Chapter One : The First Hundred years at Valley Forge (Part 2)

The fame of Valley Forge would spread in 1850 thanks to a series of letters written by Henry Woodman for the Doylestown Intelligencer and later published as a book. Woodman was a Quaker who had spent his early years at Valley Forge. During the winter that Washington's army had camped in the valley, Woodman's mother had been a nineteen-year-old farm girl and his father had been a soldier serving with the North Carolina troops. Woodman wrote that his mother's family's house had been occupied by both General George Weedon and General Baron Johan DeKalb. After the war was over, Woodman's father had revisited Valley Forge on his way back home, hoping to find food and lodging there. He had fallen sick and after his recovery had stayed on as a laborer, marrying the local Sarah Stephens some five years later. [32]

Henry Woodman told of an incident that he claimed occurred in 1796. It seems that his father had been plowing a field at Valley Forge when an elderly gentleman dressed in black had arrived on horseback. Dismounting, the gentleman greeted the elder Woodman cordially and began asking a great many questions about local agriculture. The farmer apologized for being ill prepared to give good answers, saying that he was not a Valley Forge native and had not been brought up to farming, although he had camped at Valley Forge during the Revolutionary War. "This gave a new turn to the conversation," Woodman wrote. The stranger identified himself as George Washington and expressed his delight to find an old soldier engaged in the peaceful and useful occupation of farming. [33] It is entirely possible that Woodman's father did speak to Washington, although Woodman might have had the date wrong. Washington's diaries mention a fishing trip to Valley Forge in 1787 during a hiatus in the Constitutional Convention. The diaries also contain information on farming practices in the valley recorded by Washington, apparently acquired from interviewing local farmers. [34]

Woodman's letters provide a picture of Valley Forge during Woodman's own lifetime. As a child he had gathered wild grapes and chestnuts in the area then still known as "The Camp." He had seen the foundations of soldiers' huts, and had come across the ruins of an old hut chimney. He had discovered decaying bones exposed by soil erosion. He had pointed out Washington's Headquarters to travelers. [35] Woodman added:

It was a very common thing, since my recollection, to find on the grounds some memento of that period. I have often in company with my elder brothers and other boys, sometimes with grown persons, generally strangers, who, when in the neighborhood, had a curiosity to visit the place, and sometimes alone have I spent hours in traversing the ground in search of these relics of the Revolution not that they were of any great value, but [to] possess them as curiosities [was] to remind us of that period. [36]

Woodman also described the Valley Forge of mid-century. Valley Forge was then a village of forty houses and a railway station. Its cotton mills had made the area increasingly prosperous. The Rogers family and the Thropp family had become the local captains of industry. Charles H. Rogers had built a 40-foot observatory on a hilltop and equipped it with a telescope. [37] From the observatory, Woodman reported, one could see

a very beautiful and diversified prospect of the most lovely and interesting scenery in its native grandeur, highly cultivated farms, splendid mansions and commodious farmhouses, neat cottages and handsome villages, the navigable river, the railroad thronged with cars, beautiful streams, hills and dales, "fountains and fresh shades" in abundance, till observation is satisfied in passing. [38]

In Woodman's last letter, he mentioned having received "flattering accounts . . . of [his letters] reception, not only in this my adopted county [Bucks County] , but in other parts of the country, and in the halls of our National legislature," confirming his opinion "that the subject is one of deep interest, and worthy of being rescued from oblivion." [39]

Valley Forge got more national recognition as the professional historians and biographers of the Romantic Era rediscovered the Valley Forge experience. In his 1860 biography of George Washington, Benson J. Lossing wrote:

For in all the world's history, we have no record of purer devotion, holier sincerity, or more pious self-sacrifice, than was there exhibited in the camp of Washington. The courage of the battlefield dwindles almost into insignificance when compared with that sublime heroism displayed by the American soldiery at Valley Forge, in the midst of frost and snow, disease and destitution. [40]

