• Log huts are coated in a fresh layer of snow

    Valley Forge

    National Historical Park Pennsylvania

Preface

"Are you finally going to tell the truth about Valley Forge?" he asked me. In researching this book, I had the opportunity to meet many people belonging to a number of organizations associated with this renowned historic site, most of them deeply committed to the place and concerned about what went on there. One dedicated gentleman was quite curious about what I was writing, and very serious when he posed that loaded question.

His question told me that the gentleman was well aware of a current lack of consensus about exactly what had happened at Valley Forge. His manner also told me that it was important to him that his particular view be promulgated as the correct one. Like most Americans, he perceived history as a search for a single, discoverable truth to be staunchly defended once it had been found.

Professional historians view history differently. They are well aware that the books and papers they produce contain not "the truth" but their own interpretation of a past that can never be completely recaptured, and that they cannot escape the biases and prevalent attitudes of their own time in judging the people and events of the past. In his book The Past Is a Foreign Country, David Lowenthal writes: "The past as we know it is partly a product of the present, we continually reshape memory, rewrite history, refashion relics." [1] He adds that even those who define themselves as revisionists do not so much set the record straight as add one more version to an existing body of interpretations. [2] In his book on creative interpretations of the American Revolution titled A Season of Youth: The American Revolution in Historical Imagination, Michael Kammen writes, "Even our most essential traditions have been subject to some startling shifts." [3]

Valley Forge really has several histories. There is the history of the Continental Army's winter encampment of 1777—1778, but there is also a history of how that particular story has been told—something the professionals call its historiography. And because the immense popularity of the Valley Forge story led to the preservation of a large physical site, there is in addition a history of what has been done at Valley Forge to pay tribute to this event, to illustrate it and evoke it, and to make its meaning clear to visitors. Interpretations of the Valley Forge story have changed over the years, and so has the Valley Forge landscape.

In the early nineteenth century, Americans tended to be indifferent to their history, although they increasingly glorified the survivors of the Revolutionary War as this generation began dying off. Americans were also surprisingly indifferent to the physical remains of history and allowed many historic structures to be unsentimentally demolished. Mount Vernon had nearly been sold to commercial developers when a group of women intervened, their efforts were an example to those who later came together to preserve something of the campground at Valley Forge.

"Remaking the past to embody their own wished-for virtues was a major Victorian enterprise," Lowenthal writes. [4] As American society became increasingly industrialized and urban-based, and as more and more foreigners arrived on American soil, Americans looked nostalgically back to the Colonial and Revolutionary periods, longing for the traditions and values that were thought to have prevailed before society's changes began to threaten the future. Ancestral societies that only older-stock Americans were eligible to join were established. Old buildings were restored and battlefields preserved. In America's Romantic Era, the tale of a dismal military winter camp at Valley Forge began taking on legendary qualities. Valley Forge became the place where virtue had triumphed through sacrifice and perseverance. Other historic sites associated with George Washington were spoken of as "shrines," making Valley Forge seem even more sacred because so much human suffering, it was thought, had been so willingly dedicated to so worthy a cause. The hallowed ground seemed to cry out for physical preservation and glorification.

Between the end of the nineteenth century and World War I, American nationalism found physical expression in the erection of monuments designed to inspire respect for the virtues they celebrated. Valley Forge got its own share of monuments—some excellent works of art, others less significant, but all now artifacts in their own right.

During the first third of the twentieth century, there was a gradual shift from the tendency to memorialize the past toward attempts to physically recreate it. Many historic sites tried to match the remarkable popular appeal of the re-created colonial capital at Williamsburg, and Valley Forge was no different. However, in a recent article in New York Review, Ada Louise Huxtable expresses the modern view of sites like Williamsburg, saying:

The blend of new and old, real and fake, original and copy, in even the best of these restorations defies analysis, it is dedicated to a wholly artificial construction that is supposed to convey a true (that is, tangible) experience of American art and history. But if these "recreations" teach something to those who might otherwise remain innocent of history, they also devalue what they teach, the intrinsic values of the real place are transformed and falsified. [5]

In an article titled "Visiting the Past: History Museums in the United States," Michael Wallace writes that after World War II "the populist openings of the thirties were checked and reversed, and the meaning of 'historic' narrowed once again, as the bourgeoisie set out to uproot un-Americanism' and celebrate, with renewed complacency, 'the American Way of Life.' " [6] During the Cold War period, communism seemed to threaten the very existence of America. It was hoped that the nation's history and its historic sites could influence Americans to uphold American values and be prepared to defend them. Groups that had long been involved with Valley Forge, as well as one significant newcomer, made attempts to use the ambience of the place to promote Americanism.

