Skilled and Capable
Ask someone to think of Valley Forge and they will nearly always envision an anonymous group of soldiers struggling against winter's fury and clothed in nothing but rags. Certainly hardship did occur at Valley Forge, but the encampment experience could be characterized as "suffering as usual," for privation was the Continental soldier's constant companion. The reason many Americans picture Valley Forge as the pinnacle of misery is that this early and romanticized version of the encampment story became an important parable to teach us about American perseverance. The portrayal of starving troops, however, has kept us from getting to know the people of the Continental Armywho they were, why they joined the army, and what they accomplished at Valley Forge.
To better understand and appreciate what happened at Valley Forge it is helpful to know how the encampment fits into the context of the American Revolution (1775-1783). In 1777 British strategy included a plan to capture Philadelphia, the patriot capital. To accomplish this, the British commander in chief, Sir William Howe, landed nearly 17,000 of His Majesty's finest troops at the head of Chesapeake Bay. To oppose them. Gen. George Washington marched his 12,000-man army from New Jersey.
People often picture the Continental Army of 1777 as a ragtag bunch of inexperienced fighters. But Washington's men fought with skill and were often on the offensive while campaigning against superior numbers of professional soldiers. Although they lost two key battles, as well as Philadelphia, to the British, Washington's soldiers emerged from these experiences with a renewed confidence in their fighting abilities. They only needed a little more training to reach their full potential.
As wintry weather approached, armies often withdrew to fixed camps. Transportation problems made large-scale winter operations infeasible. In choosing a site for quarters, Washington had to balance the Continental Congress's wish for some type of winter campaign aimed at dislodging the British from the capital against the needs of his weary and poorly supplied army. By mid-December he had decided to encamp at Valley Forge. From this location, 20 miles northwest of Philadelphia, the army was close enough to maintain pressure on the British yet far enough away to prevent a surprise attack.
While the soldiers who entered camp on December 19, 1777, were not well-supplied, they were not downtrodden. This is attested to by an anonymous observer who recounted his visit to Valley Forge in the New Jersey Gazette on December 25:
"I have just returned from spending a few days with the army. I found them employed in building little huts for their winter quarters. It was natural to expect that they wished for more comfortable accommodations, after the hardships of a most severe campaign; but I could discover nothing like a sigh of discontent at their situation.... On the contrary, my ears were agreeably struck every evening, in riding through the camp, with a variety of military and patriotic songs and every countenance I saw, wore the appearance of cheerfulness or satisfaction."
Army records and eyewitness accounts speak of a skilled and capable force in charge of its own destiny. Rather than wait for deliverance, the army located supplies, built log cabins to stay in, constructed makeshift clothing and gear, and cooked subsistence meals of their own concoction. Provisions, though never abundant in the early months of the encampment, were available. Shortages of clothing did cause severe hardship for a number of men, but many soldiers had a full uniform, and the well-equipped units patrolled, foraged, and defended the camp.
The sound that would have reached your ears on approaching the camp was not that of a forlorn howling wind, but rather that of hammers, axes, saws, and shovels at work. Under the direction of military engineers, the men built a city of 2,000-odd huts laid out in parallel lines along planned military avenues. The troops also constructed miles of trenches, five earthen forts (redoubts), and a state-of-the-art bridge over the Schuylkill River.
Disease, not cold or starvation, was the true scourge of the camp. Army returns (reports) reveal that two-thirds of the nearly 2,000 men who perished died during the warmer months of March, April, and May, when supplies were more abundant. The most common killers were influenza, typhus, typhoid, and dysentery. Dedicated surgeons, capable nurses, a smallpox inoculation program, and camp sanitation regulations limited the death tolls.
Perhaps the most important outcome of the encampment was the army's maturation into a more professional force. The Continental Army was primed and ready to move on to the next level just as a charismatic former Prussian army officer. Baron Friedrich Wilhelm Augustus von Steuben, arrived in camp in February 1778. Von Steuben's hands-on training program helped the army become a more proficient marching machine. The Baron inspired a "relish for the trade of soldiering" that gave the troops a new sense of purpose and helped sustain them through many trials as they stuck to the task of securing independence.
