Most Americans will remember the name Valley Forge from history as the place where George Washington and the Continental Army camped during the winter of 1777-1778. If you are planning a trip to the area, you are probably wondering if Valley Forge is worth visiting.
Valley Forge is definitely worth visiting. This fascinating historical site offers guests the opportunity to learn more about how Continental Soldiers weathered the winter of 1777 and how the winter of ’77 affected the rest of the Revolutionary War.
So was there ever a battle at Valley Forge? Why did so many soldiers die at Valley Forge? Where did the name of Valley Forge even come from? Discover more about this historically significant place in the following paragraphs.
A Brief History of Valley Forge
Valley Forge located in Pennsylvania, was first settled in 1742 when a band of Quakers built the Mount Joy Iron Forge on the site. Over the decades, the locals invested in substantial improvements to the forge and surrounding works. By 1777, Valley Forge was a thriving, if small, settlement.
In 1777, the settlement attracted the attention of the Continental Army’s quartermaster, a man named Thomas Mifflin. Mifflin saw the settlement as a strategic storage point for Continental Army supplies, and soon, Valley Forge was home to a Continental Army supply cache. This point drew concern from many of the locals, especially a man named William Dewees Jr., who was concerned that the presence of Continental Army munitions would attract attention from the British.
These concerns proved prescient, as Valley Forge was raided by a band of British soldiers later in 1777. This engagement was more of a skirmish than a full battle, but it attracted the attention of the Continental Army. As the winter of 1777 approached, George Washington and his most trusted officers decided that the small settlement would be an ideal place to spend the winter.
Washington’s decision to camp in Valley Forge was based on solid strategy. Valley Forge was just outside Philadelphia, which was under British control. Legislators, generals, and civilians all feared that the British would use their toehold in Philadelphia to launch more aggressive incursions into the countryside.
Camping at Valley Forge would enable Continental soldiers to respond to British incursions.
Valley Forge was also very close to the Schuylkill River, which facilitated supply movements. In addition, open fields provided excellent space for military exercises, and the area’s elevation made it very defensible in case the British got any ideas about attacking the Continental encampment.
Having suffered through the cold Pennsylvania winter more than once, General Washington and his officers decided that building structures in which to shelter would be better than camping in tents and huts. To that end, the Continental Army built hundreds of buildings at Valley Forge. While an exact count is not known, there were likely between 1,300 and 1,600 buildings created during the winter of 1777.
The buildings at Valley Forge varied from one to the other. While Army leadership had hoped for uniform buildings, each unit of men built a slightly different structure. Some were dug into the earth to minimize wind chill and reduce the number of materials needed, while others were more classic log-cabin style barracks.
The Continental Army did all of this while suffering extreme material shortages. The Continental Congress did not adequately fund the Army, which required the Army to obtain clothes, blankets, food, and other supplies on credit.
The difficult winter roads leading to Valley Forge made it difficult for supply wagons to reach the encampment. As a result, the soldiers at Valley Forge endured great hardships during the winter of 1777, but as time went on, the camp began to run more smoothly, and things evened out for the Army.
Keystone Answers Fun Fact: In January of 1778, a group of Philadelphia women drove several teams of oxen into Valley Forge. These women also smuggled thousands of winter shirts intended for British soldiers out of Philadelphia and distributed them to the Continental soldiers!
Visiting Valley Forge
Today, Valley Forge is a popular tourist destination. The National Park Service runs the Valley Forge National Historical Park. It is open 365 days a year and is completely free to visit! More than 2 million people visit Valley Forge every year to experience the history of this remarkable site.
One of the most popular ways to experience the site is to take a driving tour. Valley Forge features a 10-mile driving loop with nine separate stops, each offering a different slice of the Valley Forge experience. If you plan to make the drive, budget anywhere from 1-3 hours, depending on how long you plan to stay at each stop.
If you prefer not to drive, you can take a 90-minute guided tour on a trolley. Trolley tours leave from the visitor center and build in time for visitors to explore Muhlenberg’s Brigade and General Washington’s Headquarters.
