Chapter Eleven: New Interpretations at Valley Forge (part two)

In 1978 and 1979, a broad-scale survey of Valley Forge was conducted by the Museum Applied Science Center for Archaeology (MASCA) at the University of Pennsylvania Museum. This was a comprehensive multidisciplinary project designed to gather information about structures and topographical features at the park. Various new archaeological prospecting techniques were used, including aerial photography and geophysical surveying. [34]

Archaeology was not new at Valley Forge, but previous park administrators had made no attempts to coordinate the programs of outside experts or to produce a long-term plan for future archaeological research. As late as 1960, a park commission report told how a John J. Smith, identified as an "authorized relic hunter," had been permitted to search unsupervised for buttons, buckles, and musket balls. [35] Only in the 1960s were all such ad hoc individual authorizations revoked by the park commission, [36]

The park commission had slowly adopted the better policy of allowing recognized archaeological scholars to create their own agendas. Duncan Campbell, who had worked with Brumbaugh in excavating the "lost redoubt," returned with small groups in 1962, 1966, and 1975. [37] In 1966, Dr. John L. Cotter, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and a regional archaeologist for the National Park Service, conducted summer classes there for Penn students. [38] This group excavated hut depressions in a wooded area near the Wayne statue; they identified several hut sites, unearthed the remains of fireplaces, and collected various artifacts. [39] Cotter again conducted summer classes at Valley Forge in the summer of 1972, then digging along the outer line, where troops from Virginia had encamped. His project brought new insight into how hut designs had varied among and even within brigades. [40] Cotter's work overlapped work done in 1965, 1972, and 1973 by Vance Packard Jr., staff archaeologist for the William Penn Museum, who excavated several areas, including some near Washington's Headquarters, Varnum s Quarters, the schoolhouse, and the building known as the site of Hunting ton's Quarters. [41]

After the transition to the National Park Service, objects recovered in archaeological digs were increasingly prized for their interpretive value. Back in 1973, one park commissioner had questioned their worth, writing: "$10,000 has been spent and we have seven rusty nails, 200 bags of broken arrowheads from a prior era, one cannonball and some fish bones, reported to our local papers on this tremendous 'find.'" [42] As material culture became a more common basis for interpreting the lives of people who left few or no records, encampment remains were studied for the insight they could provide into the life of the ordinary soldier, while other finds provided information on the occupations of persons living and working at Valley Forge both before and after the Revolution.4 [43] In 1978, the park acquired the Neumann Collection of Revolutionary War artifacts, now on display in the Visitor Center, where visitors can form their own conclusions about camp life from material objects.

One thing the archaeologists never found was evidence of human graves at Valley Forge. Duncan Campbell had sought graves near the Waterman Monument but found only offal pits instead. [44] Subsequent research among primary source materials revealed very few references to soldiers being buried at Valley Forge, but many references to the need to dispose of the remains of butchered cattle and dead horses. A 1983 survey listed eleven to fifteen areas previously marked as grave sites, but how these had become identified as such was not known. [45] A decision was made to preserve the presumed grave sites, but the park is certainly not being interpreted as a mass burial ground today. Says park historian Joseph Lee Boyle, "No substantiated human graves have ever been found in the park," which is a significant shift in interpretation from what was being written at the turn of the century. [46]

Material for a new interpretation of the Valley Forge story also came from an ambitious, multidisciplinary project initiated in 1977 that produced a highly controversial document called the Valley Forge Report. Park Service historians quickly realized that the Valley Forge story as most people knew it was a romantic blend of history and tradition, a considerable percentage of it untraceable to primary source material. Many accounts of the winter encampment had been based on published primary sources that had been quoted over and over again; others incorporated material that could be traced only as far back as the nineteenth century. It seemed that one of the most celebrated incidents in American history was really one of the least well researched. Therefore, several research historians were hired to collect and collate primary data. They spent a year visiting more than 100 repositories of documents throughout the United States, and even some in Europe. They accumulated more than 10,000 copies of documents and 265 rolls of microfilm, creating a respectable collection of Revolutionary War information. A new interpretation of this material was developed primarily by two historians, Wayne Bodle and Jacqueline Thibaut, who based no assertions on hearsay and very little on published primary sources unless the original documents also had been found. The result was a three-volume work made available between 1980 and 1982 that tended to de-romanticize the Valley Forge experience.