On May 6, 1778, the army joyously celebrated France's alliance with and formal recognition of the United States as a sovereign power. The expected arrival of the French greatly altered British war plans and triggered their evacuation of Philadelphia in June. Washington rapidly set troops in motion to bring on a general engagement with the enemy. On June 28, at the Battle of Monmouth, N.J., Washington's men demonstrated their improved battle prowess when they forced the British from the field. By summer Washington could claim that the war effort was going well. Valley Forge was not the darkest hour of the Revolutionary War; it is a place where an already accomplished group of professionals stood their ground, honed their craft, and thwarted one of the major British offensives of the war.
By the end of 1776 a series of reverses made it apparent that an army based on the militia-type system of short enlistments could not compete against the British. In order to put the army on firmer footing, the Continental Congress allowed General Washington to recruit soldiers for three years or the duration of the war beginning in 1777. In return for such arduous service Congress offered land bounties and monetary bonuses. The men who answered this call formed the bulk of a standing army that fought for the rest of the war and represented a large slice of Revolutionary War society.
The troops who came to camp included men from all 13 original states and regiments from all except South Carolina and Georgia. The encampment brought together men, women, and children of nearly all ages, from all walks of life, from different ethnic backgrounds, and from various religions. While statistically most were of English descent, the ranks also included persons of African, American Indian, Austrian, Dutch, French, German, Irish, Italian, Polish, Portuguese, Prussian, Scottish, Spanish, and Swedish descent.
Motivation for enlistment varied, but many who joined in the fight sought to secure their own blessings of liberty while fighting to gain their country's independence from Britain. Many recent European arrivals sought fortune and honor by enlisting in the regiments of the middle states they now called home. In fact, two-thirds of the troops from Pennsylvania were foreign-born. Women followed the army to be with their husbands and contribute to the cause. Women present at Valley Forge included hundreds of enlisted men's wives who followed the army year-round and some general officers' wives on extended visits. The army compensated full-time women followers for rendering valuable services like sewing, laundering, and nursing.
Promises of freedom motivated thousands of enslaved African Americans to join Continental and British forces. In the Continental Army, bound individuals yearning for liberty and wages served alongside freemen in search of a better life. Continental regiments were integrated and most included patriots of African descent. In order to preserve their culture and prevent encroachment upon their rich western domain, most American Indians sided with the British. Political, religious, and personal ties, however, led some tribes to support the patriots. Hundreds of Indians enlisted in the Continental Army and many others engaged as scouts in specialized units. One of the most notable contributions came from the Oneida, who sent aid and a contingent of warriors to Valley Forge. Roman Catholics and Jews, though representing a small portion of the Revolutionary War era population, aggressively supported the patriot cause out of a desire to defend both homeland and religious freedom. The successful conclusion of the Revolution marked only the beginning of the struggle for some individuals for personal liberty. As the sound of combat grew fainter, the battle for individual rights began.
Exploring Valley Forge
The name Valley Forge comes from the iron forge built along Valley Creek in the 1740s. By the time of the American Revolution, a sawmill and gristmill had been added, making this place an important American supply base. The British burned the forge and other buildings shortly before the Continental Army arrived.
The park offers programs, tours, and activities to help you understand the significance of the events associated with the 1777-78 encampment and with the park's natural history. Exhibits and artifacts show what life was like during that difficult winter. For details visit www.nps.gov/vafo.
Accessibility The visitor center, exhibits, restrooms, most walkways, and picnic areas are wheelchair-accessible. Service animals are welcome.
Lodging, Food, and Other Attractions Ask at the visitor center about these services and other attractions in the Valley Forge area.
Self-guiding Tour A self-guiding tour route takes you to the remains and replicas of forts and lines of earthworks, Artillery Park, Washington's Headquarters, and the Grand Parade, where General von Steuben trained the army. Memorials, monuments, and reconstructed huts tell the stories of the people who helped write an enduring chapter in the history of America's struggle for independence.
Many nearby farmhouses became officers' quarters. Political feelings in the area were divided; most residents wanted to be free from the conflict, but the Valley Forge occupation brought the war home. Some quarters still stand, although altered over the years; some are on the tour. You can see traces of historic roads and the site of Sullivan's Bridge, a temporary structure based on a Roman design and built early in the encampment to link Washington's army with northern supply and patrol areas. A flood washed out Sullivan's Bridge shortly after the army abandoned camp. A marker on River Trail, accessible from the north side of Schuylkill River, notes the bridge's location.
Walking Tours Ranger-led tours (free) exploring historic stories and sites start at the visitor center and Valley Forge Station. Offered seasonally.
Trolley Tours Guided tours (fee) explore significant areas. The Encampment Store at the visitor center offers guide services seasonally.
