For those of us who mostly slept through history class, you’re likely to have only a vague memory of Valley Forge. Being honest, I couldn’t even remember if it was a battle, or a refuge. Or, even that it was in Pennsylvania. Yikes, terrible right.
Luckily, we have an amazing National Park Service who can engage us so much more than any history book. On the surface, Valley Forge National Historical Park may look like just a large beautiful park. But, this great park is filled with some of our country’s most fascinating history.
For me, being there was the only way to bring it to life. I’m excited to share what I learned about the history of this amazing site. But, if you want to get straight to visiting Valley Forge National Park, feel free to use the table of contents to skip ahead.
Table of Contents
History Of Valley Forge In A Nutshell
Continental Army Marches To Valley Forge
By the third year of the Revolutionary war, the British had control of New York, and New Jersey. Then in 1777, the patriots lost two hard fought battles at Brandywine and Germantown, along with the capital at Philadelphia.
Washington and his 12,000 men, plus 400 women and children, marched into Valley Forge on December 19, 1777 to wait out the winter. Being just 18 miles northwest of Philadelphia, the location was a strategic decision. Washington was close enough to maintain pressure on the British, but far enough away to prevent a surprise attack on his own troops.
These six months at Valley Forge became an important crossroads in the Revolutionary War.
Life In The Valley Forge Encampment
Times were hard in the encampment, with shortages of provisions and clothing. However, the men worked tirelessly to improve their refuge. Procuring supplies, building 1,500 log cabins for shelter, making clothing, and cooking meals of subsistence. Valley Forge became the fourth largest city in the U.S. at the time.
Valley Forge was in a strong defensible location. Plus, the Continental Army built earthen redoubts, forts made of wood and earth, around the encampment to further protect themselves from attacks. The British never attacked the base as they felt it could not be attacked with any real success.
Though no battle ever took place at Valley Forge, nearly 2,000 men died of diseases such as influenza, typhus, typhoid, and dysentery. Nevertheless, the campaign managed to amass an army of nearly 20,000 men by late spring.
Washington Turns The Tide
During the encampment, Washington managed to strengthen his professional reputation with the help of loyal supporters.
- He lobbied Congress to resolve supply difficulties which plagued the army.
- And, attracted experienced officers. Notably Prussian officer, Baron von Steuben.
Recognizing the men needed training, but also acutely aware of their disdain for formal authority, Von Steuben took a demonstrative approach to training. Showing the men how discipline and training would improve their efforts for the cause. Not just telling them what to do.
Not only did this training bring confidence and efficiency to the army, they now worked as a more cohesive unit. Many today regard Valley Forge as the birthplace of the American army.
While all this was happening, one other major event took place during their time at Valley Forge. In the spring of 1778, the French formally recognized the United States as a sovereign power and an ally. This led to them helping with money, troops, and naval support, which ultimately helped win the war.
In June 1978, the British abandoned Philadelphia. Washington sent a small troop to take back control of the city. He sent the rest of his army to advance on the British. They met with the British in Monmouth, New Jersey. Showing off their new battle skills, they pushed back the British. This first battle after Valley Forge gave a much needed confidence boost to the Continental Army.
Getting Around Valley Forge
I started my visit at the Visitor Center. With a wealth of information, and a short video about the encampment, it was worth stopping.
From the Visitor Center you can rent a bike, join one of the park’s trolley tours, or do a self-guided driving tour. I choose to do the self-guided driving tour.
The tour route is about 10 miles with 9 major stops, including the Visitor Center. For our self-guided tour, I used the park’s free cell-phone tour. All you do is dial into 484-396-1018. It may cost you cell phone minutes depending on your plan.
Another option is to purchase the CD Audio Tour on the park’s website, or from the Encampment Store.
Muhlenberg Brigade Huts
The first stop on route was the Muhlenberg Brigade Huts. Each of these nine reconstructed log cabins served as a winter refuge for twelve soldiers in General Peter Muhlenberg’s encampment.
Typically in summer, and on weekends through the year, the park puts on a Living History display at the huts. Meet a Continental soldier, watch a weapons demonstration, and learn more about a day in the life of a soldier at the encampment.
In addition to the log cabins, there was also a reproduction field bake oven dug into a grassy mound.
To find Redoubt #2, walk behind the cabins, back towards the Visitor Center. Truthfully, I don’t find these hilly mounds very exciting, but they are part of the encampment’s history.
National Memorial Arch & Park Statues
One of prettiest spots in the park was around the United States National Memorial Arch. Designed by Paul Philippe Cret, this elegant structure commemorates the arrival of General George Washington and his Continental Army into Valley Forge.
Around the park there are various commemorative and memorial plagues and statues, including the larger than life General Wayne statue.
Washington's Headquarters and Train Station
You may be wondering why there’s a train station on the property. Obviously this wasn’t around in the days of George Washington.
Built in 1911 by the Reading Railroad, the Valley Forge Station was once used by visiting tourists. In 2009, the park repaired the building and opened it as a small museum. It’s definitely worth a short wander through. Plus, the building gives great views over the surrounding countryside and Washington’s residence.
Next door to the train station is the main reason to visit Valley Forge National Historical Park.
During George Washington‘s stay at Valley Forge between 1777-1778, he rented this house as his headquarters. With the exception of the detached kitchen, the house has original architectural details.
Inside the home, the park service recreated Washington’s private office, his bedroom, his aides room, and a guest room for visiting dignitaries.
Next, follow the path away from the train station, and around the back of Washington’s Headquarters. On the way back to the parking lot is a statue of George Washington, and the Commander in Chief’s Guard Huts.
Another grassy fortification is just before the Artillery Park. There’s a little wooden platform to look over the area.
Behind the parking lot is an entrance to the Mt. Joy walking trails.
It was strange to learn that most forts and earthworks were actually unarmed in the encampment. Instead, Artillery Park was where most cannons were kept. This allowed for more flexibility. Allowing quick placement of the cannons where needed.
Today, this spot features three lines of cannons in commemoration of the artillery held here at Valley Forge under General Knox.
Varnum’s Quarters, is another historical home in the park. This is where David Stephens and his family shared their four room house with Brigadier General James Mitchell Varnum and his staff. Gosh, can you imagine.
Today the park has the estate set up with period furniture and artifacts.
You’ll need to use the parking lot off of N. Inner Line Drive, then walk past the statue of General Friedrich von Stuben to find the house.
Washington Memorial Chapel
Our tour of Valley Forge concluded with a visit to Washington Memorial Chapel. Probably my favorite spot in the park. Built in 1903, this beautiful chapel serves as a tribute to George Washington.
Inside the chapel, stunning stained glass illuminated the nave. Throughout the church, the intricate details were breathtaking. But it’s the icon held in the bell tower I’d like to tell you more about.
Displayed in the carillon rotunda of the National Patriots Tower was the Justice Bell. Not only is the bell a replica of the famous Liberty Bell, but it was a powerful symbol used to campaign for a women’s right to vote.
In 1915, this 2,000 pound bronze beauty traveled to every county in Pennsylvania. Its clapper chained to its side, symbolizing the silencing of women. Though Pennsylvania’s referendum failed to pass that fall, the Justice Bell became an icon of the movement around the country.
Finally in 1920, the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution passed, allowing women nationally to vote. It was only then that this large symbolic bell finally rung as part of the celebrations at Independence Square in Philadelphia.
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