In the first volume, Bodle dealt with the December 1777 march to Valley Forge and the condition of the Continental Army at that time. Many other authors had described ragged, defeated, and disorganized soldiers stumbling along Gulph Road. Bodle remarked, "It is impossible to take seriously both the image and the demonstrable facts of the 1777 campaign," [47] and maintained that the army had been worse for wear but not in its death throes as an organized force. While the soldiers had been living from hand to mouth, their situation was less desperate than "desperate as usual." [48] As for the traditional image that had emerged primarily from Washington's correspondence, Washington may have exaggerated somewhat. Bodle wrote: "Washington was about to channel the frustration stemming from his current military impotence into a political offensive aimed at the governing bodies which sonorously deliberated at York and Lancaster." [49] Previous historians had interpreted Washington's famous warning to Congress that the army was about to "starve, dissolve, or disperse" literally, but Bodle concluded that the letter had been purposely worded in a way that was calculated to galvanize Congress into action. [50]

Bodle also dispelled the romantic notion that a rabble of farmers and tinkers had been magically transformed into a professional army by Von Steuben at Valley Forge. Bodle suggested that even Von Steuben would not have been able to train a genuine rabble in so short a time, writing: "The pre-Steuben army was already at an organizational crystallization point, needing only a knowledgeable, patient and pragmatic individual with the authority and credibility to translate its latent discipline into increased functional effectiveness." [51]

In the second volume, Jacqueline Thibaut dealt with the cherished image of starving soldiers at Valley Forge by thoroughly examining how support services were operating during this period of the American Revolution. She identified the soldiers' staple foodstuffs as beef, flour, and liquor and examined the source of these supplies and how they were expected to reach the men at Valley Forge. She wrote about the famous "February crisis," a period in mid-February 1778 when Washington's troops at Valley Forge suffered a dearth of meat, describing it as a time of "unmitigated misery for Washington's troops" [52] caused by "a confluence of political dissension and organizational ineptitude." [53] However, Thibaut concluded, "There is no record that anyone starved, although the reduced diet combined with poor quarters was certainly conducive to disease." [54]

If the soldiers were not really starving, were they as naked as previous historians had depicted them? Thibaut wrote: "The troops were a multi-hued lot, clothed in a disparate array of uniforms, civilian clothing, and hunting shirts, and some were every bit as ragged as tradition has depicted them." [55] She noted that lack of footgear was a particularly galling problem, but that during the coldest months soldiers deemed unfit for duty because they were inadequately clothed were confined to their huts and not expected to expose bare limbs to harsh weather. [56]

"Historians have found it almost impossible to resist fashioning the Valley Forge winter into a 'crucial turning point' of the Revolutionary odyssey," Thibaut concluded. In the Valley Forge Report, she defines it instead as "an unparalleled convergence of hazards besetting the army, as one support mechanism after another faltered, then failed, threatening the survival of the army as a concerted force." [57] There had been no miraculous delivery from misery, since the Continental Army had not experienced the last of cold, hunger, and ragged clothing. According to Thibaut, Valley Forge was a more mundane turning point in which American government officials grappled for the first time with the difficult and uncharted logistics of supplying an army—the war effort ultimately benefiting from the experience they gained. [58]

Just how revisionist was the new interpretation offered by the Valley Forge Report? Historian John Reed, long the editor of the historical society's journal and associated with several Valley Forge organizations, had recently presented the more traditional view in his 1969 book Crucible of Victory. Reed had drawn on primary source materials in the available body of knowledge before the research done by the park service historians. The language he chose tended to emphasize suffering and sacrifice: weary soldiers trudging toward Valley Forge in 1777, "leaning for protection against the hard north wind," [59] That December, he claimed, "hunger was everywhere," and by the end of February "not a scrap of meat was available to the troops." [60] In Reed's version, Valley Forge was indeed a turning point, although "the ultimate triumph lay years in advance." At Valley Forge a door had been opened "to freedom and independence," and the spirit and training that Washington's men had gained "would carry that cause to triumph." [61]

In 1976, John B. B. Trussell wrote an interpretation of the Valley Forge experience titled Birthplace of an Army, also based on primary sources available before the Valley Forge Report was researched. While this work still incorporated many traditional beliefs stated as facts, Trussell's interpretation moved away from the more romanticized version and suggested some of the points that would be made more confidently in the Valley Forge Report. Yes, he stated in the preface, Washington's army had suffered at Valley Forge, but the shortages they experienced would not be the worst of their careers. [62] Trussell gave the pre—Valley Forge Continental Army credit for already having some training and structure and for having given a good account of themselves at Brandywine, the Paoli Massacre, and Germantown. [63] While still depicting the Valley Forge experience as a monument to endurance and dedication, its real significance, he contended, was that doctrinal differences had been ironed out, standards had been set, and men had been schooled in their duties, which was enough to make it a turning point of the Revolutionary period equal in importance to the signing of the Declaration of Independence or the confrontations at Saratoga and Yorktown. [64]

