Last Updated on July 30, 2013 by Jody Halsted
America’s road to freedom was molded in a region of Pennsylvania known as Valley Forge. The myth holds that this is where General von Steuben transformed a ragtag bunch of starving soldiers into a well-disciplined Continental Army despite miserable living conditions and an appalling death toll.
But is that really what happened? To better understand this history, my 13-year-old son Alex and I joined a group of journalists on a trolley tour of Valley Forge National Historical Park.
Muhlenberg Brigade Huts
Our first stop was at the Muhlenberg Brigade Huts, depicting a sample of the “log city” that once sheltered soldiers during the 1777-1778 Winter Encampment. A cluster of log cabins—one showing officer’s quarters, another the more common 14 X 16 foot structure that would have housed twelve soldiers—represent the 2,000-plus huts that once stood there.
We learned that soldiers began building the cabins upon arrival on December 19, 1777, but with a shortage of craftsmen, some took longer than others. It was a cold winter, but not necessarily freezing, and mud was as much a problem as snow.
When asked if the men were up to training, General Steuben was heard to affirm, “no European soldiers would put up with these conditions.”
How rough were conditions that winter? The men had shelter and food. They received rations of meat, whiskey or rum, and vinegar. On average, the men baked 13,000 loaves of bread a day, and they made a daily stew using whatever food they could scrounge up nearby.
Many arrived barefoot or with shoes falling apart. But getting them replaced was more of an organizational issue, rather than a lack of resources. Cobblers complained that if they had been given notice, they would’ve had shoes ready upon arrival.
The real killer—responsible for nearly two-thirds of the 2000 deaths that took place during the warmer months of March, April, and May-
And even the impact of the prevalent influenza, typhus, typhoid, and dysentery was held somewhat in check by medical staff and camp sanitation regulations.
Before returning to our trolley, we were given a glimpse into the daily life of the foot soldier by a man in period costume who also treated us to a demonstration of the proper loading and discharging of a bayonet.
Our second drop off point was at the Isaac Potts House, the home that George Washington rented for 100 pounds to use as his base of operations during the Winter Encampment.
As many as 25 people, all part of Washington’s military personnel, and including Martha Washington lived in this small house. Missing now is a log cabin that was later added to accommodate the crowd.
Here we roamed on our own as the cramped colonial home was not conducive to tour narration.
No matter. The mix of period artifacts and reproductions told the story of the war strategizing that took place while Washington’s army awaited the return to battle.
Washington’s Headquarters may have been crowded, but they were far from humble. And certainly not miserable. This was a comfortable and well-chosen location, close enough to Philadelphia to keep an eye on the occupying British forces and yet far enough to regroup and plot future victories.
The American Continental Army may have been tested that long winter, but conditions were not nearly as harrowing as we are often told. And by the time the Winter Encampment was at an end, those soldiers emerged prepared to win the war.
Plan a Visit to Valley Forge
The 90-minute tour leaves from the Visitors Center. If you have the time, plan to watch the 18-minute introductory video. And if traveling with young kids, do pick up the Junior Ranger Activity Book. Kids who share their answers with park staff will receive the official Junior Ranger Badge.
National Park admission is free. Trolley Tour tickets may be purchased at the Visitor Center’s Encampment Store; $16.50 Adults, $13.50 Students, and $8.50 for Children (11 & Under,) Seniors, and Active Military. For more information and to reserve tickets in advance, call 610-783-1074.
Other things to do at Valley Forge include:
- Check the events calendar for special workshops and scheduled Ranger-led Walking Tours.
- Cell Phone Tour available 24/7 in both English and Spanish. Download the free tour directory, or pick one up at the Visitor Center.
- Rent bikes via ValleyForgeBikes.com to explore the 5.5-mile paved historic loop and/or the Schuylkill River Trail, which provides nearly 100 miles of converted railroad beds.
- Purchase a 60-minute CD for a self-guided driving tour of the park that includes all major stops along the 10-mile Encampment Tour.
- For more ideas on what to do, as well as restaurant and hotel recommendations, see the GetawayMavens.com article on Valley Forge.
Photo Credits: Sandra Foyt
Sandra would like to extend a great big thank you to Visit Philly for arranging this day trip from Philadelphia!