Discovering What Washington's Troops
Left Behind at Valley Forge

Valley Forge Dig 2000
Valley Forge National Historical Park presents a calm and peaceful face to the visitor. It is difficult to imagine that over 200 years ago, during the first years of the Revolutionary War, thousands of men of the Continental Army called this home for seven months. The archeologists at Valley Forge were eager to get beneath the surface, and go below the grassy meadows and leaf-littered forest floor to find out what remained of the legendary winter camp where Washington's army became a well disciplined fighting force.

Over the past several years, the archeologists of the National Park Service's Valley Forge Center for Cultural Resources have been thinking about Washington's men and what they left behind. They knew that the log huts, or cabins, standing in the Park today were all 20th century recreations of the 18th century huts lived in by the soldiers. All the original huts were removed shortly after Washington's troops left Valley Forge. In fact, when Washington visited the area 15 years after the war, he noted that all the huts were gone, and he was very happy that the signs of war had been obliterated.

The Dig Team: Pros & Volunteers
Three professional archeologists from the Valley Forge Center of Cultural Resources directed the excavation site, where General Washington and his Continental Army troops lived in the winter of 1777-78. The funding for the dig was provided by Aurora Foods Inc., makers of Log Cabin syrup, in partnership with the National Park Foundation. This funding allowed Valley Forge to purchase needed equipment and to hire two student assistant archeologists.

Figure 1
Figure 1:
David Orr, chief archeologist, directs student volunteers at the Valley Forge excavation.
Figure 2
Figure 2:
Volunteers on the Valley Forge dig ranged in age from 10- to 80-years old.

As is the case for most archeological excavations such as this, the team also depended on the assistance of a wide range of volunteers. Over the summer, more than 60 adults and students volunteered to be a part of the Valley Forge dig team. The volunteers ranged in age from 10 to 80-years-old. Most of the volunteers gave a week of their time, and many spent more than a week over the summer volunteering on the project. Some people had participated on archeological digs before. For others, this was their first time on such an adventure. A number of other professional archeologists and specialists also contributed their expertise to this excavation.

Unlike the cold, wet winter experienced by Washington's troops, this summer's project was hot, sweaty, and bug-filled. Despite these conditions, everyone had a good time and learned a lot about the life of a Revolutionary War soldier and the study of archeology.

The Log Huts from 1777
Much of what is known of Valley Forge's appearance during the Revolution comes from a few written sources. No detailed descriptions or contemporary drawings of the encampment survive. Washington's General Orders of December 18, 1777, instructed the troops how to build their huts:

"The Soldier's huts are to be of the following dimensions, viz: fourteen by sixteen each, sides, ends and roofs made with logs, and the roof made tight with split slabs, or in some other way; the sides made tight with clay, fireplace made of wood and secured with clay on the inside eighteen inches thick, this fireplace to be in the rear of the hut; the door to be in the end next the street; the doors to be made of split oak slabs, unless boards can be procured. Side-walls to be six and a half feet high. The officers huts to form a line in the rear of the troops, one hut to be allowed for each General Officer, one to the Staff of each brigade, one to the field officers of each regiment, one to the commissioned officers of two companies, and one to every twelve non-commissioned officers and soldiers."

A map drawn up by Brigadier General Louis Lebèque Duportail, a French engineer assisting the American cause, shows the general location of each of the Army's brigades within the encampment. However, the map shows nothing of the actual layout of the brigades. A concept of an idealized layout of a brigade can be gleaned from the notebook of General Von Steuben, the Prussian General credited with making the Continental Army into a disciplined military force. The notebook was written after the Army's time at Valley Forge. His plan shows how the tents in a camp would have been arranged, and the archeology team presumes that the hut layout would have been similar (see Figure 3).

Figure 3
Figure 3: General Von Steuben's idealized plan for the layout of a camp.

Selecting the Dig Site
Much that was left behind from the Valley Forge encampment lies beneath the soil. The excavation team suspected that digging could reveal much that was left behind and was now buried. To start, they needed to gather together as much historical information as they could. This included letters the officers wrote, general orders given to the camp, a few diaries kept by enlisted men, as well as the few contemporary maps that are available. They also looked at drawings and paintings from the time of the Revolutionary War. A lot of thought went into where would be the best place in the park to find evidence about the encampment. The more they studied the maps, reports of earlier archeological work, historical documents, and the clues evident in the modern landscape, the more the Valley Forge archeology team focused on a particular wooded area as a good place to start digging.

