Chapter Two: The Centennial and Memorial Association of Valley Forge

One December evening in 1877, several public-spirited gentlemen with a keen interest in history arrived at the home of Mr. Isaac W. Smith in the village of Valley Forge. All upper-middle-class professionals from the surrounding area, their purpose was to plan a celebration to mark the centennial of the winter encampment at Valley Forge. This celebration, they decided, would not take place on the One Hundredth Anniversary of that gloomy December day when Washington's army had marched into the valley, but would instead commemorate the warm, sunny June day when the troops had marched out. The gentlemen resolved that on the following June 19 there would be parades, music, and oratory on a grand scale at Valley Forge. They appointed officers and formed committees to organize this salute, which they hoped would attract thousands. Finally, they gave themselves a name: the Valley Forge Centennial Association. [1]

Once the Christmas holidays were over, the Centennial Association sent out invitations. Among those invited were President Rutherford B. Hayes and the First Lady, the President's entire cabinet, the Vice President, the Speaker of the House, the Chief Justice and the entire Supreme Court, the members of important congressional committees, the state senate and house of representatives, plus the state supreme court. Since the celebration was supposed to have a military flavor, they also invited the General and Lieutenant General of the U. S. Army, various officers of the Navy, the Boston Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company, the New York Seventh Regiment, the Fifth Maryland Regiment, the Chicago Zouaves, the Norfolk Blues, and the Charlestown Blues. This was going to be no small-town affair. [2]

Little more than a month later, a committee from the Valley Forge Centennial Association was en route to Harrisburg to ask the state to grant them money. The cash they wanted would not be required for the June extravaganza the gentlemen expected to raise considerable money through the sale of concession privileges and the collection of rebates from the railroad companies that would bring the crowds to Valley Forge. A local newspaper revealed that the Valley Forge Centennial Association sought state funding for another reason: "The money is wanted less for current expenses than to purchase Washington's old headquarters." [3]

The Centennial Association had already decided that the Valley Forge experience deserved not just an elaborate celebration but a lasting memorial. According to Henry J. Stager, a Norristown printer who would later write and publish a limited-edition history of this organization.

It was suggested that no more fitting memorial could be designed than Washington's Headquarters, which had already stood the storms of more than one hundred years, and was filled with precious memories of the great Chieftain whose home it had been during the most trying memorable days of the Revolutionary struggle. [4]

The organization was no doubt influenced by what had already transpired at other historic sites. In 1850, the governor of New York persuaded the state legislature to purchase the structure that had been George Washington's headquarters at Newburgh, New York, making it America's first historic house museum. [5] And although the governor of Virginia was not successful in getting that state's legislature to appropriate funds to save Mount Vernon from becoming a hotel, Ann Pamela Cunningham, who described herself as a "Southern matron," founded the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association in 1852, and by 1859 her organization owned this tourist attraction. [6] More recently, the old Ford Mansion that had been Washington's headquarters in Morristown, New Jersey, had been saved in 1873 by a group of gentlemen calling themselves the "Washington Association." [7]

The immense popularity of George Washington as a historic figure throughout the nineteenth century was no doubt responsible for these successful preservation efforts. In the two antebellum projects, it was hoped that the reverence for Washington inspired by the houses would have a unifying effect on America. Ann Pamela Cunningham's use of language also illustrated the nation's reverence toward this founding father when she spoke of Mount Vernon as a sacred place, a "shrine of pure patriotism," that would be visited by many "pilgrims." [8] The same sort of language was increasingly applied to other historic sites throughout the rest of the 1800s and into the twentieth century.

Washington's Headquarters was not as architecturally impressive as these other sites associated with Washington. It was a small two-story, three-bay, gable-roofed stone Georgian structure with a floor plan similar to that of a townhouse, asymmetrical with only two small rooms per floor and a stair hall running the length of the building. Its small kitchen wing might have postdated the Revolution. Originally, it might have been built as a summer residence for the relatively wealthy eighteenth-century Potts family, who had owned considerable property and commanded the industrial operations in the valley. In the nineteenth century, Washington's Headquarters was believed to have been built around 1760, but current thinking suggests it may have been built as late as 1773. [9] It belonged to Hannah Ogden, daughter of James Jones, the former supervisor of Valley Forge's failed Owenite community.

