Chapter Five: The Churches at Valley Forge (part 3)

Burk was probably proudest of another object he personally obtained for Valley Forge. Mary J. B. Chew of Philadelphia mentioned that it might be possible to acquire Washington's marquee—his personal campaign tent. The tent had been passed along by Washington's descendants in the Custis family and the Lee family. It had been seized at the Lee estate known as Arlington during the Civil War, but President McKinley had restored it to the Lee family. Burk immediately reasoned that no matter where Washington had knelt in the snow at Valley Forge, he had certainly made his personal devotions in the privacy of his tent. If patriots revered the pews that great men had occupied in churches, they should also revere Washington's marquee. Since tradition held that Washington would accept no better accommodations than his men enjoyed, and had remained in the tent until huts were built for all the men at Valley Forge, the marquee was also a kind of Washington's Headquarters, and an earlier one than the Potts house. Its thin canvas walls had obviously provided little protection against bitter winter weather, so they clearly evoked the image of desolate suffering at Valley Forge. [41]

Mary Custis Lee, daughter of Robert E. Lee, owned the tent and wanted $5,000 for it, which was a significant problem for Burk. She was engaged in raising funds for her own cause, an "old ladies" home in the South. Miss Lee wrote Burk: "My poor old women want the money more than you do the Tent!" [42] Although Lee believed she could have gotten a higher price in Pittsburgh or Chicago, she let Burk have the tent for a $500 down payment, with the understanding that he would charge visitors money to view it and send her a percentage of the proceeds. [43]

Once the marquee arrived at Valley Forge, it immediately sparked controversy. When the tent went on display at the chapel complex, someone apparently connected with Burk announced that in 1777 Washington had pitched the tent only a short distance from the Washington Memorial on property currently owned by I. Heston Todd. Valley Forge park officials vehemently disagreed and proclaimed that it had already been established that Washington's tent had stood within the boundaries of the current park. The park already had a marker at the spot on Old Camp Road. [44]

It is interesting to speculate whether the controversy originated after the park declined to give Burk permission to set up the tent on their version of its original site in order to photograph it. [45] Burk did eventually erect the tent out-of-doors one winter day after a snowstorm, and arranged for a professional photograph that became a postcard for tourists to buy. [46]

Despite the tent's appeal, Burk had forwarded Miss Lee only $2,397.97 by 1916, which made Miss Lee disappointed in the patriotism of people in the Philadelphia area. She did not want to press, but she still needed the cash for her charity work. [47] When she extended her offer, Burk was finally able to complete the payments. Years later, Burk's interest in history took him to the Library of Congress, where he unearthed the original bill for the tent. Among the items listed on the maker's invoice was a "tickum" lining. Because Burk's artifact had no such lining, he immediately wrote to Miss Lee's heirs, politely explaining that he had paid for the whole tent and felt entitled to have all the pieces. However, Burk never did acquire the lining of Washington's marquee. [48]

Burk recalled that one day while he was showing off his treasure a guest told him, "I saw the flag which belongs to the Tent." The guest revealed that Washington's old campaign flag was then owned by Fannie B. Lovell, a descendant of Washington's sister. A Lovell family tradition identified it as the Washington's Headquarters flag, which had always been used to mark the building where Washington was headquartered during the American Revolution. An image of the blue flag with its thirteen six-pointed stars appeared in Charles Wilson Peale's portraits of George Washington then on display at Independence Hall. [49] Lovell was contacted, and she lent the flag to the museum with the understanding that it would belong to the museum after her death. [50] In order to keep the precious commander-in-chief's flag, Burk later had to fend off Mrs. C. M. Crosby, who claimed that she was the flag's true owner and wanted it back to pass on to her daughter. [51]

Burk retained considerable pride in the important artifacts he had obtained for his museum. He later wrote: "If there was nothing but this old flag and tent in the Valley Forge Museum of American History, it would be the greatest collection of Washington Relics in the world, for these are the two things which were used by him and represented him in the greatest struggle of his life." [52] Burk planned for his museum to incorporate a library and began soliciting donations of books on American history. He moved a bookcase into his museum display room and later began stacking books under the marquee as his collection grew. He was also looking for rare books and hoped eventually to duplicate Washington's library at Mount Vernon by obtaining a copy of every book Washington had ever owned. He designed bookplates that sported a rococo cartouche copied from Washington's personal bookplates.