Because the Valley Forge Report was never made generally available through publication, it was not formally reviewed, and there is no consensus on how America's academic scholars feel about its ultimate value. John Shy, professor of history at the University of Michigan, to whom a draft of the report was sent, praised it, remarking, "Careful rereading has confirmed my preliminary judgement, that they [the three volumes] are excellent work." He continued, "Both the narrative section and the section on the supply crisis are of high quality. Their [the authors'] research is extensive, and it is also accurate. Nowhere else can be found such detailed accounts of their respective subjects, and for the purposes of Valley Forge National Park this detail is not excessive." [65]

Within the park service, the report was reviewed by Charles W. Snell and John Luzader, both experts in the military phases of the Revolution. Both raised serious criticisms, which may have stemmed in part from the fact that the draft submitted to them was already bound, making it seem that changes would not really be considered. Snell wrote: "Much effort has gone into the production of this volume [volume 1] in the form of an extensive search and collection of unpublished letters and documents. These yield information that is of considerable interest but this is not of great use to the park." [66] He contended that the report overall lacked the kind of data that would enable planners to plan for future interpretation and protection of resources. [67] Luzader criticized the report as being merely a "write up" of what the researchers had discovered that suffered from the authors' "collegiality, inexperience in site-oriented military history and the absence in daily professional support and supervision by a historian with a strong background in Revolutionary period military history." [68] Both reviewers suggested that volumes 1 and 3 be rejected and that volume 2 be revised. In 1984, all three volumes were finally approved, with the provision that the report would later be supplemented by additional studies. [69]

The Valley Forge Report is now fairly widely used by those studying and interpreting the Valley Forge experience. One bibliography published in 1984 described it as "unsurpassed in information about the encampment. The reviewer also wrote: "This work renders outdated every other written work about Valley Forge. It is highly recommended." [70] The Valley Forge Report is also the ultimate basis for what visitors learn on a trip to Valley Forge today. An interpretive prospectus completed in 1982 admitted that telling visitors about military supply problems did not fire the patriotic imagination as much as tales of shivering, starving soldiers, but suggested that Valley Forge be presented as a place where organizational problems were overcome and a support system that could supply a national force was worked out. [71] The same year, information from the Valley Forge Report was blended into the movie shown at the Visitor Center. This film, sponsored by the Pennsylvania Society, Sons of the Revolution, and originally made in the 1970s, had previously been a mood piece with little dialogue but lots of moving visual images of deep snow and suffering soldiers. The new version incorporated a soundtrack that diverted the viewer's attention from some of the film's bleak imagery. It was recently acknowledged that it is not realistic to expect seasonal interpreters to read the entire Valley Forge Report, but information extracted from this material is used for their training, together with lectures from outside experts. [72]

Members of the public who did get a look at the Valley Forge Report did so at a time when a new conservative mood was sweeping America in the 1980s. By then, what iconoclasm had been engendered by Watergate had dissipated, and Americans who were tired of being told what was wrong with their nation welcomed historical accounts that reaffirmed their system. The same feelings of loyalty and patriotism that had led so many to sign the scrolls of the Wagon Train Pilgrimage would lead some to look on the Valley Forge Report as an attempt to devalue the Valley Forge experience and rob Americans of traditional heroes. The report engendered enough resentment to linger through the decade. In a two-part article written for a local newspaper in 1989, David Lockwood began:

Recently, some academicians have attacked the traditional history of the encampment of George Washington's Army at Valley Forge in the winter of 1777—78. Broadly basing their arguments on purported new sources, they question the textbook history's description of weariness, despair, suffering, and heroism of the Army at Valley Forge. [73]

For his own interpretation, Lockwood quoted primary source material tending to emphasize the suffering at Valley Forge and concluded:

Although the mundane factors of inadequate supplies and a poorly organized supply system largely caused the hardships endured by the soldiers at Valley Forge, they in no way should detract from the Valley Forge experience in the winter of 1777—78 as a symbol of the perseverance and courage of American Continental soldiers in the face of extreme hardships and adversity. [74]