Though the observatory blew down in 1861, Valley Forge attracted increasing numbers of visitors from the greater Philadelphia area. In the early 1870s it accommodated many sightseers and picnickers when Charles H. Rogers leased the old campgrounds to the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad Company. [41] In 1873, a local paper mentioned that the Valley Forge postmaster had leased his fine gardens for summer amusement. Visitors would find that "the Village has a good brass and quadrille band, capable of giving good music for dances or military marches." [42] That August the same paper noted: "The largest party that visited the favorite picnic grounds at Valley Forge this year, was that of the Bethel Colored Church, of Philadelphia, which arrived on last Wednesday. Upwards of 1,200 [railway] tickets, we are informed, were sold for this excursion." [43]

The Centennial Celebration and World's Fair held in 1876 is said to have touched off the Colonial Revival Movement. The fair did feature historical exhibits, but they generally served to glorify the present day by comparison. In the words of cultural historian Karal Ann Marling, "Its old fashioned artifacts gave visible proof of just how wondrous the modern present really was." [44] The nostalgic fascination with the domestic life of the Colonial and Revolutionary eras that characterizes the Colonial Revival Movement can really be traced to modern trends toward industrialization, commercialization, and urbanization that disturbed many Americans and fostered their interest in the history, settings, and objects of the past. Spurred on by authors like Alice Morse Earle, people began collecting antiques to furnish new houses built in revived colonial architectural. styles. Historic houses open to visitors, often furnished with the relics of former inhabitants or donated curiosities, began to multiply. Preservationist groups with names like The Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities and the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities were formed.

As another by-product of the Colonial Revival Movement, hundreds of historical associations were founded and more than fifty patriotic societies were formed. Many upper- and middle-class Americans who were troubled by the increasing number of immigrants newly arrived from southern and eastern Europe joined societies in which membership depended on whether one could trace an ancestor back to the American Revolution or the Colonial period. These organizations duly erected monuments and grave markers to old soldiers, and incidentally conferred a kind of pedigree on their living members. Some of these organizations included the Daughters of the American Revolution, the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America, the Sons of the American Revolution, and the Society of the Cincinnati. [45]

As America's fascination with the past took hold, Delaware Valley residents anticipated that people from all over the nation would want to take day trips to Valley Forge while visiting the world's fair in Philadelphia. In 1873, a local paper had advised: "Valley Forge, which is second to no place in America as to Revolutionary fame, should be made a grand objective point in the Centennial Celebration in 1876." [46] With the same idea in mind, Theodore W. Bean, a lawyer from Norristown, Pennsylvania, published a book called Washington at Valley Forge One Hundred Years Ago, or, The Foot-Prints of the Revolution. His preface identified the volume as a guidebook for Centennial tourists and claimed that the book contained "all that the pilgrim to this spot will require to renew in his heart the debt of gratitude which we owe to the illustrious men who made these hills as notable as their lives have become memorable in the common history of our country." [47]

Bean encouraged visitors to look for existing traces of the winter encampment, such as the still-visible remains of entrenchments, but he also painted a contemporary picture of Valley Forge. By Bean's day, Valley Forge was served by three railroad lines: the Northern Pennsylvania, the Reading, and the Pennsylvania Central. Bean listed the names of important property owners, such as Isaac W. Smith, who owned a woolen factory, and his sister Sarah Shaw. He mentioned Charles H. Rogers, who owned two hundred acres there, and Stanley L. Ogden, the "landlord of the Valley Forge Mansion Hotel located a short distance up the hill from Washington's headquarters." He spoke of Hannah Ogden, a descendant of the Jones family and the current resident at Washington's Headquarters. According to Bean, Mrs. Ogden "keeps the premises in good condition, everything being precisely as when occupied by the General-in-Chief." [48]

Ironically, while Valley Forge was becoming an increasingly popular tourist destination, very little real historical research on the encampment of 1777—1778 was being done. Watson, Woodman, and Bean all had little to say about exactly what happened that winter. Some people were still extremely misinformed. As late as 1873, one individual passing through Valley Forge by rail had been told by a fellow traveler: "Yes, this is Walley Forge. Yonder is the hills on which was fought the biggest battle of our forefathers, and that's Washington's headquarters right over there, where the General stayed and boss'd the job." [49] As if to make up for a lack of hard data, many legends and traditions arose during the course of the nineteenth century. They grew and changed and were enlarged on as they were eagerly handed down.

