Meandering Through History

… What a good tagline.

I had some real time off over the holidays, like real time and not Christmas Day and calling out  for a couple of days, which is something I totally would never do ever.  After a nice trip home for some of Mom’s annual Christmas treats, I still had a whole week left.  So, I found myself killing that awkward week between Christmas and New Year’s in Philadelphia.  On the surface, I was visiting a college friend.  But mostly –> Valley Forge at Christmastime.

When I told my sister I wanted to visit Valley Forge during the winter because of history reasons, she laughed at me.  Like, I hadn’t heard her laugh like that in a long time.  Whatever, sister, I’m still cool.

Ahem.  So Valley Forge.  This famed site is 30-45 minutes northwest of Philadelphia and it’s a really easy drive.  It was also unexpectedly cold, which added to the feel of the whole location.  The temperature was fine, but the wind was sharp.  I hadn’t realized Valley Forge was actually on top of a hill, which exposed it more to the wind.

2013-12-30 13.23.44This elite unit still exists  and guard the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington.  Mind=blown.

At the end of 1777, George Washington needed a place for his troops for winter.  He had recently lost the city of Philadelphia to the British and, as the city was serving as the capital of the colonies, the officials had to leave quickly and relocate to York, Penna.  Washington picked Valley Forge because of it’s prime location.  It was close enough to Philadelphia to prevent any sneak attacks from the British, and it was between the British and the rest of the Colony to prevent the British from raiding the Pennsylvania countryside.  The campsite was located on a plateau, which was surrounded on two sides by rivers.  When fortified with cannons and redoubts, it was defensively sound.

When the men arrived in late December, they were in rough shape.  According to legend, 1 in 3 men had shoes, jackets, and adequate food.  Pennsylvania winters are wet and soggy, so I can imagine they were pretty miserable.  Once they arrived, all the men had to build shelters.  To speed this process along, Washington had a contest and the first shelter built in each unit would receive a prize, a whole $10 from his own pocket.  The first shelter was up within the week.  And then it was time for winter.

In fact they were there from December 1777 to June 1778.  That isn’t exactly my definition of winter, but the time was necessary.  The time between December and February were the really rough months.  The army totally denuded the area of trees and were eventually going upwards of 5 miles out just for firewood and fresh beef.  I can’t imagine what the people thought about feeding this mismatched rebel army through the winter.  How much would a farmer have in his stores to be able to donate towards supporting an army and still have something left over until spring and have enough to sell to make some sort of profit to buy food because the army took all of his?

At one point in this, Washington appointed Nathanael Greene to be Quartermaster General because the current quartermaster just wasn’t doing it.  General Greene was much more capable and supplies became more regular.  Without looking it up (because I’m suddenly lazy), I would surmise this took place in February because there was food by March.

Painted by Charles Wilson Peale.  I love me some Peale.

Also in February, Baron von Steuben appeared at camp, offering to work for no pay and clutching a personal letter of introduction from none other than Benjamin Franklin.  I love Benjamin Franklin.  He was kind of a peculiar, lecherous old creeper, but he had this 6th sense about a person’s promise that was practically magic.  I mean, the Marquis de Lafayette anyone?? (Side note: thesis on parallels between Lafayette’s and Chamberlain’s lives?) Back to topic – one could claim that Baron von Steuben made the Continental army.  Sure they had fought together for a couple of years, but he came in and taught them discipline.  He drilled them, and drilled them, and drilled them some more.  They had survived the worst of the winter and now he was giving them unit cohesion.  And the best part of this was that he didn’t speak English.  He no habla Englais.  I can imagine a stocky angry Prussian yelling expletives at a poor private who can’t get his form right, and no one understanding him.  He had two main interpreters: the first name I don’t recall but the second one was Alexander Hamilton. (See, even here he was going places.)

I believe I have glossed over the important historical parts: von Steuben, winter misery, location.  Cool.  Moving on to the travel part of this historical travelogue of a blog.

When we arrived at the visitor’s center, one of the park rangers recommended a video in the adjacent building which, he said, gave a good introduction to the site.  The adjacent building used to be a barn or a church for the seats were all pews.  On reflex I actually tried to hook my ankle around a nonexistent kneeler and it took a lot of effort to not genuflect upon leaving.  Brainwashing=complete.  The video itself was meh.  It had all the information I gave above, but I had already known all that by reading wikipedia the night before.  And the actors in the video – their fingernails weren’t ragged enough.  (Curse you Robert Lee Hodge!)  More on farbishness later.  Indeed, I was filled with trepidation that the rest of the site would be equally … underwhelming.

We opted for the driving tour, mostly because it was cold.  Our first stop along the driving tour was a recreation of the huts made by the Continental army.  There were maybe a half dozen built along a road, but in reality hundreds had been built.  Each cabin held 12 men, and when they arrived at camp there were something like six thousand men so if you do the math … that’s a lot of cabins.  Now these cabins were all built to the specifications laid out by Washington himself.  They were fairly uniform in size and construction.  But the army took his specifications as more like guidelines and built whatever they could as fast as they could to protect themselves from the elements.

