Home : Quarterly Archives : Volume 8
Tredyffrin Easttown Historical Society
Source: April 1955 Volume 8 Number 3, Pages 56–70
The Epic of Valley Forge
Decisive battles and events of great wars are rarely recognized as such at the time of their occurrence nor for a considerable time thereafter. Not until the passions of war have subsided, not until official records and contemporary documents have been collected, correlated and analyzed is truth separated from fiction and do facts stand out in their true light. Only in the perspective of time and subsequent events do decisive events assume their real significance and proportion.
Such was the moral and spiritual struggle waged and won by General Washington and his Continental Army at Valley Forge from December 19, 1777 to June 19, 1778. Its development as the decisive event of the American Revolution was retarded by inadequate means provided by the young government of the United States for the collection, preservation and correlation of records and documents. Two War Department fires, about the time of the war of 1812, destroyed records which undoubtedly contained many details of the event at Valley Forge. Many contemporary documents found their way into the hands of private individuals - some of these documents gradually cane to light but others have been lost. However, tradition, subsequently verified and recorded, has filled many of the gaps created in the development of the story.
Notwithstanding all of these handicaps, the story of what transpired at Valley Forge during those memorable days has come down as the epic of self-sacrifice, courage and steadfastness to purpose and principle unparalleled in history. It stands out not merely as the decisive event of the American Revolution but as the decisive event in the struggle for freedom and liberty which has continued throughout the world since that time. It inspires Americans to rededicate themselves to the principles of freedom upon which our Nation was founded. It offers comfort and hope to the oppressed of foreign lands still gripped in the struggle for freedom which our forefathers won at Valley Forge. It annually attracts more than a half-million visitors who come to the Shrine of Valley Forge seeking its inspiration.
SITE OF THE ENCAMPMENT
While the epic of Valley Forge has been preserved and perpetuated with ever-increasing significance in the lives of subsequent generations, the site where the events of the epic transpired was neglected for one hundred and fifteen years. For the most part evidence of it was effaced from the landscape. The encampment - characterized by more than nine hundred miserable log shelters and hospitals, which more than any other feature gave evidence of the great sacrifice and suffering of the soldiery- gave way to
the rehabilitation of the farms which had been devastated by the occupation of the army. The huts, which lined company streets adjacent to and in rear of the splendid defensive system of earthworks, were the first to disappear. Their timber was used for the reconstruction of farms and fences which had been destroyed.
Trenches and redoubts on arable land were plowed under and, except for tradition, were lost to posterity. Only the Inner Line trenches, Forts Washington and Huntington, and a small segment of the Outer Line trenches, all of which lay on the higher slopes of the wooded hills, remained of the strong system of defenses which defied the numerical strength of Lord Howe and, indirectly, led to his relief and subsequent censure because he gave up all thought of attacking them. Even the remnants of the encampment were gradually overgrown and concealed by the second growth of timber which replaced the seventy-five thousand to one hundred thousand trees which had been hewn to provide shelter and comfort for Washington's miserable day.
Masonry buildings which served as quarters for Washington and his generals or as hospitals, storehouses and shops for the army reverted to their civil uses. Those which had been damaged were repaired. Others were remodeled by their owners. Only Washington's Headquarters received any attention and care as an historical site. In 1878 it was acquired by a group of patriotic citizens known as the Centennial and Memorial Association of Valley Forge, and they maintained the building as a museum. The museum was maintained by admission fees and private subscriptions which were inadequate to pay off the mortgage on the property, let alone restore it to its original condition at the time it was occupied by the Commander-in-Chief.
Despite its neglect, the site was hallowed ground to many who made pilgrimages there seeking the inspiration it offered. Among the first of these was the Commander-in- Chief himself who, while President of the United States, returned to the scene of his deepest tragedy and his greatest moral triumph. Many of those who had suffered with him during those dark months were drawn back to the scene. As early as 1828, patriotic organizations and individuals started agitation to acquire the site for preservation and restoration, but this agitation never passed beyond the talking stage. The Centennial and Memorial Association of Valley Forge celebrated on the Grand Parade the centennial of the encampment and acquired Washington's Headquarters to perpetuate those traditions but were able to do little more. Patriotic organizations and local historians kept alive the agitation and struggle for the acquisition and preservation
of the site until the people of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania stepped in and assumed the responsibility of stewardship of this sacred spot which had assumed the magnitude of the international shrine of freedom and democracy.
