Most people’s knowledge of Philadelphia history is tied to the events of the Revolutionary War, which was when the 13 colonies (the 13 original states) fought against the all-powerful British Empire in their quest for independence. This of course includes the iconic Liberty Bell and Independence Hall, site of where the Declaration of Independence (and later on the United States Constitution) was debated and drafted. What many don’t know is that little more than 20 miles away from Philadelphia’s historic section is the place where the American soldiers of the Revolutionary War became an actual army.
If you grew up in Philadelphia like I did, you no doubt went on a field trip(s) to Valley Forge National Historical Park. While there’s not a ton to see and do there, it’s a place that is rich in historical significance. You see, during the winter of 1777-78 when the British Army occupied Philadelphia, its officers enjoying a lavish lifestyle replete with a series of balls and parties and copious amounts of food and drink, the American soldiers of the Continental Army starved…froze…but also ultimately persevered at a place called Valley Forge.
Valley Forge was chosen by General George Washington as the site of the winter encampment for his army because it was close enough to the British to keep their raiding and foraging parties out of the interior of Pennsylvania, but also far enough away from Philadelphia to halt the threat of British surprise attacks.
However, by the time the men of the Continental Army arrived at Valley Forge, the brutal and harsh conditions of a Pennsylvania winter were fast upon them and the men themselves were in no better shape-many of them ill-dressed, sick, and starving. During the winter of 1777-78, it’s estimated that starvation, disease, malnutrition, and exposure to the elements killed 2,500 American soldiers by the end of February, 1778. While lives were not lost due to gun powder, or cannon, or bayonets, it was still just as tragic a space as any battlefield.
One of the most iconic features of the park is its huts, which are replicas of the original ones the soldiers lived in. When you step inside one today and see how small it is, how dark, you can’t imagine multiple men living there. It’s more sobering to think that they did so without any heating, of course, but also without blankets and proper clothing. And to think that the British Army resided in posh accommodations during this time, quartered in private homes, many with nary a worry.
What I love most though is probably the house that served as General Washington’s headquarters, which survives today. You can actually walk through and more importantly, take pictures! It’s a beautiful 18th century stone structure and if I ever had unlimited means, it’s just the type and style of house I would love to own. It’s also always neat when you tour historic properties and see how tiny everything is in comparison to today’s norms. Its physical location high above the Schuylkill River is also quite striking.
While today development is prominent in the area surrounding Valley Forge Park, the park itself remains untouched thanks to its National Park status. The land looks just as stark and desolate as it would for the men and women who encamped here during that infamous winter. Now paved with trails, it’s a popular spot for runners and bikers for exercise and recreation.
Although the Revolutionary War would last another 3.5 years after the Continental Army departed from Valley Forge in June 1778, they left organized and unified and more importantly, with a strong sense of determination, perseverance. If you want to truly learn about the events of the Revolutionary War, a visit to Valley Forge is not to be missed.