Monday, December 20, 2010

Marching into Valley Forge: 1777 (and 2010)

Monday, December 20, 2010
Susan reporting:

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.


Rowenna said...

Even with full uniforms--that would be *cold*! I remember reading letters from Valley Forge (Dr. Rush's in particular) and thinking how impressive it was that these men were probably quite cold and uncomfortable, yet reassuring to those back home that they were fine. Great Christmastime reminder!

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Rowenna, I agree - no matter how many layers nor how "hardy" those 18th c. men were, they must have felt it. Fires simply don't give off that much heat. The temperature was about twenty last night, and it was COLD.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful stirring post! Wish our modern squabbling Congress could show some of that E Pluribus spirit to get things done, too.

Theresa Bruno said...

Burr...I know I couldn't have done it. I complain when the heat is set at 67 degrees. I would have been the one griping the whole time.

Karenmc said...

I have an ancestor who wintered at Valley Forge (James Kelley, a sargeant from Virginia in Lafayette's Division). According to a book written by one of his grandsons, Kelley was thought to be lost to the bitter cold when he became separated from his patrol. Luckily, he found a hollow log to huddle in overnight!

When Washington's troops finally engaged the British, the good sargeant lost the tip of his nose to a British musket ball, but otherwise survived unscathed. I'm glad he did, considering that I might not exist had he not.

Anonymous said...

Being one of the interpreters who were out last night, it is good to see that people came out and were with us to comemorate these brave soldier's struggle to gain Independence. Being as cold as it was, one can only imagine this type of lifestyle day after day.

R.I.P. Over 2,000 soldiers that lost their lives at this Winter Encampment.

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Anonymous, thank you. You do have a point about Congress!

Theresa, I think most anyone in 18th c. Pennsylvania would have been overjoyed to have a room heated to 67degrees. *g*

Karenmc, thank you for sharing the story about your ancestor. I'm glad he survived both the hollow log and the British gunfire.

Anonymous interpreter, I'm so glad you posted. As I hope you can tell, I had a fantastic experience last night. I was also delighted by such a large turn-out on that cold night - very gratifying to see so much interest. Please share my thanks to all the interpreters and volunteers who made the event possible!

Anonymous said...

Suggested reading, "Birth Place of an Army", it author was Col. John B.B. Trussell.

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