The powerful visual image of bloody footprints became almost a logo for the winter encampment. Washington's letters to Congress and the reports of other officers had frequently protested that certain regiments were ill clothed. In one letter, Washington mentioned a lack of shoes so severe that the men's "marches might be tracked by the blood from their feet." [50] In a biography of George Washington, Washington's adopted son, George Washington Parke Custis, related that during the army's march to their winter campgrounds in December 1777 Washington had been observed eyeing something on the ground. He stopped and asked an officer, "How comes it, sir, that I have tracked the march of your troops by the bloodstains of their feet upon the frozen ground?" [51] In his speech at Valley Forge, Daniel Webster mentioned that the bloody footprint story had been told at Washington's own dinner table. [52] John Fanning Watson, who based his writing on oral tradition, mentioned bloody footprints in another context. He wrote that he had heard from Valley Forge veteran Charles Macknet that "when on duty, shoes were borrowed of one another—on occasion of alarm, when all had to be abroad, then many feet had to touch the frosty ground & some footsteps were mark'd with blood—!" [53] Woodman mentioned bloody footprints three times, claiming that his information came from eyewitnesses who "had seen the snow and ground over which the soldiers had to pass in performing the duties of the camp, marked with the blood that flowed from their feet." [54] Bean repeated the Custis vignette in a history of Montgomery County published in 1884 and suggested it even in the subtitle of his 1876 guidebook, Foot-Prints of the Revolution.

Other Valley Forge traditions involved the hero George Washington who had long been venerated as a symbol of national identity and stability, and one tradition in particular illustrated his compassion and care for his troops. Writing sideways in the margin of his travel notebook, Watson recorded that Washington had reportedly once traded places with a cold and hungry sentinel, allowing the young soldier to get a hot meal. [55] A periodical called The Casket expanded on this story in April 1830 and added appropriate dialogue:

A young man not quite twenty, from the western part of Massachusetts, was on guard before the General's door, marching back and forth in the snow, on a tremendous cold morning. Washington came out and accosted him, "My friend, how long have you been on guard here?" "Nearly two hours, sir. ""Have you breakfasted?" "No, sir" "Give me your gun and go breakfast at my table." He did so, and General Washington marched the rounds until he returned. [56]

More than sixty years later, the Ladies' Home Journal carried essentially the same tale. [57]

An equally persistent legend tells how a Quaker silently observed Washington as he knelt in the snow in a bower of trees to pray for the deliverance of his troops and his country. This tale was first published in the 1808 edition of a biography of Washington by the colorful itinerant preacher and traveling book salesman, Mason L. (Parson) Weems. Weems never revealed his source, but he identified Washington's observer as "a certain good old FRIEND of the respectable family and name of Potts." The sight had supposedly so impressed Potts that he confided to his wife Sarah his belief that Washington was a man of God and that the nation was saved. This charming story had certain inconsistencies, such as the fact that Washington had never been overtly religious. In addition, between 1774 and 1782 Isaac Potts, who owned Washington's Headquarters during the time of the encampment, had been living in Pottsgrove, not Valley Forge. And even if Potts had visited the winter encampment, his wife at the time had been named Martha, not Sarah.

Nevertheless, the prayer-in-the-snow story captured the endorsement of the respected Virginia historian Bishop Meade in 1857. From the mid-1800s, various artists attempted to illustrate it, creating visual images that ended up in churches and schools. In her book George Washington Slept Here, Karal Ann Marling describes the story as an "icon" in the collective conscience of Americans, [58] and that being the case, most nineteenth-century accounts of Valley Forge included the prayer story. Watson mentioned it only briefly, but Woodman claimed that he had heard it from residents before he "saw the account published." [59] In biographies of Washington both published in 1860, George Washington Parke Custis and Benson Lossing each quoted the prayer story in footnotes using almost the same words. In these versions, more detail appears. The Quaker Isaac Potts is strolling along the creek when he hears a solemn voice. He notices the general's horse tethered to a sapling and finds Washington on his knees, "his cheeks suffused with tears." In this version, Potts confides to his wife that if God would listen to any human, Washington would be the one, and therefore America was assured of her independence. [60] Bean picked up this version in Foot-Prints, down to Washington's tear-stained cheeks. [61]

