Don't Believe Everything You Hear in 5th Grade

Monday, April 16, 2012 Road Junkies 0 Comments

On the History Highway, Day 33

VALLEY FORGE, Pennsylvania—When most of us think of Valley Forge, we conjure up images of colonial soldiers wearing rags, starving, and living in tents or in the open during the harshest winter Pennsylvania had ever experienced.  Why does this picture spring to mind?  It's what we learned from elementary school days.  Valley Forge = misery and suffering.

Reproductions of the types of cabins built in the colonial Valley Forge encampment

As much as we hate to burst anyone's childhood bubble, most of what we were taught simply wasn't quite accurate.  Just as the legend of George Washington's chopping down the cherry tree (and later admitting it) was fabricated to teach us about truthfulness, the romanticized version of the encampment at Valley Forge was intended to help Americans embrace the quality of perseverance.

In reality, the winter Washington and his troops spent at Valley Forge was considered moderate in terms of weather.  Soldiers resided in log cabins which they built from trees on site.  Most cabins had some type of fireplace, and the soldiers slept on bunks, twelve men to a cabin.  Under the direction of military engineers, Washington's troops constructed a city of some 2,000 huts.  Though some soldiers did suffer from shortages of clothing, many soldiers had full uniforms.  While never abundant, provisions were available and the men cooked subsistence meals for themselves.

Not a luxury condo, but better than a tent
And lest we allow the perception of George Washington, the great sacrificial leader, living in a tent along with his men to persist, according to a monument erected in Valley Forge National Historical Park, Washington stayed in his "marquee" (campaign tent) only five days.  And by the way, at 24' x 14', his tent was hardly cramped.

Marquee Marker
According to the monument:  "Site of the Marquee:  On this spot General George Washington erected his campaign tent (marquee) when he entered Valley Forge December 19, 1777.  He occupied this tent until December 24, 1777 when he moved his headquarters to the Potts house at the junction of Valley Creek and Schuylkill River."

The Potts House - Washington's Headquarters at Valley Forge
Washington sublet the house from the owner's aunt.  During the latter months of the encampment, his wife Martha lived with him here.

Rather than exposure and starvation, disease was the primary culprit in soldier deaths at Valley Forge.  Two-thirds of the 2,000 troops who died at the encampment perished in the warmer months from such conditions as influenza, typhus, typhoid, and dysentery.  For every man killed in combat during the period, ten died of disease.

Rather than our idealized image of sacrificial soldiers suffering and surviving against impossible odds, something more important actually happened at Valley Forge in the winter of 1777-78.  A group of recruits from 13 different states, from all walks of life and a variety of ethnic and religious backgrounds transformed from militia members loyal to their own particular locality into one coherent army, trained and capable of fighting a war for a new nation.

Washington Memorial Chapel
Near Valley Forge National Historical Park we visited the beautiful neogothic Washington Memorial Chapel.  Built in 1903 as a tribute to George Washington and the patriots of the American Revolution, the chapel also serves as an active Episcopal parish. 

National Patriots Bell Tower, Washington Memorial Chapel
Next to the church is a bell tower with a traditional carillon.  The carillon has 58 bells, one for each state and territory, with the size of the respective bells determined by the population of each dominion in 1920.  As we were standing about ten feet from the tower, we were startled when the carillon began to sound.

Both the chapel and the park were well worth visiting.  And since the troops moved out, Valley Forge National Park now hosts numerous letterboxes.  We found 13 today and missed as many others due to our limited time (and energy in 90 degree heat).  But most importantly, we learned a valuable lesson.  Don't believe everything you learned in fifth grade.


Miles driven:  35
Miles walked:  4.57
Letterboxes found:  13
Kites eaten by trees in VFNHP:  72
Locals walking on VFNHP paved paths:  294
People lying in grass and later picking off ticks:  6
Ticks hitching a ride with us:  0 (Hooray for Permethrin!)
 Reproduction cabins:  83
Cannons:  141

More Photos from Valley Forge

Why would NPS paint the cannons baby blue and yellow?
National Memorial Arch, Valley Forge National Historical Park
Mount Joy Trail, VFNHP
Valley Forge (and another baby blue cannon)
Locals enjoying paved trails in VFNHP
Kite-eating Tree, VFNHP
Stamping in at letterbox in VFNHP
Courtyard, Washington Memorial Chapel
Why the chapel's sanctuary smelled so sweet
Washington Memorial Chapel