On a cold Sunday evening when most people were finishing up their Christmas shopping at the nearby mall, we took a different path. We headed off across the moonlit fields of Valley Forge National Historical Park, and followed the path of General George Washington and the Continental Army as they marched into their winter encampment on 19 December, 1777.
Valley Forge is one of those rare historical names that almost all Americans recognize, a landmark in our war for independence. Yet despite how often the "battle" of Valley Forge may be invoked by confused politicians, there was no battle fought here. Eighteenth century armies followed the seasons, and hostilities ceased during the winter months. In 1777-78, the majority of the English army spent the cold months in the captured city of Philadelphia. The Continental army wintered about twenty miles west of the city on farmland near Valley Forge, building fortifications and thousands of small log cabins for shelter.
Though there were hardships at the encampment, park interpreters stress that the legendary "bloody footsteps in the snow" are later embellishments. These 12,000 men were enlisted soldiers, not militia, and 18th c. soldiers expected conditions to be primitive and food to come from foraging. The Continental forces included men from the thirteen colonies as well as European mercenaries. Many were experienced veterans, not only from recent battles, but from earlier colonial wars against the French and Indians. They came prepared and equipped, and instead of the traditional image of soldiers shivering in rags, most of these men wore full uniforms, and contemporary reports speak of a camp that was industrious and optimistic.
The real enemy at Valley Forge wasn't the British army, but disease. Nearly 2,000 men died during the encampment, with the majority dying not in the harshest winter months, but later in March, April, and May. The killers were the same diseases that ravaged all groups of 18th c. people: influenza, typhus, typhoid, and dysentery.
Yet there's no denying the importance of what happened here. Under the leadership of Washington and a former Prussian army officer, Baron Friedrich von Steuben, the men drilled and trained and came together not as a group of soldiers, but as a disciplined, professional army with a single goal. From many, one: E Pluribus Unum, the dictum chosen later in 1782 by Congress for the new Seal of the United States.
In the season of celebrations and shopping and Santas, it's good to take time to remember the past as well as the present. Standing there under full moon beside the replica log cabins (and doing a bit of replica shivering, too), we thought of those soldiers, and what they'd accomplished against such odds. And there, under the stars, we were most thankful that they had.
Above: Photo from the Annual March-In Commemoration of the Continental Army, 12/19/2010, Valley Forge National Historical Park, Valley Forge, PA. For more information about the Park, visit their website.
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.