CREATION OF VALLEY FORGE PARK
Fifty-five years ago Valley Forge Park was created by Act of General Assembly of May 30, 1893. The same act, as amended, created the Valley Forge Park Commission for the purpose of:
The amended Act further directed the Commission to acquire for the Commonwealth the land upon which the encampment was located.
The threefold mission assigned to it by the mandate of the Commonwealth constitutes the creed of the Commission to which it has steadfastly adhered during the fifty-five years of its existence. In the restoration of the site to its original condition, the Commission has insisted on accuracy and authenticity - a requirement which has necessitated exhaustive research.
Normally, the Commission is composed of thirteen members, appointed by the Governor, who serve without compensation. They are usually selected by the Governor from among citizens of southeastern Pennsylvania who are outstanding in business and public service and who have demonstrated a deep and sincere interest in the preservation and perpetuation of the traditions of Valley Forge. Many of them have been historians of note and, as such, have made invaluable contributions to the restoration of the site. Several have risen to high office in the government of the Commonwealth where they have continued their active and effective support in the development of the Shrine.
For administrative purposes, the Commission and the Park operate under the Department of Forests and Waters, although the Park, because of the provisions of the Act of May 30, 1893, is an historical park separate and distinct from the system of State Parks which operates under the Bureau of Parks. Funds for the development, maintenance and restoration of the Park are appropriated by the General Assembly. A small trust fund donated by patriotic organizations and individuals is available to the Commission for specific purposes such as the preservation of Washington's Headquarters and for research.
Because of its assigned mission, the Commission has been concerned primarily with the physical aspects of the encampment. However, it has been incumbent upon the Commission to get all of the facts relating to the encampment and those who participated in it, so that the mission might be faithfully accomplished and so that accurate and complete information is made available to the public and to the numerous individual requests and inquiries received throughout each year.
Before undertaking the acquisition of land it was necessary to determine accurately the extent and layout of the encampment and to establish the specific historical importance of each parcel of land before it could be acquired by condemnation, and to search titles back to the Revolutionary period. No contemporary records remain showing the layout of the camp in its entirety - only fragmentary and incomplete records escaped the two War Department fires early in the nineteenth century. Tradition, passed by word of mouth from local inhabitants or participants in the encampment, filled many of the gaps in contemporary records, but this could not be accepted without careful check and verification.
Accordingly, the Commission was forced to institute immediately a program of exhaustive documentary research which has continued down to the present day. Many of the Commissioners, since the Park was created, have been historians either by vocation or avocation. It has received gratuitously or at a relatively nominal cost invaluable assistance from historical organizations or private authorities. The National Archives, the Library of Congress and the War Department are constantly being searched for accurate information to insure accuracy and authenticity in restorations. To facilitate and expedite research the Commission has acquired, by appropriated funds and by private contributions, a library of several hundred volumes relating to the history of the Revolutionary War with particular emphasis on the Valley Forge encampment. When adequate space becomes available the Commission plans to make this library available to the public.
Modern methods of research such as mine-detectors, air-photography and archeological research, are being utilized effectively with a considerable saving in time and money. As a result of the research program the restorations accomplished to date have been as accurate and authentic as circumstances at the time permitted, and future restorations will be even more so.
The archives of the Commission have accumulated a wealth of material, and more is constantly coming to light as research progresses. Probably the most important contemporary document which has come to light since the creation of the Park is the so-called DuPortail Map of the Camp at Valley Forge - the original of which is in the archives of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. This map, known in military terms as a "position sketch", was manifestly drawn by General Louis DuPortail, Chief Engineer, or one of his two French assistants. As no scale is indicated on the sketch it was assumed, until recently, that it was not drawn to scale. Information from the French Government now indicates quite definitely that it was not only drawn to an old French scale, used prior to the advent of the metric system during the French Revolution, but that distances on it vary less than ten percent from a modern instrumental survey. For a sketch of this kind, drawn under field conditions with crude implements, it is amazingly accurate not only in scale but in its portrayal of terrain features. It was directly instrumental in locating the charred ruins of the old forge under fourteen feet of silo in Valley Forge. I t will undoubtedly facilitate the restoration of fieldworks not as yet undertaken.