Fig. 1. The earliest known photograph of Washington's Headquarters at Valley Forge, c. 1861. The building was privately owned at the time and used as a residence. (Courtesy, Valley Forge National Historical Park)
Fig. 1. The earliest known photograph of Washington's Headquarters at Valley Forge, c. 1861. The building was privately owned at the time and used as a residence.

Courtesy, Valley Forge National Historical Park


On Washington's Birthday 1878, the Valley Forge Centennial Association reorganized to meet their objective of purchasing Washington's Headquarters. They changed their name to the Valley Forge Centennial and Memorial Association, resolving to appoint a lady regent to head a committee of patriotic women who would raise the funds to purchase their memorial. [10] In the wake of the abolition movement, Americans had grown more accustomed to seeing women in leadership roles. Ann Pamela Cunningham had relied on a network of middle- and upper-class socially prominent women and spoke of them as the "vestals" of American heritage at Mount Vernon. [11] By the end of the nineteenth century, thanks to her example, women were considered appropriate custodians of the historic places where America's heritage was preserved and its patriotism was fostered. [12]

For their first female regent, the Centennial and Memorial Association of Valley Forge selected Anna Morris Holstein. Born in Muncy, Pennsylvania, in 1824 and married to William Hayman Holstein in 1848, she had served as an army nurse during the Civil War. [13] Most important, however, was her applicable recent fundraising experience. Ann Pamela Cunningham had initially sought funds only in the South, but eventually broadened her operations to include thirty state chapters each under the direction of a lady vice-regent who coordinated that state's correspondence and fundraising activities. [14] Anna Morris Holstein had been part of the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association and had raised money in Montgomery County. It was hoped that she would be able to duplicate the success of Ann Pamela Cunningham and use her contacts to raise funds both nationally and locally for Valley Forge's worthy cause. [15]

Mrs. Holstein and her committeewomen soon came to terms with Mrs. Ogden. Because the modest house was so full of "precious memories," Hannah Ogden wanted a pricey $6,000 for it. It was proposed that the Centennial and Memorial Association pay Mrs. Ogden $500 on May 1, $1,000 on August 1, $1,500 on October 1, and secure a mortgage for the other $3,000. [16] A gentleman of the Centennial and Memorial Association advanced the initial $500. [17]

At the end of May and the beginning of June 1878, the Centennial and Memorial Association issued more invitations to their upcoming celebration. Local papers printed the notice: "The Valley Forge Centennial [and Memorial] Association extends a cordial invitation to all people to join in celebrating the one hundredth anniversary of the occupation of Valley Forge by the Continental Army under beloved Washington, on the 19th of June next." Those attending would observe "an imposing spectacle never again in our time to be witnessed at Valley Forge." [18] Five members of the Centennial and Memorial Association visited Washington, D. C., to personally urge President Hayes to attend. When they were graciously received by the President himself, they read a brief address on the history of Valley Forge. The President listened politely and declared that he felt great affection for the voters of Pennsylvania, but he declined the invitation, pleading the prior engagement of a wedding in Princeton on June 20. [19]

Although the President and the other high-profile invitees would not be coming, the local community was expected to turn out in great numbers, and the Centennial and Memorial Association swung into action to accommodate them. Early in June they took bids from those who would operate concession stands. [20] The ladies of the organization also hoped to profit by selling food, so they advertised for donations of ham, tongue, fruit, coffee, and tea to be sold at their lunch pavilions, [21] and they arranged for students at the Chester Springs Orphan School to wait tables for them. [22]