Cell Phone Tour Look for the cell phone tour icons. Call 484-396-1018 for the prompts (free).
Picnicking The picnic areas at Varnum's, Wayne's Woods, and Betzwood are first-come, first-served; no reservations taken. Open fires are prohibited, but Betzwood provides grills for charcoal fires.
Safety and Regulations Remember, your safety is your responsibility. • Camping is not allowed. • Use of skates, skateboards, and in-line skates is prohibited. • Mountain bikes are restricted to marked trails and park roads. Cross-country use through fields and wooded areas is prohibited. • Do not picnic or engage in recreational activity near historic sites and buildings. • Park vehicles in designated areas. • Pets must be leashed and attended. • For firearms and other regulations check the park website. • All plants, animals, and natural or cultural features are protected by federal law. Emergencies call 911.
Source: NPS Brochure (2012)
Brochures ◆ Site Bulletins ◆ Trading Cards
A Demographic Survey of the Continental Army that Wintered at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, 1777-1778 (Harold E. Selesky, 1987)
Administrative History, Valley Forge National Historical Park, Pennsylvania (Harland D. Unrau, 1985)
An Approach to Quantifying Desired Forest Conditions at Valley Forge National Historical Park NPS Natural Resource Technical Report NPS/NER/NRTR-2007/082 (Ery Largay and Lesley A. Sneddon, March 2007)
An Evaluation of Existing Vegetation Data and Data Gaps Leading to Inventories and Forest Management Recommendations at Mount Joy and Mount Misery at Valley Forge National Historical Park NPS Natural Resource Technical Report NPS/NER/NRTR—2013/670 (Marc D. Abrams and Sarah E. Johnson, January 2013)
Assessing the Genetic Distinctiveness of Cambarus (Puncticambarus) acuminatus: A Recently Discovered Crayfish in Valley Creek within Valley Forge National Historical Park NPS Natural Resource Technical Report NPS/VAFO/NRTR—2013/752 (James W. Fetzner Jr. and Keith A Crandall, May 2013)
Breeding Bird Monitoring: Mid-Atlantic Network 2009 Annual Report NPS Natural Resource Data Series NPS/MIDN/NRDS—2011/142 (Sarah E. Goodwin and Sarah M. Wakamiya, February 2011)
Crayfish Survey and Discovery of a Member of the Cambarus acuminatus complex (Decapoda: Cambaridae) at Valley Forge National Historical Park in Southeastern Pennsylvania NPS Natural Resource Technical Report NPS/NER/NRTR-2007/084 (David A. Lieb, Robert F. Carline and V. Malissa Mengel, June 2007)
Cultural & Interpretive Landscape Treatment Plan, (Phases 1 and 2), Valley Forge National Historical Park (Heritage Landcapes LLC, July 2011)
Desired Condition of Grasslands and Meadows in Valley Forge National Historical Park NPS Natural Resource Technical Report NPS/NER/VAFO/NRTR—2012/636 (Roger Latham, October 2012)
Documentation of Historic Structures at "FATLANDS FARM" and "WALNUT HILL" (Mark Frazier Lloyd, 1985)
Geologic Resources Inventory Report, Valley Forge National Historical Park NPS Natural Resource Report NPS/NRPC/GRD/NRR-2010/236 (T.L. Thornberry-Ehrlich, September 2010)
Historic Furnishings Plan: General Washington's Headquarters (Anne Woodward, 1976)
Historic Furnishings Report: Washington's Headquarters, Valley Forge National Historic Park (Katherine B. Menz, 1989)
Historic Structure Report: Maurice Stephens House (Site of Huntington's Quarters), Valley Forge National Historic Park (John A. Scott and Sharon K. Ofenstein, February 2008)
Historic Structure Report: Stirling's Quarters at Valley Forge National Historical Park (John Milner Architects, Inc., January 2006)
Historical and Topographical Guide to Valley Forge (W. Herbert Burk, 1912)
Historical Report, Valley Forge National Historical Park (Roy Edgar Appleman, 1935)
History of the Centennial and Memorial Association of Valley Forge (H.J. Stager, June 19, 1911)
Hydrogeology and ground-water quality of Valley Forge National Historical Park, Montgomery County, Pennsylvania USGS Water-Resources Investigations Report 96-4120 (Ronald A. Sloto and B. Craig McManus, 1996)