The Muster Roll Project initiated by the Commission several years ago is proving to be a valuable element of research. Two trained researchers have been retained successively to search out and extract the muster and pay rolls of every unit located at Valley Forge during the encampment. It provides not only the names of officers and men who were at Valley Forge but it also assists in determining the organization and composition of each regiment and battalion. As a result it will be possible to arrive at a reasonably accurate estimate of the number of huts in each regiment and brigade which, with other contemporary data available, will permit the authentic reproduction of the complete hutment of any one unit.
LAND ACQUISITION AND DEVELOPMENT
Upon the completion of the initial research and survey of the encampment the Commission proceeded to acquire progressively portions of the site as appropriations were made available. Successive surveys have been made as research developed additional information. These served as the basis for all land acquisitions.
First to be acquired was the land on which stood the remains of Fort Washington, Fort Washington, and the Inner Line Entrenchments. The next to be acquired was Washington's Headquarters, which was thrown open to the public without charge - which is the rule throughout the Park to this day. Then followed the land on which stood the remains of the Outer Line Entrenchments and the site of the Outer Line Defenses, which had been plowed under and lost to view. Then followed the acquisition of the remainder of the main encampment east of Valley Creek, except that portion which still remains in the hands of the Protestant Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania as the grounds of the Washington Memorial Chapel. The west bank of Valley Creek where stood the Old Forge, from which the locality derived its name, the Mansion House, which served as a camp hospital, and the sites occupied by Stirling's Artificers and by Smallwood's Brigade were acquired but have not as yet been developed. That portion of the left bank of the Schuylkill River, directly opposite the main encampment, was acquired to a depth of about five hundred feet not only to preserve the site of Sullivan's Bridge, over which the Army passed enroute to the Battle of Monmouth in June 1778, but to preserve the integrity of the Shrine from encroachment by industry.
Today the Park comprises 2,033 acres - the major portion of the original encampment. The cost to the Commonwealth was $1,818,800 for land which today is worth over $2,000,000.
Park development and maintenance followed on the heels of the acquisition of the main encampment east of Valley Creek. Remains of field works were cleared of brush and timber and restored to their original condition. Unsightly post-revolutionary structures were razed. Washington's Headquarters and Varnum's Quarters were restored to their original condition and, with the assistance of some patriotic societies, were furnished according to the period. Star Redoubt was reconstructed on its original site commanding the left bank of the Schuylkill and approaches to the Sullivan Bridge. Minor elements of the Inner Line Defenses were restored as shown on the DuPortail Map. Drives and trails to all points of interest and other conveniences for visitors were provided. Reforestation, the famous dogwood grove, and landscaping have been added to enhance the natural beauty of the site.
During the early years of its existence the Commission concentrated its efforts on land acquisition, Park development, the demolition of post-revolutionary structures, clearing the site of underbrush, and preserving the remains of the encampment.
The primary mission of the Commission, to restore the site to its original condition as a military encampment, has been undertaken in more recent years and is being accomplished more gradually because of the expense involved and because of the care and caution which have to be exercised in the interest or accuracy and authenticity. Prior to l942, restoration was confined primarily to the preservation and restoration of the remains of original features as they were acquired and to the reconstruction of minor features - such as elements of the defensive system, a hospital hut and a bake oven. However, the charred remains of the Old Forge, which gave the name to the locality and were burned by the British just prior to the encampment, were uncovered in 1929 and subsequently protected from further inundation and damage at a cost of about $50,000.
All restorations have been accomplished with special appropriations allocated to the Commonwealth, except for one officers' hut on an original hut site or Wayne's Division contributed by the Pennsylvania Society Sons of the Revolution.