That same year, the board of directors of the Valley Forge Historical Society discussed installing a new interpretive exhibit with the theme "Patriotism," and their minutes revealed the concerns of one director about the impact of the Bodle Report" on the exhibit that they already had. [75] Did the present exhibit subject Washington to needless criticism, this board member wondered? [76] He later expressed a desire to have the new display reflect John Reed's more traditional interpretation, so that the lesson of "determination, fortitude and love of human freedom" would not die. [77]

Today, an even more revisionist trend of thinking is alive among many scholars, preservationists, and museum professionals and is beginning to be felt at Valley Forge. What if history is a continuum in which all eras and events are equally important? Although land and structures were originally preserved at Valley Forge because it was the site of the winter encampment, that really was just a single short incident in the history of the place. Perhaps the resources preserved here can tell other stories of equal or greater interest.

Tucked away in Valley Forge National Historical Park on the west side of Valley Creek is a structure officially known as the Philander Knox Estate but still popularly called Maxwell's Quarters, even though it is unknown when the first dwelling on the site was built and it is likely that no building existed here during the winter encampment. In the course of its long history, the structure has been vastly remodeled a number of times, most recently around 1913 by the Philadelphia-area architect R. Brognard Okie. In times past, attempts might have been made to restore the house to its supposed eighteenth-century look, but in historical structure studies done in the early 1980s the Dodds recommended that it be preserved and interpreted as an example of a country estate of the early twentieth century. They write that the house as it stands "is invaluable as a physical documentation of a way of life which has almost been rendered extinct at Valley Forge." [78]

Tom McGimsey, a former historic architect at Valley Forge, agrees with this view and even regrets that the Washington Inn was restored to match the colonial look of the Washington Headquarters area. In his mind, the most important period of that particular structure's history was the time it spent serving visitors to Valley Forge as a hotel and restaurant. While the conjectural restoration of a Federal-style building says little about the encampment period, a well-preserved Victorian hotel would have given today's visitors a perspective on another era at Valley Forge. "I can just see Brumbaugh ripping off the wrought iron trim," McGimsey says. Where did he throw it?" [79]

This new ethic is probably responsible for saving another recent park acquisition called the Kennedy-Supplee House, which is presently a restaurant. This structure was built in 1852 and might once have been declared "unhistorical" and demolished because it had nothing to do with the encampment, Instead, it was placed on the National Register in 1983 and leased for adaptive reuse. A 1986 report stated that the structure was a "highly significant early Victorian residence in the Italian villa style." [80]In his own evaluation, John Dodd praised the Egyptian Revival interior details: "The Kennedy Mansion reaches far beyond the Encampment at Valley Forge in its significance as part of the architectural history of the nation and particularly to the Park Service, as its owner, in its potential as an educational and cultural asset." [81]

It is almost a shame that the same thinking was not applied to the old observation tower demolished in 1988. Engineers had proclaimed the tower a safety hazard, and it had long come to be regarded as historically useless because tall trees had surrounded it and visitors could no longer view the layout of the winter encampment. Yet the tower was an artifact of its own time, and its presence at Valley Forge recalled the atmosphere of the park around the turn of the century.

The central theme of the most recent major study drafted at Valley Forge is that there is more to Valley Forge than the six months Washington spent there with his army. In his 1990 multidisciplinary archaeological study of the area around Washington's Headquarters, James Kurtz states: "The inclusion of the entire historical record helps to ensure that significant resources will be preserved for future generations." [82] He strongly advocates that a broader view be taken of the history and importance of Valley Forge, focusing on periods that have been ignored since the park was created:

The story of the town of Valley Forge extends well beyond the Revolutionary War encampment. It involves industrial growth and failures, economic bust and booms, ethnic and social strife, and the grass roots formation of a park that today is linked with the suffering of the Continental Army during the winter of 1777 and 1778. It is a story worth telling to the public. [83]

Valley Forge can become a more interesting place than it has ever been. The stories of the Valley Forge encampment, the Valley Forge community, and Valley Forge the historic place—with its legacy of artifacts and interpretations reflecting our changing values and our attitude toward American history—are all interwoven. The study of any single aspect becomes more rewarding when consideration is given to the other two, The full story of Valley Forge is not only worth telling to the public; it is impossible to ignore.

Last updated: February 26, 2015

Contact the Park

Mailing Address:

1400 North Outer Line Drive
King of Prussia, PA 19406

Phone:

(610) 783-1000

Contact Us