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June 20, 2008 / howardmestas

Valley Forge and Historiography


Even though Valley Forge was one of the first historical sites we visited, I have waited until now to write my post about it.  To be honest, it has taken me this long to figure out exactly where I stand on the many accounts related to that historic winter encampment of 1777-1778.  And to be really, really honest, I’m not so sure I’m even sure about what I’m sure about.  Now, anyone who has managed to continue reading this far, don’t quit on me now, I can explain.  But first I have to go back to when I first learned about Valley Forge in primary school.

The story went something like this:

  • Worst winter in American History
  • Secluded wilderness
  • Troops were starving, but still patient
  • British lived in comfort in Philadelphia during same period
  • Some foreign guy named von Steuben worked wonders with the troops
  • George Washington prayed often in the wilderness
  • Americans kicked butt at Monmouth and cruised to Yorktown

The legend didn’t change much from junior high through college, but the trouble is that most of the story just isn’t true.  But then again, some of it is, and that is what historiography is all about.  Two of the books we had to read to qualify for the Philadelphia trip were not very complimentary of the version given above.  In “Founding Myths,” by Ray Raphael, the winter of 77-78 was one of the warmest on record and the troops were not starving, and certainly not very patient.  In “Valley Forge Winter,” by Wayne Bodle, the author confirms the Founding Myths account, but goes further (in excruciating detail) by lambasting the secluded wilderness idea and minimizing the impact of von Steuben.  So…my new opinion was set, the Valley Forge winter story was a sham; but then I visited Valley Forge and Monmouth with our tour group and my mind was changed again!

At Valley Forge Park, our tour guide did little to dispute the challenges by Raphael and Bodle, but he didn’t have to; he simply explained the logistics of the park and what it was like during the encampment.  Today there is an impressive hardwood forest at the park, but the ranger explained in the winter of 1777-78 there would not have been a single tree standing within a three-mile perimeter from the center of the park.  This area would have included the Potts House where the command center was located.  All were cut down by the army to build the 2,000 or so wooden huts or cabins used that winter, and to build items like carts, wagons, boats, and bridges; and there was the ever present need for firewood.  That alone tells me that the soldiers were all very busy and working with a measure of discipline and cooperation since clearing a forest with primitive tools is not an easy task and the cabin replications we saw were really quite crafty.  These are things that kept the army fit, both mentally and physically and something that could not have been duplicated by the Brits in Philadelphia.

There was also death at Valley Forge, lots of death with estimates ranging up to 2,000 men.  This amounted to more fatalities than from any single battle of the war and it was not from starvation as legend tells, but from diseases like dysentary and influenza.  These are the type of sorrowful conditions that build character and determination, and create anger toward your enemy.  Not so in Philadelphia.

And then there was Baron Friedrich Wilhelm Augustus von Steuben, who arrived at camp in February and immediately began transforming a group of state militias into a permanent standing army.  Von Steuben not only increased the speed of troop movement and musket reloading, he created what became known as the “Blue Book” of military encampment which included the standards of sanitation that would still be used 150 years later.  While others question the impact of von Steuben, just looking at the arrangement of the encampment clearly shows he knew what he was talking about.

And then there was the parade grounds, where on May 6, 1778, Continental troops put on a show for congressional dignitaries in celebration of the new French alliance.  It must have been a proud spectacle for troops and for officers alike; and a confidence builder as the spring and the new campaign rapidly approached.  This was the place where the American Army was built, and today’s military must agree since West Point plebes still pay a pilgrimage to the parade grounds every September.

After spending two weeks in Philadelphia and seeing where the British spent the winter, I’m convinced the morale must have been uneasy, particulary since they were so insecure about the intentions of the local population.  From what I learned at the Philadelphia visitor’s center, few people except for the most hardened loyalists shed a tear when they evacuated the city.  Their army certainly couldn’t have emerged into the spring 1778 any better fit than when they first arrived.  The same can not be said of the Continental Army at Valley Forge.

The test would come at the Battle of Monmouth on June 28, 1778, where in my opinion the “new” Continental army came out clearly on top, and for a variety of reasons (read my blog post from June 8, 2008).  I believe this was the turning point of the war and it was all made possible by the winter encampment on the banks of Valley Creek.

In conclusion, I have come to my own conclusion about the importance of the Valley Forge Winter.  No, the legends are not true, but the facts are more impressive, and to some extent, I now consider myself a primary source along with many others who have shared their opinions on the topic.  I have learned through historiography.


Lesson Plan 

How would I teach about Valley Forge? I would start by having students read chapter 5 from “Founding Myths” and compare it to the text book version, and to other versions they have already learned from their previous teachers, parents, scout leaders, etc.  I would even ask if any elders in their families could provide us with a text book from many years ago; perhaps they exist in the public library.  I would then ask them to formulate their own opinions and try to explain why they are different from what they had previously learned. Their findings would be reported to the class in many different forms; from oral and written reports to quizes and posters they may create.  I would also ask that they research why there are different versions of the same events in most of our history, and how someone’s agenda may sometimes shade the facts.  They can research how to find the truth about any topic and how they can practice historiography.



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