The Civil Rights Movement brought a new appreciation for diversity and prompted a new generation of historians to discover the history of women blacks, and ethnic minorities. Vietnam and Watergate brought to American society an iconoclasm that may have inspired the reevaluation of long-accepted historical accounts, while new scientific instruments made it possible to gain new insight from existing sites, documents, and artifacts. In the last twenty-five years, professionals have come up with new interpretations of the history of Valley Forge and the remains at its physical site.

Today, more than four million people a year visit the park and view its landscape, but what do they really see when they look at buildings like Washington's Headquarters, monuments like the National Memorial Arch or re-created structures like the log huts that were once supposed to give the place a Williamsburg air? In an article titled "Harnessing the Romance of the Past: Preservation, Tourism, and History," Patricia Mooney-Melvin writes:

Every site, no matter how faithfully preserved, represents a collection of pasts. In addition to the accumulation of its own history, a site is a combination of where it currently is and what it is "supposed" to represent. People, politics, level of research, the absence or presence of preservation funding, and management approaches to particular sites all influence what the visitor sees. [7]

A Valley Forge visitor sees both the remains of more than a century of commemoration and much intellectual contention over the appropriate way to experience the Valley Forge story. Structures in the landscape at Valley Forge reveal more about the tastes and attitudes of succeeding generations than they do about Washington's army.

No, I am not trying to tell "the truth" about the winter encampment at Valley Forge. My story begins just after Washington's army marched out. This book is about Valley Forge in its role as a historic site of national importance: a place where people go to learn about or pay tribute to one incident in American history. This book examines the words, the structures, and the objects that have been used to tell the Valley Forge story at this physical place. In a larger sense, it is about how the Valley Forge experience has been promoted, packaged, and often exploited, and it examines what has perhaps been the longer, harder, and less well known ordeal of Valley Forge.

I owe sincere thanks to a number of people at the National Park Service who helped me research the archival material at Valley Forge National Historical Park. Chief among them are Joan Marshall-Dutcher, Joseph Lee Boyle, and Phyllis Ewing. I also thank Betty Browning, Dona McDermott, and Fran McDevitt for their assistance, as well as Bob Dodson, E. Scott Kalbach, Barbara Fox, Tom McGimsey, and Superintendent Warren D. (Denny) Beach, who all provided information through interviews.

I owe a great deal to the Valley Forge Historical Society, and particularly to its president Meade Jones for her cooperation and support and permission to research the society's files and minutes. In addition, I thank Betty McHenry and the office staff at the Valley Forge Historical Society for their patient assistance.

I am grateful to the current rector at the Washington Memorial Chapel, the Rev. Dr. Richard Stinson, and to the former rector as well, the Rev. Sheldon M. Smith. I extend my thanks to the parish office staff and especially to carillonneur/historian Frank DellaPenna.

I also thank Robert Miller, Betty Miller, Charles Hepburn, and Hal Badger at the Freedoms Foundation, as well as Mrs. Aloysius S. Banmiller of the Valley Forge DAR.

Finally, I want to thank the helpful staff members of the following institutions: the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, the University of Pennsylvania Archives, the Pennsylvania State Archives, the Chester County Historical Society, the Historical Society of Montgomery County, the Norristown Times Herald Microfilm Library, the Mid-Atlantic Regional Office of the National Park Service, Falvey Memorial Library at Villanova University, the Winterthur Library, and the Winterthur Archives. My thanks also go to my editor at Penn State Press, Peter J. Potter, to my manuscript editor, Peggy Hoover, and to the scholars who reviewed my manuscript, Wayne Bodle, and Dwight Pitcaithley of the National Park Service.

Two works were particularly helpful to me in developing my bibliography. These are Harlan D. Unrau's internally distributed Administrative History of Valley Forge National Historical Park and Barbara McDonald Powell's "The Most Celebrated Encampment: Valley Forge in American Culture, 1777—1983" (Ph. D. dissertation, Cornell University, 1983).

I reserve my warmest gratitude for my husband, Matthew A. Treese, for his help with my research, but mainly for the affectionate encouragement that sustained me through this project. Without Mat this book would not have been written.

Did You Know?

soldiers marching

Precision marching was the key to victory on the 18th century battlefield. Inspector General Baron von Steuben made marching the central element of his training program at Valley Forge. By May the army was able to stay in formation while advancing and retreating over all types of ground.