By 1942 the Commission had developed a long-range restoration program of thirty projects which, when completed, will restore all of the essential features of the encampment, including the entire defensive system and a token number of huts which characterized the winter quarters at Valley Forge. As restoration of this nature is quite expensive and can be accomplished only as funds are appropriated it will be a great many years before the ultimate objective is attained. However, the greatest single stride in the restoration program was made during the administrations of Governor Edward Martin and Governor James H. Duff when sufficient appropriations were made available to permit the restoration of thirty soldiers' huts; Fort John Moore; the Knox Artillery Shop; and the Dewees Mansion, the residence of the Ironmaster of Valley Forge, which was used as the camp bakery. Two of these projects are of particular interest not merely because of their historical importance but because they illustrate the thoroughness with which the Commission carries out its responsibility to the Commonwealth and to the American people.
The miserable log shelters, referred to by Washington as "soldiers' huts", symbolized, more than any feature of the encampment, the extreme suffering and sacrifice of the soldiery which, with their determination and devotion, was the essence of the epic of Valley Forge.
The comfort and welfare of his men constantly uppermost in his mind, Washington personally prescribed, in General Orders issued at Gulph Mills on December 18, 1777, the exact specifications for the construction of the huts and how they were to be arranged and occupied. Subsequent instructions of the Commander-in-Chief prescribed methods to be employed, and offered prizes for suggested improvements in construction and methods. Thanks to these contemporary records, which have been preserved, it was possible for the Commission's architect to develop plans and specifications for the reproductions exactly as prescribed by Washington. Although practically no evidence remains of individual hut sites, it was possible- thanks to the DuPortail Map - to determine quite accurately the sites of the original company streets on which they were. located.
As a result, thirty soldiers' huts and one officers' hut today stand as mute but eloquent reminders of the Spirit of Valley Forge. They have been distributed so that a token number of huts marks the company street occupied by at least one organization from each of the Original Colonies represented in Washington's Army at that time - only troops from Maryland and Delaware are not so honored for the reason that they are located in that portion of the Park, west of Valley Creek, which has not as yet been developed.
FORT JOHN MOORE
The restoration of Fort John Moore is the most remarkable restoration undertaken during the history of the Park for the reason that in the absence of any definite contemporary records with which to locate the works accurately, much less design it authentically, it has been possible, by the utilization of modern methods of research, to determine beyond all reasonable doubt not only its precise location and size but its authentic design.
Official contemporary records have been searched for years and found devoid of any detailed description of the defensive works at Valley Forge. There is ample proof in the writings of Washington that he placed General Louis DuPortail, his Chief Engineer, in charge of laying out and constructing the defenses of the camp, and that the construction began on or about January 15, 1778. There is also ample evidence that Washington was in close touch with the construction, that he was increasingly concerned with the delay in the progress of the work, and that as late as May 11, 1778, he expressed himself to Lord Stirling as being "Exceedingly mortified at seeing and beholding the delay." However, Washington leaves no details of the layout, nor did DuPortail leave any written record of his activities in this connection. If he did leave such records they either were lost in the War Department fires of 1810 and 1812 or are in unknown hands.
Only three contemporary documents cast light on the existence and location of Fort John Moore and they were contradictory and inconclusive.
In the collection of the Earl of Dartmouth is the original map prepared and sent by a British spy on March 24, 1778, to Howe's headquarters. A facsimile of this map is in the archives of the Commission and shows, by rough sketch, the spy's interpretation of Sullivan's Bridge and Star Redoubt covering the bridge. It also shows fairly accurately the Outer Line trenches forming a right angle at their northeastern extremity and a redoubt under construction on an eminence where the trenches terminate. Only one redoubt is shown in this vicinity, whereas tradition placed twin redoubts there. This map is incomplete, inaccurate in many respects, and snows no North or scale. It bears the notation - "The encampment is on a very strong piece of ground. The lines command the ground all round them" and the ground forms indicated thereon bear this out.