2013-12-30 12.05.07The Continental Army wuz here.

There was a conspicuous mound off to the side, which was the baker’s oven.  I’m not sure if there was one baker for the whole camp or if there were a few, but after February (after Nathanael Greene became Quartermaster) there was enough fresh bread for the army ever day.  That’s … a lot of bread.

2013-12-30 11.35.53No buns in the oven here.

Inside one of the cabins were two living historians.  I’m not sure what purpose the woman served because she didn’t speak the whole time we were there, but the man was very friendly and informative.  First off, my friend commented that the shingles were cut by a 1950’s era sawmill because of the char marks we could see.  Yes, they were.  Actually the cabin reproductions were built to last, so the logs were chinked with wire mesh and cement instead of mud.  I noticed the doors were hung on shiny aluminum pegs as well.  I doubt most people would have noticed the cement-instead-of-mud so I suppose that’s fine.

The man talked about all sorts of things, from food to clothing to camp duties.  We observed, because he told us to, how he might be dressed like a Continental Soldier but he was a poor substitute for one.  He was too fat and had a beard, although the rules about being clean shaven might have been eased a little during the winter.  Then again, General Washington knew what he expected, so maybe not.  Anyway, this guy certainly knew his stuff, almost down to the thread count of their pants.  He talked about the alternatives to shoes the guys made, which served in a pinch but were no substitute for real shoes.  There was some discussion of weaponry, obtaining provisions, and latrines.   All of this was very interesting.  Little of it I remember.  (I have to start writing stuff down sooner …. )  We stayed for a while but had to pull ourselves away or we would have been there all day.  College Friend has a wonderful sense of curiosity but we didn’t want to impede on others’ learning experiences.

2013-12-30 11.44.50Totally farby, totally friendly.

From there, the next stop, I believe, was the statue of Mad Anthony Wayne.  It was a generic statue of a guy on a horse.  This statue was positioned so that he was looking off towards the distance of where he used to live, when he was a flesh-and-blood figure.  There was some discussion of whether he had acquired the appellation “Mad” from an irascible temper or because he actually was just a little bit crazy.  Teh intrawebs confirm it is because he had an irascible temper in battle but he was quite sane otherwise.

The Penna countryside was beautiful to look at, even if it was cold and the wind cut like a hot knife through  butter.  There were some other statues, a giant memorial stone gate, and several bust reliefs of figures, but we didn’t get out to investigate further because it was cold.

2013-12-30 12.20.41The plaque says “Lead Me Forward”.

One of the last stops was the General’s headquarters, which was a collection of buildings spread over several acres.  The first building was once an old train station that had been turned into a little mini visitor’s center, with some displays, videos, and a welcoming docent who was probably about 200 years old.  The displays had about the same information as the first site, talking about winter quarters, Baron von Steuben, and when Mrs. Washington came to visit.  There was some more information on Washington’s aides, how they copied memos all day to send to various subordinates throughout the camp and/or to the Congress in York.  One of his favorite aides was, I believe Tench Tilghman, who had distinctive handwriting.   Roughly 30-50% of correspondence from General Washington was in this aide’s handwriting.  I hope it was Tilghman.  He seems pretty cool.

What wasn’t cool were some of the backdrops to the displays.  They were photographs of reenactors.  But the reenactors were all too fat to be authentic and just because the designer slaps an oil-paint-crackle filter over the image does not make it “historical”.  The horses were too fat, too.  BUT I am not advocating for the starvation of horses, I’m just thinking my eye for this is too sensitive.  Oh, the videos showing people dressed up like Washington actually moving around and sitting down and writing things were just tacky.  #imho.

2013-12-30 12.45.16My first thought: they’re taking pictures with their phones.

These things were actually distracting enough that I didn’t pay much attention to the other displays.  One display looked interesting: it was about Mrs. Washington’s visit to the winter quarters, and about three favorite slaves/servants, one of whom was an Irishwoman.  This I noticed because Irish.

Outside was a wayside stand describing the one British raid on the winter camp, which resulted in the loss of about 170 head of cattle for the Continentals.  The illustrations showed British soldiers in floofy hats.  At first they looked like the Dragoons from The Patriot film, but were actually Grenadiers of some sort.  I’m not sure what the story behind them is, but they looked like an interesting unit.

Down the path a little ways was the house where Washington lived for the winter.  Each room had been stuffed with at least 3 beds, and the NPS had arranged shoes, blouses, leather bags, and weaponry around to make the house look inhabited.  This made me wonder if military discipline for cleanliness existed yet or if some of Washington’s aides were total slobs and would have left a pile of linen and shoes to deal with later.  Actually, I don’t think Washington would have tolerated that.  It’s a good thing he doesn’t live with me.  The bed in Washington’s room looked too short to hold him, so I wonder if he slept on the diagonal.  But then where would Mrs. W sleep when she came to visit?  Maybe his feet hung over the end?  These are the important questions we should be asking ourselves.

