Sunday, November 28, 2010


Redoubt with Artillery, Valley Forge, PA
Exposed Soldier's Huts, Valley Forge, PA
Sheltered Soldier's Huts, Valley Forge, PA
Grand Parade Ground, Valley Forge, PA

Walking along the barren parade grounds of Valley Forge on an overcast late November day encumbered by a cold rain mixed with sleet can only hint at the struggle enjoined by the fourteen thousand colonial men who filed into this Pennsylvania valley on December 19, 1777. This imposing valley chosen by General George Washington to winter his troops became a living crucible of historic change. The valley acquired its name from the iron forge on Valley Creek that had been operational until the British forces destroyed it. The new Continental Congress had been expected to have food, supplies and fortifications in place, but the men found nothing but the barren landscape when they arrived that winter’s day. It was left to Washington and his men to forage for themselves to provide the necessary provisions for survival so that the revolution for freedom from British taxation and tyranny would survive with them. It took the men eight weeks to build their own simple one room shelters while they endured the frigid elements. The ensuing winter was bitter and over three thousand patriots did not live to see the arrival of spring. Weaker souls deserted to return to the warmth of home.

A national park like Gettysburg has many impressive cannon placements and revetments to visually show where thousands of men clashed in mortal combat. The land at Valley Forge suggests a much more subtle struggle. The park has a few defensive redoubts with a smattering of small cannon, but the real battle in this hallowed place was fought against disease, the elements and the temptation to not stay the course. The energies of these patriots were focused on survival and the critical training required to be a united force of men whose hearts and souls were dedicated to the cause of freedom. The men who occupied this valley were from all over the world. They struggled so that the sons and daughters of immigrants might live and prosper as a free people in these United States of America. Come spring, “the beating of their hearts echoed the beating of the drums” as they marched out of the valley with a newly formed resolve and strength to meet destiny.

The valley’s namesake is an apt image for the transformation of the collective character of the united army that emerged in the spring. This character was transformed and strengthened through a crucible of frigid hardship and endurance in much the same way that iron is forged into steel in the crucible of fire. These freedom fighters had been forged in the trials and challenges of those winter months, while their British counterparts were living a relatively comfortable life in the captured city of Philadelphia only eighteen miles away.

A young twenty year old French major general, the Marquis de Lafayette, had both the ear of the French King Louie XVI and the heart of General Washington. When the French finally recognized the new country and allied with the United States on May 6, 1778, five thousand British troops were sent from Philly to defend their profitable sugar cane interests in the Caribbean. The remaining troops were ordered to join forces in New York. Ironically, Louie XVI was overthrown by his own dissident revolutionary countrymen just a decade later. Lafayette died at age 76 and is buried in Paris under soil from Washington’s grave in Mount Vernon.

The arrival of a volunteer from Germany, General Friederich von Steuben, was fortuitous because he was able to forge a seasoned fighting force in this valley capable of meeting the professional enemy head on in the open fields of the Atlantic coast area. These patriots defeated the British in a late June battle at Monmouth, New Jersey, as they retreated to New York. That winter’s easy living conditions actually weakened the British soldiers during that fateful march which was ordered in extraordinarily hot and humid conditions.

The fires of freedom dimmed and were in perilous danger of burning out in the cold rain and sleet, but the collective spirit and passion of these men for a nation of free countrymen kept them alive to live and fan the wild prairie fires of the heart and soul of a new united nation, forged in the frigid winter winds of this Pennsylvania valley.

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