In the Library of the Honorable Samuel W. Pennypacker, former Governor of Pennsylvania, is the original Contemporary Map of the encampment at Valley Forge, 1777 - 1778, by a French engineer. This map, referred to by the Commission as the Pennypacker Map, was copyrighted in 1898 by the Pennsylvania Society, Sons of the Revolution, and a facsimile was furnished to the Commission for its archives. The Pennypacker Map, like the Spy Map, is incomplete and
inaccurate in many respects. However it accurately shows troop dispositions on the left wing of the Outer Line as well as the locations of Sullivan's Bridge arm Star Redoubt. Like the Spy Map, it shows the Outer Line trenches forming a right angle at their northeastern extremity but shows two redoubts in that vicinity - one near the angle and the other a little to the north of the first. The ground forms, while fairly accurate, are manifestly schematic and not to scale. The road-net, with annotations of distances to Swedes Ford and Gulph Mills, leading into and around the north flank of the left wing of the position, together with the relative accuracy of the sketch in that area as opposed to the inaccuracies elsewhere, lead to the conclusion that the sketch was prepared by an engineer officer - probably one of DuPortail's two French assistants - charged with the detailed plans for the defenses of the left flank. It is noteworthy that this is the only contemporary document which tends to confirm the tradition that there were two redoubts in that locality.
The third contemporary document is the accurate but incomplete DuPortail Map. This map appears to contradict the other two maps as it shows only one redoubt at the northeast extremity of the Outer Line trenches and does not show the right angle in the trenches at that point. The redoubt shown was definitely identified as the Fort Mordecai Moore of tradition, and was reconstructed in 1942 according to the best information available at that time.
These are the only contemporary documents known to exist regarding the plan of defenses. They did not establish the existence of the redoubt, much loss any definite information as to its exact location, form or size.
Tradition cannot be accepted unless and until it is confirmed. In this case even tradition was contradictory. Fortunately, Henry Woodman, a son of one of Washington's soldiers, in 1850 wrote his History of Valley forge based on traditions he heard as a boy and as a young man from his father, mother and others who were eye-witnesses of the encampment. Fortunately, too, Woodman was a scholarly and inquisitive individual who during the formative years of his life acquired and retained much first-hand information from his father who served in Washington's Life Guards, returned to marry the daughter of a local farmer and lived in robust health until Woodman was twenty-five years old. Woodman lived for many years practically on the left wing of the Outer Line defenses and knew practically every foot of the ground.
According to Woodman, the two redoubts - known to local inhabitants, during and since the encampment, as Fort John Moore and Fort Mordecai Moore because of the owners of the farms on which they were located - were still discernible in 1850, although Benson J. Lossing who wrote in 1852 makes no mention of their existence. It appears that they were plowed under between 1850 and 1852 to make way for cultivation until 1910 when the property was acquired by the Park and turned into grassland. Woodman described the two redoubts as being identical in appearance. He said that they were in the form of a trapezium surrounded on all four sides by three mounds on each side with a small exception on the northwest side which was left open for egress. He said that the length of the mounds varied from ten to sixteen feet. He said that the distance between the two redoubts was forty rods (630 feet) but he did not give the direction of one from the other. He described the site of Fort John Moore as being on an eminence commanding a view of both sides of the river and from which a crossing of the river could be prevented. He said that it could also check the progress of an attack on its own side of the river in conjunction with Fort Mordecai Moore which commanded the shortest avenues of approach from Philadelphia.
Examination of the ground described disclosed an ideal location for a redoubt and tended to confirm his statements and deductions. However, they could not be accepted without verification as they came in the category of recorded tradition in view of the fact that he was not born until 1796 and did not write until 1830.
A search of all suspected areas was made with mine detectors, by a detachment of the 2nd. Army augmented by Park labor, but nothing was developed.
As air-photography had been used successfully in locating lost Roman and Maya ruins it was decided to try this method. The Air Force kindly consented to fly a photographic mission in connection with its routine training program and, during a slack period, in May 1948, they photographed a square area one half mile to the side, which included all possible sites of the suspected redoubt. On June 19th the Commission received a full report of the mission including the photographs and an expert interpretation. The report confirmed Woodman's statement with amazing accuracy as it disclosed, even to the inexperienced eye, a dark trace in the form of a trapezium six hundred and fifty-six feet northeast of Fort Mordecai Moore on the land which formerly belonged to John Moore - Woodman missed his estimate by only four feet.