By the last quarter of the nineteenth century, the prayer story was apparently coming under its first attacks. In 1874, in a family history of the Pottses, Mrs. (Isabella) Thomas Potts James offered some documentation for the tradition, saying she had copied her version of the prayer legend from material written by Ruth Anna Potts, Isaac Potts's daughter, who had died in 1811. [62] A 1901 magazine article also mentioned this document, while an account written in 1904 contended that the prayer story was "no mythical tale." [63] As if to give physical weight to the legend, an 1875 newspaper story told how a Reading resident had been given a cane carved from the wood of the tree under which Washington had prayed. [64]

Seemingly contradicting the exemplary character of Washington is an other peculiar story with roots in the nineteenth century, about a secret escape route maintained for Washington in case the camp was surprised by the British. Woodman briefly speaks of "secret doors" at Washington's Headquarters for the speedy escape of the commander-in-chief. [65] Another account written in the late 1880s or 1890s tells of a secret tunnel. By that time, Washington's Headquarters was open to the public and a modern addition had been made to the building in an attempt to re-create a log dining room that had been erected during the encampment. When visitors entered this log structure, this writer says, "lights are brought and the guide pilots the way down a dark, damp stairway into a dismal subterranean chamber some thirty odd feet below the surface, and tells us of the local tradition which asserts that from it a secret passage led to the Schuylkill river and offered a means of escape in an emergency." [66] A newspaper travel account written in 1904 contended that the escape tunnel had been built not by the courageous Washington but by the Potts family to be used in case of Indian attack. [67]

It is currently believed that the secret tunnel legend was inspired by a root cellar dug while the nineteenth-century Jones family occupied Washington's Headquarters. In a letter to a nephew written in 1890, Nathan Jones speaks of having helped to dig a "milk cave" back in the 1840s but denies the existence of a secret tunnel at that time. [68] However, the secret tunnel story has delighted so many tourists over the years that even today visitors are disappointed to learn there is no evidence that any escape route existed in Washington's time.

There is also no evidence to support the claim of the DeHaven family that their ancestor Jacob DeHaven lent George Washington $450,000 in cash and supplies while the army was encamped at Valley Forge. This tradition first appeared in print in a history of the DeHaven family penned by Howard DeHaven Ross. [69] Periodically, the descendants of Jacob DeHaven make attempts to get the "loan" repaid with interest. Various individuals took up this cause in the 1850s, 1870s, and 1890s. The issue came up again around 1910, 1920, and 1960. As recently as 1990, the New York Times reported on the status of a class action suit filed in U.S. Claims Court by a DeHaven descendant from Stafford, Texas. By then the DeHavens calculated the amount owed their family at more than one hundred billion dollars, but they reported they were willing to accept a "reasonable payment"—and maybe a monument at Valley Forge. [70]

This remarkably persistent tradition has been thoroughly debunked by Judith A. Meier, of the Montgomery County Historical Society, whose genealogical research revealed that there were no DeHavens living in the immediate area until after 1790 and that Jacob DeHaven had never been rich enough to make such a fabulous loan. Still, past experience shows that a DeHaven claim is certain to arise about once every generation.

In the century or so since Washington left Valley Forge, the place had become transformed. Watson, the lone visitor of the 1820s, had been replaced by scores of tourists drawn by the accounts of antiquarians professional historians, and local boosters. Although few people could recite many facts about the winter encampment of 1777—1778, there was a consensus that something important had happened at Valley Forge, where endurance, perseverance, and faith had paved the road from the bleakest despair to moral victory. As the Baptist minister Henry L. Wayland preached in 1878, Valley Forge clearly demonstrated that the providence of God ruled over the fates of people and nation's. Valley Forge showed that "we must pay the price of every blessing by toil and suffering." [71]

It was a lesson that had enormous appeal for Victorian Americans. The next question was whether some physical remains of the place where this lesson could be learned should be exalted, honored, and preserved for future generations of Americans.

Last updated: February 26, 2015

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