Impacts of Visitor Spending on the Local Economy: Valley Forge National Historical Park, 2001 (Daniel J. Stynes and Ya-Yen Sun, May 2003)
Metals, pesticides, and semivolatile organic compounds in sediment in Valley Forge National Historical Park, Montgomery County, Pennsylvania USGS Water-Resources Investigations Report 97-4120 (Andrew G. Reif and Ronald A. Sloto, 1997)
National Register of Historic Places Nomination Forms
General Frederick William Augustus von Steuben's Headquarters (Charles W. Snell, March 6, 1972)
Valley Forge National Historical Park (undated)
Valley Forge State Park (Richard Greenwood, November 5, 1974)
Washington's Headquarters (Isaac Potts House) (Charles W. Snell, March 2, 1972)
Natural Resource Condition Assessment, Valley Forge National Historical Park NPS Natural Resource Report NPS/VAFO/NRR-2013/737 (Lysle S. Sherwin, Kristen Brubaker, Peter Sharpe, Justin Kozak, Melissa May, Aubrey Lashaway, Kevin Jensen and Katherine L. Gordon, November 2013)
On the Trail of an Important Ice Age Fossil Deposit: Rediscovering the Port Kennedy Cave (Middle Pleistocene), Valley Forge National Historical Park, Montgomery County, Pennsylvania (Edward B. Daeschler, Matthew C. Lamanna and Margaret Carfioli, extract from Park Science, Vol. 23 No. 2, Fall 2005)
On the Trail of an Important Ice-Age Fossil Deposit: Rediscovering the Port Kennedy Cave (Middle Pleistocene: Irvingtonian), Valley Forge National Historical Park, Montgomery County, Pennsylvania (Edward B. Daeschler and Matthew C. Lamanna, December 30, 2003)
Preventing Lyme Disease (2010)
Qualitative Evaluation of the Effects of Changing Watershed Land Uses on the Hydrology, Channel Morphology and Historical Uses of Valley Creek, Valley Forge National Historical Park, Pennsylvania NPS Technical Report NPS/NRWRD/NRTR-90/08 (William B. Reed, October 1990)
State of the Park Report, Valley Forge National Historical Park, Pennsylvania State of the Park Series No. 18 (2015)
Summary of Survey Findings, Valley Forge National Historical Park (Richard J. Lichtkoppler, March 27, 1991)
The System of Military Discipline and Justice in the Continental Army: August 1777 - June 1778 (Paul G. Atkinson, Jr., May 1972)
They Passed This Way: An account of the many long forgotten marches and fatigues of the Continental Army from the Battle of Brandywine to the winter encampment at Valley Forge presented to commemorate the 225th anniversary of this 1777 campaign that took place in Southeastern Pennsylvania (Marc A. Brier, September 2002)
Tolerably Comfortable: A Field Trial of a Recreated Soldier Cabin at Valley Forge (Marc A. Brier, August 1, 2004)
Training the Army (undated)
Valley Creek Discharge and Turbidity Data Report for Water Year 2010 NPS Natural Resource Data Series NPS/MIDN/NRDS—2011/211 (Nathan T. Dammeyer, December 2011)
Valley Forge: Making and Remaking a National Symbol (Lorett Treese, ©Pennsylvania State University Press, 1995)
Valley Forge, Proceedings on the Occasion of the Centennial Celebration of the Occupation of Valley Forge by the Continental Army, Under George Washington, June 19, 1878. Also, Dedication of Headquarters, June 19, 1879. With an appendix (1879)
Valley Forge Report Vol. I The Vortex of Small Fortunes: The Continental Army at Valley Forge, 1777-1778 (Wayne K. Bodle and Jacqueline Thibaut, May 1980)
Valley Forge Report Vol. II This Fatal Crisis: Logistics, Supply, and the Continental Army at Valley Forge, 1777-1778 (Wayne K. Bodle and Jacqueline Thibaut, May 1980)
Valley Forge Report Vol. III In the Rustic Order: Material Aspects of the Valley Forge Encampment, 1777-1778 (Wayne K. Bodle and Jacqueline Thibaut, May 1980)
Wetland Inventory and Mapping Report: Valley Forge National Historical Park NPS Natural Resource Technical Report NPS/MIDN/NRTR—2012/634 (Peter James Sharpe, Steven C. Smith, Angela M. Schreffler and Caitlin T. White, October 2012)
Handbooks ◆ Books
Last Updated: 02-Apr-2022