The area in question is where two Pennsylvania Brigades built their cabins on a rocky hillside now covered with trees. This area was probably open pasture land at the time of the Revolution. This hillside provided a good vantage point for guarding the approach from Philadelphia, the direction where a British attack was most likely to occur. Studies showed this land had never been plowed. This fact was important to archeologists because plowing disturbs the soil and damages any artifacts or cultural features buried in the soil. Since this hillside was fairly steep, the men and officers had prepared -- by digging into the slope -- flat areas on which to build their cabins.

Mapping the Dig Site
The archeological work began in the early spring. The initial step was to begin mapping in detail what could be seen at the surface. Spring was a good time to do this work because the leaves were off the low-lying shrubbery. They could see a line of very subtle depressions, quite close together, near the crest of the hill facing Philadelphia, occupied by the British.

These depressions in the land closely matched the line of tents assigned to the enlisted men evident in Von Steuben's plan. Behind these, farther down the hill, were much deeper depressions, spaced farther apart. This area appeared to match the layout of the officers' quarters, which is an area that was also shown on the Von Steuben plan. To their amazement, even farther down the hill, they found some strange, circular earthworks they could not identify at first. But once again, Von Steuben's plan assisted them. The excavation team realized these were the remains of bake ovens, and they were now in the support section of the camp, where bread was baked, food was cooked, and supplies were stored. When they tied in all these features with the defensive line of trenches at the top of the hill, they saw that they had a cross-section of the entire camp preserved, from the forward military works to the support areas in the rear. For the first time, they would be able to study a slice of the daily life of both the soldiers and officers from this critical turning point in the American Revolution.

Excavating the Dig Site
Since the brigade covered a large region, the dig team decided to excavate a representative portion of each of the three main areas of the camp. These were the enlisted men's huts, the officers' area, and the support area. Since archeologists are always aware that excavation removes resources from their original location, this approach would preserve most of the camp intact for future generations to study. Guided by the map they had produced, they began their dig in June 2000, in the officers' area where the log hut depressions were the deepest and most distinct.

In the officers' area the team excavated portions of three huts and some of the activity areas between the huts. The results were exciting. Despite the fact that all of the logs from the original huts were removed right after the end of the Revolutionary War, they found clear-cut details of hut construction. Despite George Washington's orders, it is interesting that none of these huts was made in exactly the same way or to the same dimensions. Two of the huts had very well preserved stone hearths, or fireplaces. These were so well made that they were probably constructed by skilled workers (see Figures 4 and 5).

Figure 4
Figure 4:
Plan of the stone hearth in one of the officer's huts.
Figure 5
Figure 5:
The stone hearth shown in the plan in Figure 4.

Artifacts Unearthed
Unlike the enlisted men, the officers probably had plenty of assistance building their quarters. The officers were expected to provide their own equipment and provisions. Tiny fragments of pottery and glass found in the officers' hut areas showed that they often brought high-quality dinnerware from home to use at the Valley Forge camp. Non-military personal items found in the officers' hut areas during the recent dig included artifacts such as ornate cufflinks (see Figure 6). Military artifacts unearthed this summer included musket and pistol balls, gunflints, and metal parts from weapons (see Figure 7).

Figure 6
Figure 6:
A pair of ornate cufflinks and a civilian button.
Figure 7
Figure 7:
A gunflint, musket balls, and the hammer from a musket.

According to orders, soldiers were not supposed to cook inside their huts. The fireplaces were intended for heating. The archeology shows, though, that this was not always the case. Frequently bones from their meals ended up in the fireplace. One hut (see Figure 8) that was excavated this summer appears to have a hearth built outside its walls. This was probably a place where the soldiers prepared food, perhaps during the spring, when the weather permitted. This is the first time experts have seen such a feature at Valley Forge.

Figure 8
Figure 8: A working plan of the ongoing exacation in one of the officer's huts.

