National Geographic : 1954 Feb
Washington Lives Again at Valley Forge Memories of His Ragged Heroes Linger in the Pennsylvania Park Where Bloodstained Snow Marked the Path to Freedom BY HOWELL WALKER National Geographic Magazine Staff " E used practically the same system of ground defense in the Korean hills as George Washington had at Valley Forge," said Lt. Joseph Hanley, a wounded U. S. Army veteran. He was looking at the shallow trenches and low earthworks that straggle over the roll ing terrain of southeastern Pennsylvania where General Washington and his ill-equipped sol diers spent the dreadful winter of 1777-78. With Lieutenant Hanley and his friend, Lt. Richard Hawley, I toured the site of the Revolutionary encampment. My com panions were walking patients at the near by Valley Forge Army Hospital, and they welcomed an outing. But something much deeper than the ex cursion draws visitors to Valley Forge. Here, in one sense at least, is the cradle of the United States. Only by courage and sacri fice amid hardships, pain, disease, and death in the bloodstained snow at Valley Forge was America's independence won. From here went men led by the Father of his Country to build a nation.* Nowhere else have I felt so positively the presence of General Washington-not even at Mount Vernon. For me, he lives again at Valley Forge: on the wind-swept slopes, behind the breastworks, in the silence of the night. A Week to March 19 Miles After a series of defeats by the British, the American army of 11,000-odd despairing troops staggered to Valley Forge from the vicinity of Philadelphia. The 19-mile march took a week. Then, on a bitter December evening, the bone-weary yet dauntless brigades began a 6-month struggle for survival "with out a House or Hutt to cover them till they could be built." Icy winds lashed the exhausted army. Around scattered campfires huddled groups of men, ragged, bandaged, half-starved, shel terless. Sentries tramped blood from their own raw feet onto the frozen ground or stood in their hats to ease chilled toes. "If things were so tough at Valley Forge, how come they stayed here so long?" asked Hawley. "What held the soldiers together?" "George Washington," was the best answer I could give. The main reason for occupying this deso late post rather than the hospitable atmos phere of Reading, Lancaster, or Wilmington was to keep a close watch on the British in Philadelphia. General Washington hoped to prevent enemy raids into the neighboring Chester Valley "breadbasket," and he wanted to challenge any large-scale movement out of Philadelphia. Aerial Views Reveal True Sites Long before this place of suffering became a State park in 1893, farmers' plows had leveled earthworks thrown up by Washington's army. Today Pennsylvania's Valley Forge Park Commission is restoring the 2,033-acre reserve to its original condition as a military camp. But the passage of 176 years has left little to guide reconstruction, and lack of docu mentary evidence increases the problem. The sole Revolutionary record of possible redoubts is an unfinished map sketched by a French engineer, Louis L. du Portail, whom General Washington had commissioned to lay out the encampment. Du Portail's chart, together with historical facts subsequently uncovered, encouraged a systematic search for the correct site of a redoubt previously thought to be Fort John Moore. First, a U. S. Army detachment vainly combed the most likely area with mine de tectors. Then a U. S. Air Force reconnais sance squadron made low-altitude photographs of the sector. The air pictures helped greatly to solve the riddle of the fort's true location. How? To build earthworks, Washington's soldiers necessarily disturbed the subsoil. Even today, vegetation shows the effect of that early interference; grass and shrubbery grow more-or less-profusely, depending upon the nature of the excavations and the soil. * See "Shrines of Each Patriot's Devotion," by Frederick G. Vosburgh, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGA ZINE, January, 1949.