor rooms served as offices, and a pair of bedrooms upstairs provided sleeping quarters for Washington and his aides.  In this "Pentagon" of its day, the general worked to get his troops properly supplied.  He wrote Congress that "unless some great and capital change suddenly takes place" the army would either "starve, dissolve or disperse."

            Washington HQ"Washington was well aware that he was on the edge of the abyss with this army," Gibson explains.  "One of the basic reasons the troops stayed was because of his leadership."

            The tour route turns up Inner Line Drive.  If the British had overrun the outer line, defenses here would provide a fallback.  The hills now sprout forest, but during the encampment, this landscape looked worse than a Forest Service clear-cut.  All standing trees were either hewn for huts or felled for firewood.

            Ahead lies Artillery Park, where rows of muzzles point silently outward.  Since the army lacked enough armament to cover all positions, Washington had cannons stored in this central location from where they could be hauled to skirmishes as needed.

            Valley Forge was never attacked, and the guns were never fired here in anger.  They were, however, ignited on May 6, 1778, to celebrate the signing of the French Alliance, an agreement which provided the new nation with a source of equipment, funds and sea power.

            The revelry took place in a broad flatland known as the Grand Parade.  It was on these same grassy grounds that an out-of-work Prussian mercenary named Friedrich Wilhelm Baron von Steuben forged a disciplined American fighting force.Washington HQ

            The Continental Army was an amalgamation of state militias, each of which had their own way of organizing, marching and maneuvering.  Washington assigned von Steuben the chore of training the men in uniform military tactics.  Attacking the task with gusto, the Baron wrote plans by night and drilled by day.  While the Americans never lacked a willingness to fight, von Steuben taught them to do it effectively.

            "They said the men liked to get him riled because he was short tempered and often spewed out profanities," docent Frances LaPenna says with a smile.  "But they admired him.  He would get right into the field and show them what to do."

            Washington Memorial ChapelAcross from the Grand Parade stands Washington Memorial Chapel, a working Episcopal church built in the early 1900s.  One of its stained-glass windows offers 36 scenes from the general's life, and its walls are festooned with regimental insignias, colonial flags, state seals and carved soldiers.  This blending of patriotism and religion serves as a reminder that the freedom of worship is a fundamental American ideal.  It was won through the suffering and determination manifested on these hills.

            "I hope people leave Valley Forge feeling inspired," says Gibson, "And I hope they leave asking themselves what they're willing to sacrifice for an idea."