A group of student volunteers and their parents from the Valley Forge Elementary School were involved in removing the sod in the enlisted men's area. To their excitement, artifacts and animal bones began to appear just beneath the surface. This was one of the most productive phases of the excavation. Mapping led the excavation team to expect this area to be a hut, but further excavation revealed an area of intense activity revolving around an outdoor stone-rimmed fire pit that proved to be surrounded by trash deposits. Archeologists love trash deposits for what they can tell about the parts of daily life that people rarely write about in history books.This trash deposit area indicates that the enlisted men were apparently cooking their meals very near the front line fortifications, far from the camp kitchen area. This practice was contrary to orders. Although the archeologists cannot be sure of the quantities, they appeared to have eaten the traditional diet of beef and pork. Based on preliminary study, the bones seem to come from poorer cuts of meat like foot bones, or from old, stringy, animals. These cuts of meat were probably boiled for a long time in order to make them more edible.

Another interesting feature of this site was a rock-lined path, or road, that probably ran between the first row of huts and the fortifications. The archeologists speculated that these rocks were laid down to cover a muddy track along the row of huts. Revolutionary War period artifacts and animal bones were found both above and beneath the stone pavement.

The team was particularly intrigued to find several military buttons in this part of the site. These buttons, which indicated the regiment of the wearer, came from various British, not American, regiments! A few of the buttons were inscribed with a "K8," indicating the King's Eighth Regiment (see Figure 9). Further research revealed that this regiment remained in Quebec (hundreds of miles to the north) for the entire war. However, Americans under General Anthony Wayne had captured British wagon trains headed to Quebec several months before the encampment at Valley Forge. It is probable that the poorly supplied Americans were re-using the valuable British uniforms. Valley Forge has a letter from the Quartermaster General of the Continental Army that describes how boiling the red British coats with chestnuts would turn the cloth a more acceptable brown. It can be speculated that this area of Valley Forge was the place where the red coats were dyed and transformed into American uniforms, and the British buttons were lost or discarded in the process.

Figure 9
Figure 9:
A British uniform button, from the King's Eighth Regiment.
A musket ball found nearby is shown below it.

The Camp Support Area
The third area examined was in the support area of the camp. This was the area where food was stored and cooked, bread baked, and draft and food animals were to be penned. Orders and general military practice of the time indicated this support area should be behind the lines. Additionally, the officers were usually placed between the men and the supplies and provisions.

During the mapping phase of the 2000 archeological dig, the team identified two fairly large, circular earth features that appeared to be camp kitchens or bake ovens. Such kitchens appear as circular symbols on Von Steuben's plan (see Figure 3) and are pictured in at least one Revolutionary War-era painting (see Figure 10). According to descriptions, bread was baked for the brigade in ovens placed within the central earth mound, and food was prepared in pots arrayed around the mound's perimeter. The Valley Forge experts assumed that the cooking area would be a focus of activity in the camp. A trench through one of the earth features was excavated in the hopes of finding artifacts used in the cooking or baking process, which could have been discarded by the cooks and bakers, or used by men coming to retrieve their rations. The results of digging in this bake oven area were inconclusive and very few Revolutionary War artifacts were found in this area. The team plans to explore and excavate this area further next summer.

Figure 10
Figure 10: A contemporary illustration of a military camp kitchen.

Plans to Continue the Dig
The Valley Forge archeological team was excited to find that many of the finds it made this summer were in a suberb state of preservation, and the Valley Forge excavation area far exceeds their initial expectations. Next year they plan to continue the work of digging into the areas where General George Washington and his Continental Army troops encamped over 200 years ago. They plan to extend the mapping begun this year to include even more of the brigade area. They also plan to complete the excavation of the huts in both the officers' and enlisted men's areas, and excavate additional huts. They will further investigate the features between the huts, which should include trash deposits and trash pits. They will try to locate the privy pits, which are likely to have been refilled with fascinating garbage that should reveal much about the soldiers' diets and daily lives. Next summer Valley Forge will once again plan to enlist the assistance of a new group of enthusiastic volunteers in these efforts.

For more information on the Summer 2000 excavations, call the Center for Cultural Resources, Valley Forge National Historical Park at 610-783-0250. Or to volunteer for a future excavation, call Paulette Mark at 610-783-1061. Or write for information at: Valley Forge National Historical Park, P.O. Box 953, Valley Forge, PA 19482-0953.

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