In 1906, Burk himself wrote a book, among the first of his many publications. He penned a guidebook of Valley Forge designed to connect Revolutionary history with the actual remains to be seen in the valley. Possibly thinking of his own experience on that initial trip with his choir boys, he noted in the preface: "Without some such guidance much of the interest which belongs to the place is lost, as I know from personal experience." [53] Although the park had already produced a similar book, Governor Pennypacker complimented Burk's effort, writing to him: "It is both interesting and useful and will be very helpful to those seeing the locality as well as to the student interested in history." [54]

Burk's congregation grew, and his Valley Forge parishioners organized a number of church groups. As early as 1908, the Washington Memorial Chapel had a choir, a Sunday school, a women's auxiliary, the Washington Memorial Chapel Guild (which raised money for the chapel and published a newsletter called the Washington Chapel Chronicle), a Martha Washington Junior Guild, a boys' club, and an organization called the Bartram, which functioned as a baseball club. [55] That same year, the Washington Chapel Chronicle lamented that although Valley Forge honored the dead of the American Revolution the Washington Memorial Chapel had no provision for the repose of members of its own congregation. [56] The chapel needed a cemetery, so Burk and his congregation decided on a picturesque slope between the church and the Schuylkill River. The cemetery was estimated to cost another $3,000 but it might actually help the Washington Memorial Chapel financially—money could be made by selling lots.

Naturally the cemetery had to be designed on a scale that would complement the planned chapel and its surrounding complex. Designers were selected to lay out the cemetery's roads and plan its landscaping. In 1911 the Washington Chapel Chronicle reported on progress: "The character of the place and the costliness of the development and maintenance make it impossible to compete with the cheaper cemeteries." Although "no member of the congregation will be too poor to find a resting place in God's Acre," wealthier church members were expected to subsidize the cemetery's cost. The first lots went on sale for a $100 and $200 each, and the prices were expected to increase over time. [57] In 1911, the cemetery had its first interment—the remains of Burk's father, Jesse Y. Burk, were transferred there. [58]

Roosevelt's comparison of Valley Forge with Gettysburg had inspired Burk to consider raising a memorial to Lincoln and the Civil War at Valley Forge, and the addition of the cemetery allowed him to conceive Defenders' Gate. Defenders' Gate was to be a second complex of buildings at the cemetery's entrance mirroring the architectural style of the chapel complex and dedicated to those who had defended the Union in various conflicts. Defenders' Gate would consist of a porter's lodge and a waiting room linked by an arch honoring Lincoln. It was hoped that veterans of the Civil War, many of whom were still alive, would donate funds for the arch. The porter's lodge was quickly built, and on the fiftieth anniversary of Lincoln's first call for volunteers the first stone was laid for the Lincoln Arch. [59] The complex was never completed, and the lodge section looks rather strange today, facing sideways along Route 23 without its arch and adjoining building.

Burk's involvement at Valley Forge took up a good deal of his time and frequently took him away from his official duties at All Saints' in Norristown, where he remained rector until 1910. The wardens and vestrymen of All Saints' asked him to consider whether he was trying to do too much. Burk displayed a little testiness in a letter addressed to them, denying that his mission at Valley Forge had ever been "an incubus." He wrote: "Whatever work I did for the Mission (and I did work zealously for it) was done under the authority of the congregation [at Norristown] which every Easter Monday, from the inception of the work, by a unanimous vote requested me to divide my labors between the Parish and the Mission." [60]

It cannot be a coincidence that around this time the congregation at Washington Memorial Chapel considered breaking away from All Saints' and becoming an independent parish. Burk asked his bishop for his canonical consent. In a letter to the Episcopal bishop, the Rt. Rev. O. W. Whitaker, Burk noted that the closest established parishes in Paoli, Upper Providence, and Upper Merion all approved. He estimated that the Washington Memorial Chapel congregation of forty-five families and seventy-six communicants would be able to handle the expense of the proposed parish. [61] Within a month, Whitaker expressed the consent of the Episcopal diocese of Pennsylvania. [62] The newborn parish was left with the problem of where to house the rector, a problem that resulted in construction of the lodge portion of Defenders' Gate. Burk would temporarily live in what was supposed to become a porter's lodge.

