Don't Believe Everything You Hear in 5th Grade

Tuesday, April 17, 2012 Road Junkies 0 Comments

Days 33-34:  Valley Forge, PA

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.
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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 (replicas pictured above) 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.
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.
National Memorial Arch, Valley Forge National Historical Park
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.
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.
On Tuesday, we took things slow and easy, finding a few letterboxes and visiting two sites related to individuals whose work we admire.  The first was the Beth Sholom synagogue in the quiet and leafy Philly suburb of Elkins Park.  
Beth Sholom
Completed in 1959, the remarkable wire and glass structure stands out in a neighborhood of traditional homes.  Looking a bit like a tricorn hat or perhaps like a resurrection of Mayan architecture, the modern house of worship was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, who once referred to it as a "luminous Mount Sinai."  
Audubon home at Mill Grove
We also visited John James Audubon's first home in America at Mill Grove in the aptly named town of Audubon, near Valley Forge.  In 1803, Audubon's father obtained a false passport for his son to enable him to leave their native France and avoid conscription for the Napoleonic wars.  The young Audubon, age 18, contracted yellow fever on board the ship from France and was nursed in a Quaker boarding house in New York before moving to the property his father had purchased for him at Mill Grove.
Audubon lived at the home for five years, during which time he fell in love with the daughter of a nearby estate owner and developed an interest in the natural world around him.  Lucy Bakewell, whom he would marry in 1808, shared and encouraged his ornithological inclinations, and together they built a nature museum at the estate.

Tomorrow we'll go into Philadelphia and explore the city for a few days.
  • Miles driven:  35
  • Miles walked:  4.57
  • Letterboxes found:  13
  • Kites eaten by trees in VFNHP:  72
  • Locals walking on VFNHP paved paths:  294
  • Ticks hitching a ride with us:  0
  • Reproduction cabins:  83
  • Cannons:  141
The Potts House, Washington's HQ at Valley Forge

Locals enjoying paved trails in VFNHP
Stamping in at letterbox in VFNHP
Not a luxury condo, but better than the ragged tents illustrated in elementary textbooks