“Imagine part of the Continental Army arriving at this farmland after marching 300 to 500 miles through the Pennsylvania countryside. There’s snow on the ground, they’re half-naked, barefoot and starving, and they haven’t been paid in three months.”
That’s the way volunteer tour guide Randy Rice set the stage for my half-day tour of the Valley Forge National Historical Park.
A sunny summer day is a difficult time to establish the somber mood necessary for modern-day visitors to picture just how bad things were at Valley Forge during the legendary Revolutionary War encampment during the winter of 1777 and 1778, but Mr. Rice played the perfect weather conditions to his favor. As we traversed the historic site, he provided fascinating insights while I took in bucolic, picturesque views from high atop hills, beside the train tracks of the Reading Railroad, and along neighboring streets with historically inspired names like “Red Coat Lane.”
In the third winter of the eight-year Revolutionary War, soldiers fought more than their foes. Hunger and sickness were commonplace hardships they had to overcome. With the British occupying Philadelphia, General George Washington decided in December 1777 that his troops would winter at Valley Forge, a site that was close enough to reach the city in a day’s march, but far enough away to keep a surprise attack at bay.
Isaac Potts’ thriving industrial property known as Valley Forge consisted of farmland, forges, a grist mill, a sawmill, a blacksmith, a cooper and a general store. An abundant supply of oak, chestnut and hickory trees provided sources of fuel and charcoal. Valley Creek, a creek which runs into the Schuylkill River, provided not only fresh water to operate the forge, but its mountainous banks also offered protection for the encampment.
At Valley Forge, the weary, yet persevering men could try to recover during the respite from fighting which winter brought. “Naked and starving as they are, we cannot enough admire the incomparable patience and fidelity of the soldiery,” a memorial arch dedicated at Valley Forge in 1917 proclaims.
A life-sized wax figure in the park’s visitor center depicts Washington as he appeared when he arrived at Valley Forge astride his horse, Blueskin. A team of researchers, artists and forensic anthropologists digitally scanned the famous bust of Washington created by sculptor Jean Antoine Houdon and the life mask made of the president, studied his clothing and dentures, and created a computerized image of what the 45-year-old commander might have looked like.
When they arrived, the soldiers chopped down trees for timber to use in constructing cabins for shelter.
They fired a musket inside the cabins each day, since the sulphur released during firing would clear the air inside.
While the soldiers existed in their odoriferous huts, Washington and 15 to 25 of his officers, aides-de-camp and servants established their headquarters at a circa-1768 stone house that was being rented at the time of the encampment by Deborah Hewes, a relative of Mr. Potts. Mrs. Hewes rented the entire house and its furnishings to Washington, who paid her for his lodging and required his officers to do the same.
Today, the home is 80 percent original, right down to the banister on the staircase.
It includes several rooms furnished with reproductions, such as the office where Alexander Hamilton and other aides-de-camp copied documents and answered correspondence relating to the business of the war…
the office where Washington met with his generals to devise battle strategies and entertained visitors…
and the bedrooms used by both the aides-de-camp and the Washingtons; Martha joined her husband here in February 1778.
The kitchen is stocked with redware, a sturdy pottery distinctive for its terracotta color that was popular in the rural German communities of Pennsylvania.
Interpreters in period costume explained what life at Valley Forge would have been like for the soldiers. The camp was infamous for the misery and suffering that happened here during an especially severe winter; in fact, Washington himself called it “a dreary kind of place.” The soldiers persevered with races, card games, dice, music and wicket, an 18th-century equivalent of baseball. They also showed us a soldier’s typical possessions, from his sack for rations, mess kit and canteen to his regimental coat, hat, and hunting shirt, perfect for working in the fields.
When the British left Philadelphia for New York City in June 1778, Washington’s troops left Valley Forge in pursuit. The soldiers had been revived both in body and in spirit, illustrating how perseverance despite the hardships they endured at Valley Forge saw them through.
Months behind with planting their crops of wheat and corn because of the soldiers’ presence on the farmland, farmers tore down the soldiers’ cabins, eradicated the trenches the soldiers had dug in the spring, and tried to restore the land to its original purpose.
By the 19th century, Valley Forge had become a legendary tourist attraction, described romantically in early guidebooks as a beautiful place of hills, dales, woods, meadows and cultivated fields in the eastern Pennsylvania countryside. As cities grew into commercial centers of industry, nostalgia for Colonial domesticity prompted the Colonial Revival movement. Visitors to the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia took day trips to Valley Forge to soak up its important Revolutionary War associations. In 1913, a wealthy corporate lawyer named Philander Chase Knox, selected by President William McKinley to be his attorney general, hired R. Brognard Okie, a well-known Colonial Revival architect in Philadelphia, to give a Colonial Revival facelift to his historic home on the Valley Forge property.
Knox’s home was constructed by farmer John Brown circa 1774. It was enlarged several times by a succession of owners, including Charles Rogers, a local industrialist who owned a mill powered by Valley Creek, and California Gold Rush millionaires who turned it into a Queen Anne-style mansion in 1895.
Knox purchased the estate in 1903 as a weekend retreat for himself and his family. Knox continued to serve as President Theodore Roosevelt’s attorney general, and served as a United States Senator until his death in 1921. Roosevelt stayed at the home twice, once for the wedding of Knox’s daughter and once for the dedication of the Washington Memorial Chapel at Valley Forge.
The grounds of the former Knox estate contain the chauffeur’s quarters, garage, a root cellar, a walled garden, a summer house, a house for use by a hired hand, and the ruins of a greenhouse, a bath house, a swimming pool, a tennis court, a race track and a boat house. Today, it is administered by the National Park Service as a revenue-generating special events venue.
The dining room is part of the home’s original footprint.
Beautiful original architectural details remain, from decorative woodwork surrounding the home’s back door…
and on its staircases…
to pocket doors, hand-hewn ceiling beams, flagstone fireplaces and sunroom floors,
and Mercer fireplace tiles handmade in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, which you can see in Knox’s former bedroom.
Knox’s two-story law library at his home — resplendent with built-in bookcases, window seats and spiraling staircases — is now known as the Horace Willcox Library & Archive. The collection focuses on the Revolutionary War era, in particular, the Valley Forge encampment of 1777-1778. It also includes research materials on the political, social and industrial history of the Valley Forge area, as well as National Park Service reports on the administration and history of the site. Materials are available for research by appointment for National Park Service staff, volunteers and the general public.
For more on the restoration of Valley Forge, read Valley Forge: Making and Remaking a National Symbol, by Lorett Treese, and The Many Faces of George Washington: Remaking A Presidential Icon, by Carla Killough McClafferty. To read more about Valley Forge and the Revolutionary War, see 1776, by David McCullough; Valiant Ambition, by Nathaniel Philbrick; Valley Forge Winter – Civilians and Soldiers in War, by Wayne Bodle; Lafayette in the Somewhat United States, by Sarah Vowell; The First Salute, by Barbara W. Tuchman; Valley Forge: Traditional Land, Contemporary Vision, by Michael J Ticcino; Drillmaster of Valley Forge – The Baron de Steuben and Making of the American Army, by Paul Lockhart; Following the Drum: Women at the Valley Forge Encampment, by Nancy K. Loane; and Great & Capital Changes – An Account of the Valley Forge Encampment, by Barbara Pollarine. Click here to access a bibliography of National Park Service-curated resources about Valley Forge, and here for a list of books available for purchase through the Valley Forge Encampment Store.