There were no battles fought at Valley Forge, but the location is the site of some of the bravest actions of the Revolutionary War. Thousands of men suffered through months of starvation and disease, many without shoes, blankets or complete sets of clothing – because they believed in the cause of American freedom. It is where a shift happened from a poorly pieced together citizen army of militiamen to a (relatively) well-trained, cohesive American army. At Valley Forge, the character of General George Washington was tested and triumphed by keeping his men together through unimaginable difficulties.
The Revolutionary War was not won (or even actually fought) at Valley Forge, but it’s one of those miracles of history that the war wasn’t lost here. The strength of character and leadership (Washington, von Steuben, Greene, Knox, Lafayette) came together in a miraculous way to keep the Revolution and its fighting men alive.
To me, Valley Forge represents sacred ground. There are few, if any, soldiers known to be buried here (the sick were most often shipped to off-site hospitals in neighboring communities), but the sacrifice that occurred and the bravery required to survive represents one of the greatest moments in our early history.
Valley Forge National Historical Park is a beautiful place. Historical structures are beautifully preserved or recreated, monuments are well cared for, and the encampment sites are well marked. The driving tour takes you through about 10 miles of the park – sometimes into forested, almost untouched areas, and others around newly reconstructed sites of historical buildings.
It’s beautiful, inspiring, and … recreational?
Valley Forge National Historical Park is, in addition to being a historical landmark, also a massive community park tucked into the middle of what are now vast suburbs of Philadelphia. Two miles away is the King of Prussia mall. From the site of the reconstructed cabins of the Muhlenberg Brigade, you can look out over a view of the Valley Forge Casino.
At the base of a large monument to General “Mad” Anthony Wayne, a group of college kids played frisbee. In the shade of the trees around the National Memorial Arch, a group had planted camp chairs, a cooler and a full picnic. Early Sunday morning, the trails were full of runners, dog walkers, bicyclists and the occasional skateboarder (taking a chance that they wouldn’t get caught, because that’s actually not permitted). While taking a photo with General Baron von Steuben, I apologized to the young couple snuggled up on the nearby bench and promised that I wasn’t going to get them in my photo.
In other words, the surrounding community takes advantage of this huge expanse of grass, woods, and trails in exactly the way that you’d expect them to. I suspect General Washington would love to know that this area is now a well-loved recreation area. General von Steuben would have gotten a kick out of young couples making out in his shadow. I like to think, however, that Lieutenant (later Secretary of Treasury) Alexander Hamilton would be (like I was) put off by the frisbee playing, bench canoodling, and macaroni salad eating park visitors that seem oblivious to the shadow of greatness under which they frolic.
* Subtitled: A crotchety old woman screams “Get off (America’s) lawn!”