2013-12-30 13.08.16There’s no way that’s long enough for a 6’4 man.  No way.

On the stairs leading up to the attic, there was an account of one of his aides, being relegated to the attic room, would hit his head on the sloped ceiling every morning.  I think the solution was to either trade beds or rearrange the room, but it’s nice to know they’re delightfully human.

Outside the house was looked like a former stables or forge and it talked about the history of the area.  Valley Forge got it’s name from it’s location between Mount Misery and Mount Joy (I’m not making that up), and the iron forge powered by Valley Creek that ran through the area.  Originally the land was granted to a daughter of William Penn and was later sold and divided.  The last portion sold off became known as the “Mount Joy Forge”, but was soon colloquially known as Valley Forge, and it had a whole ironworks business that supplied for the Continental army when the war started.  A few months before Washington arrived, the British burnt the forge to the ground.  The whole history of the area is pretty interesting and you have to get creative with search terms to find information not related to Washington’s camp, but a brief overview are here and here [pdf] and here [pdf].

2013-12-30 13.11.37I’m like the Valley Creek … meandering through history.

The path through the rest of the property took a sharp left turn at a recent statue of Washington leaning on a fasces, erected by the DAR.  Beyond George were some more cabin recreations.  By then we were freezing so we went back to the car and back to the main visitor’s center to explore the exhibits there some more.

They had the whole timeline of the Revolutionary War laid out, from all the taxation without representation stuff to the creation of the Constitution.  One thing that isn’t taught very well – the Constitution of the United States of America came into creation something like 15 years after the Declaration of Independence.  I believe I had a previous mini-rant about how history is taught in points and not timelines, and this is a prime example.  I’m pretty sure most people think those documents came at the same time.  The timeline was illustrated by Don Troiani.  While his Civil War stuff isn’t necessarily my favorite, his Revolutionary stuff is pretty decent.  I think it’s the atmosphere and the images I have in my head.

The displays were okay.  I think they provided a good overview of many themes happening at the time.  One personal pet peeve of mine is projecting our current issues/sensibilities on previous eras, so there were a few lines that bothered me.  I think there was one line about “While Washington and his army fought for freedom from oppression, the fledgling nation still had a long ways to go re: race/sex/religion/equal rights.”  While this is certainly true, I’m not sure how we can project the modern notions of equal rights/freedom back 200 years when it was considered taboo for a woman to show her ankle or a man to not stand when a woman entered the room.  If we project backwards, then we would also have to project forwards – after all, we’re looking for things to be totally equal, right?  So we must expect men to stand for women upon entrance to a room and women must guard their modesty with covered ankles if we expect Washington to view blacks/Catholics/women in the same way we view them now.

</rant>  Yes, the displays.  I’m always slightly disappointed when I burn through the information too quickly, which means, basically, they don’t have enough information out there to satisfy me.  Or that I need to go read some more on my own.  And/or join a discussion group with other individuals.  I mean, they do a good job putting the basics out there so that’s something, I suppose.

2013-12-30 14.18.30
The best chart showing Washington’s army organization that I have seen.

Having finished with Valley Forge, there were still hours of daylight ahead, so we drove a half hour to Trenton, NJ, the site of the great surprise that caught Cornwallis with his pants down.  We found The Old Barracks, but didn’t have enough time left to buy a ticket so we poked around the gift shop and this room set up with some miniatures that was actually part of the ticketed show.  The lady behind the desk was nice and let us stay anyway.  At one point, a young man dressed in stockings and Continental gear passed through to get something.  I noticed his stockings were hand-knit.  On our way out, I tried peeking in the windows, but all the rooms had been converted into administrative offices.  Unless cubicle walls and black wheelie chairs were authentic Revolutionary era.

2013-12-30 16.22.55Pew! Pew!  I keeel you!

Thus, we drove back to Philly, passed Independence Hall, and finished a good ol’ American day with some really good Chinese food.

Valley Forge as an experience was not nearly as “touristy” as Mount Vernon was, which I greatly appreciated.  I think the living historian in the cabin really helped.  Perhaps I could have taken more from the visitor’s center or park rangers.  Maybe I’ll do that next time.  It was quite enjoyable, College Friend is a good compatriot for nerd things, and I’ll leave you with this observation about the significance of the location and events that transpired there:

If you think of a National Park location, you’ll think of a battlefield: Yorktown, Bull Run/Manassas, Gettysburg.  But no battle happened at Valley Forge, so why is it a National Historical Site?

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1 Comment

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One response to “Meandering Through History

  1. Susan

    Nice. Never would have thought of visiting such a place, but it does hold a prominent place in our American history, doesn’t it? Maybe that enough gives it its magic designation.

    Also, your characterization of Benjamin Franklin had me laughing out loud. Ah, history.

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