Although the existence and the exact site of the redoubt have been definitely established, it was necessary to determine the exact dimensions of the original works in order to develop plans for its restoration and in order to determine if there were any remains which could be utilized in the restoration. For this purpose the Commission was able to enlist the services, without compensation, of the best archeologists in the State, Major J. Duncan Campbell of the Harrisburg Academy devoted the entire month of August to supervise the site work, and Doctor J. Alden Mason, of the University of Pennsylvania, devoted much of his time on the site directing the work. Dr. Donald A. Cadzow, of the Pennsylvania Historical Commission, not only added his direction in laying out the task but made available the services of his Junior Colleague, Mr. John Witthoft, an expert in soil archeology, whose experience was directly responsible for bringing this phase of the work to a complete and successful conclusion within the time and funds available.
Archeological exploration - in addition to disclosing the exact dimensions of the original works - uncovered the original ditch surrounding the works on all four sides. There were no remains other than soil structure to show where the redoubt had been, but this is unmistakable even to the eye of the layman. No relics were uncovered except a sickle, although it is possible that some may be disclosed during the reconstruction - which starts shortly.
Anticipating that Henry Woodman might be correct, search for the design of the works was initiated early and continued through the archeological research. Contemporary treatises on military engineering of the eighteenth century were examined and extracted at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, the United States Military Academy, and at
the Fort Ticonderoga Museum. Expert advice was obtained from the Chief of Engineers of the United States Army and from the Superintendent of the United States Military Academy at West Point. The remains of Revolutionary fieldworks were examined at Morristown, New Jersey, and at Fort Ticonderoga, New York. At Fort Ticonderoga were found remains of an original redoubt which corresponded almost exactly to Woodman's description of the remains as he saw them in 1850. Nearby at the same place were similar works so well preserved that they appeared to be almost in their original condition.
Woodman's description was so complete and accurate that it was quite manifest that he was trying to describe, from a layman's point of view, the eroded remains of a standard redoubt of the eighteenth century provided with two gun embrasures cut in each of three sides of the parapet, and with a gorge or entrance on the neutral side, protected by a traverse or parapet within the works. When the archeological research disclosed the exact outside dimensions of the parapet it was relatively simple to develop the plans of the original redoubt, utilizing the original ditch or moat which had been uncovered.
The contract has been awarded for the reconstruction which is to be completed, except for final seeding and sodding, by February 19, 1949. By June 1st, Fort John Moore will again become a reality instead of a vague tradition. It will stand out as one of the key positions, if not the key position, in the splendid defensive system which defied attack by the British and enabled Washington to complete the reorganization of his army for the Campaign of 1778. It will stand as a symbol of the determination of the patriots of Valley Forge to continue the struggle regardless of the odds against them.
During the fifty-five years of its stewardship the Commonwealth has salvaged from neglect and effacement the major portion of the famous encampment of Washington's Continental Army at Valley Forge and, at a cost of over four million dollars, has developed i t into the Nation's foremost Shrine of Freedom and Democracy - which is famous throughout the world and annually draws more than a half million visitors from every region on the globe. Its features, which are being constantly restored, symbolize every phase and aspect of the momentous events which transpired there and which have exerted an enduring and far-reaching influence on the subsequent course of history.
Those symbols serve as visual aides in the education of the youth of America in the foundation of freedom and democracy to the end that they will become good, well-informed citizens. They inspire all Americans to rededicate themselves to the principles so valiantly defended there. They stimulate the hope and courage of the oppressed of foreign lands still gripped in the struggle for freedom which was won there. Pennsylvanians have every reason to be proud of their contribution to the perpetuation of the traditions and the principles of Valley Forge.
The preceding article, written by Brigadier General Norman Randolph, U.S. Army, Retired, Executive-Secretary of the Valley Forge Park Commission, was read by General Randolph at the Annual Meeting of the Tredyffrin-Easttown History Club on September 30, 1948.
It was also read by him at a meeting of the Wyncote Men's Club on December 6, 1948. General Randolph's death, not long thereafter, was a great loss to Valley Forge Park, for which he had labored devotedly and efficiently, as well as to his many friends in this region.
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