The early morning hours of June 19 saw much activity at Valley Forge. Neighboring towns had been requested to ring all public bells at 5:00 A. M. [23] This joyous noise was accompanied by the salute of thirteen cannon at sunrise. [24] According to the day's proceedings, printed one year later, by 7:00 A. M, the roads to Valley Forge were "thronged by the yeomanry of the surrounding country," who swarmed around the small headquarters building. Special trains began arriving around 8: 30 A. M, steadily disgorging passengers, who increased the already growing crowd. [25]

The day's spectacles soon began. The governor of Pennsylvania and his staff were formally received. Together with other government officials, the governor reviewed a huge parade of military and civil marching societies. Moving majestically through the fields of Mr. I. Heston Todd of Valley Forge, thousands of men in uniform performed military drills. [26] The breath-taking display was immortalized in a drawing in New York's prestigious Harper's Weekly.

The day's oratory was held in an enormous tent shipped in from Massachusetts. One theme evident in all the speeches was the contrast between the despair and suffering of encampment days and the gladness of this day of celebration. All speeches touched on the moral lesson of Valley Forge: that willing sacrifice can lead to triumph. Pennsylvania's governor spoke of a Valley Forge "hallowed by hunger and cold, disease and destitution." [27] Centennial and Memorial Association member Theodore W. Bean mentioned "the shoeless soldiers, the frozen ground, the cheerless hills, [and] the lowering leaden sky that arched them over with gloom." [28]

A lengthy poem composed by Mary E. Thropp Cone—who had grown up near Valley Forge and married Andrew Cone, owner and publisher of the Oil City Times and, in 1878, ambassador to Brazil—enlivened the program. Though neither the Honorable Mr. Cone nor his poet wife was able to attend the ceremony, the leading citizens of West Chester had asked Mrs. Cone to lend her talent to the occasion. She wrote the poem in Brazil, and in it she described her own memories of the scenes of home and her gratitude to the heroes of the past who had made America great. [29]

Fig. 2. Valley Forge Centennial, 1878. In this Harper's Weekly illustration, thousands march in formation during the celebration hosted by the Centennial and Memorial Association.
Fig. 2. Valley Forge Centennial, 1878. In this Harper's Weekly illustration, thousands march in formation during the celebration hosted by the Centennial and Memorial Association.

Everyone was patiently waiting for the address of Henry Armitt Brown, thought to be one of the most brilliant orators of the day. When he finally spoke, Brown reviewed the history of Valley Forge at great length, using storyteller language and vivid images to thoroughly captivate the audience. He set the stage by describing the soldiers' arrival in December 1777: "The wind is cold and piercing on old Gulf road, and the snow-flakes have begun to fall. Who is this who toils up yonder hill, his footsteps stained with blood?" [30] Using historians' accounts and the words of actual soldiers, he continued with tales of a bleak winter, frozen roads, men's limbs blackened with gangrene, and the horror of camp amputations. Brown too made the contrast between Valley Forge in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries:

The heroic dead who have suffered here are beyond our reach. No human eulogy can make their glory greater, no failure to do them justice can make it less. . . . Their trials here secured the happiness of a continent; their labors have borne fruit in the free institutions of a powerful nation; their examples give hope to every race and clime; their names live on the lips of a grateful people; their memory is cherished in their children's hearts, and shall endure forever. [31]

A few days after the celebration Mrs. Holstein wrote: "That was indeed a grand oration of Armitt Brown. It thrills one to read it; what must it have been to have heard it, amid such surroundings?" [32]

Mrs. Holstein missed the inspiring speech because she was busy all day in the headquarters area with her lady assistants. Provisions had been donated by the wagonload, and the ladies were presiding at makeshift tables protected by tents, dishing up lunches by the hundreds. Their efforts raised $410 toward the purchase of Washington's Headquarters. For a while during the day, no soldiers were posted at the headquarters and the ladies were left alone to fend off souvenir hunters intent on breaking off pieces of the stone building to keep as personal mementos. [33]

Last updated: February 26, 2015

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