Both before and after becoming an independent parish, Burk and his congregation spent a great deal of time and effort raising money in creative ways for the various building projects. Regular parishioners were expected to fill out pledge cards and make weekly contributions in envelopes provided by the church. On Washington's Birthday 1908, the chapel Guild hosted a "colonial supper" where they recreated Washington's winter camp outside the chapel, complete with men in uniform and horses tethered to the trees. [63] In 1910, the Guild opened a tea room to cater to summertime visitors. [64] The Guild also made frequent pleas for donations, at one point using the pages of the Washington Chapel Chronicle to comment on the "trying and transitional period in the growth of the Chapel." [65] Burk made his own pleas and did not exempt the younger generation. He addressed a letter to Episcopalian boys and girls in Sunday school, seeking gifts of cash for the chapel on Washington's Birthday. [66] Burk printed "founder's certificates" for those who contributed to Patriot's Hall. He also published and advertised souvenir books, such as his collection of prayers gleaned from Washington's writings and the text of Roosevelt's speech printed in the same volume with his own Washington's Birthday sermon of 1903.

After it was known that the park would take over Washington's Headquarters, Burk attempted to divert the funds that the park used to reimburse the Centennial and Memorial Association for their buildings. In September 1905, he prepared a form letter addressed to all Centennial and Memorial Association stock certificate holders. "The State will soon return to you . . . the money which you paid several years ago for the preservation of Washington's Headquarters," he explained. "Your money then did good service for Valley Forge and the Nation. Why not devote it again to the same high purpose?" He suggested that these patriotic Americans assign their money to the construction of Patriot's Hall at the Washington Memorial complex. [67] After the park laid claim to the Centennial and Memorial Association's treasury, Burk was able to get two shares of stock transferred to himself, entitling him to attend the sessions at which an independent auditor would decide how to apportion the funds. There Burk also made a claim on Centennial and Memorial Association money. The auditor's report ascribed his action to "purely patriotic motives untainted with a desire for personal profit or greedy gain." [68]

Burk's motives may have been pure, but by the time the fate of the Centennial and Memorial Association was decided in 1912, he was probably feeling desperate. Nearly ten years had passed since his Washington's Birthday sermon, and the walls of the Washington Memorial Chapel still reached no higher than the sills of its planned windows. In 1911 the Guild had used the pages of the Washington Chapel Chronicle to discuss whether the money they did have should be used to push the walls a little higher, hopefully priming the pump for more donations. [69] Separate donations were slowly adding bays to the chapel's adjoining cloister and at the dedication of the cloister's Delaware Bay in June 1912, Burk was handed an even more pressing reason to get the chapel done. A wealthy guest had been so moved by the ceremonies that he offered to give enough money to build the chapel's chancel, providing that funds to complete the walls were raised within one more year. The Washington Chapel Chronicle hopefully queried: "Another year, and will the Chapel stand forth in its beauty and strength, to challenge the admiration of the visitor and inspire the patriot?" [70]

Exactly one year later, no further work had been done on the chapel, but the Washington Chapel Chronicle enthusiastically reported: "The most hopeful sign for the future of this work is the organization of a committee of representative laymen of the Diocese under Bishop Garland for the completion of the chapel." [71] Not to let the chancel challenge grant get away, the Rt. Rev. Thomas J. Garland organized a fundraising committee and asked the wealthy donor to extend his deadline until December 1913. The Episcopal church hierarchy had become involved and would finally complete what Burk had been unable to accomplish alone. [72]

Last updated: February 26, 2015

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