The Park Service offers bicycles for rent at The Encampment Store for those who enjoy a more physical engagement. Bicycle rentals are a great way to enjoy the fresh air and see Valley Forge up close, and enjoy a more self-paced tour experience.
In addition, Valley Forge has thirty-five miles of trails, one of the most popular being the Joseph Plumb Martin paved loop.
Things to See at Valley Forge
The first stop you should make is to The Visitor Center at Valley Forge. Reminiscent of the way the Continental Army constructed fortifications and earthworks during their winter at Valley Forge, the center is built partially underground.
The center has historical exhibits to give visitors a better understanding of what the soldiers of the Continental Army endured at Valley Forge. In addition, park staff and volunteers are available to answer questions. Snacks, souvenirs, and other items are available to purchase. The Visitor Center at Valley Forge is open for guests from 9 to 5 every day except New Year’s Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas.
Visitors to Valley Forge can see many interesting historical sites. If you want to see how soldiers at Valley Forge lived during the winter of 1777, head to Muhlenberg’s Brigade. This site consists of nine reconstructed cabins lined up along a gravel road, making great photo opportunities.
Other popular stops include:
- Washington’s Headquarters: Also known as the Isaac Potts House, this building was used by General Washington as his base of operations during the winter of 1777.
- Von Steuben Monument: This statue is in honor of General Friedrich Wilhelm August Heinrich Ferdinand Steuben, more commonly called Baron Von Steuben. Von Steuben was a critical figure in the Revolution, as he used the flatlands surrounding Valley Forge to drill Continental Soldiers into fighting shape.
- National Memorial Arch: This arch was built in 1917 to honor the sacrifices of the Continental Soldiers who fought and died to free the United States of America from the colonial shackles of Great Britain.
There are also reconstructions of earthwork fortifications, artillery, additional historic buildings of interest, statues, and monuments.
Was There a Battle in Valley Forge?
The Battle of Valley Forge occurred during the Revolutionary War. On September 18, 1777, several hundred British soldiers raided Valley Forge, which was a Continental Army supply cache. The British, under the command of General Wilhelm von Knyphausen, had just routed Continental soldiers in the Battle of Brandywine on September 11 of 1777. In other words, they were seasoned soldiers who were in the mood for a fight.
The settlement was defended by a handful of men under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Hamilton and Captain Henry Lee. Unfortunately, the small band of defenders was rapidly overrun, and the British invaders stole what they could carry and burned the rest. While this event was violent, it was more of a skirmish than a sustained, full-on battle.
Why Did so Many Soldiers Die at Valley Forge?
Approximately 2,000 soldiers died in the Continental Army’s encampment at Valley Forge during the winter of 1777-1778. Despite these appalling casualties, there was no battle at Valley Forge. What killed so many soldiers?
The most common cause of death at Valley Forge was disease. Close quarters often breed disease, and many soldiers succumbed to illnesses such as dysentery and typhus. Seasonal illnesses like influenza killed many more.
After disease, hardship was the biggest killer. The Continental Army of 1777 was pretty disorganized, which created problems in managing the logistics of getting food and other supplies to where they were needed. The winter weather and Valley Forge’s location also made it difficult for supply wagons to reach the camp. As such, the soldiers at Valley Forge were subject to intermittent starvation.
Many of the soldiers at Valley Forge were also poorly equipped. Despite the cold winter, many did not have hats, coats, boots, and other essential winter wear. As a result, some of these unfortunate men froze to death or ended up dying after having frostbitten feet or legs amputated.
Why is Valley Forge Called Valley Forge?
Valley Forge is called Valley Forge as a derivation of its original name. When Quakers settled the site in 1742, it was given the name Mount Joy Forge. However, the forge was actually located in a valley between Mount Joy and Mount Misery. Eventually, this location gave rise to the easier-to-remember name Valley Forge.
Valley Forge: Worth Visiting
Valley Forge is an extremely important site in American History. It represents the peak of hardship for the Continental Army, and also the turning point where the Army became more organized and more effective. Today, Valley Forge is an excellent place to visit if you want to experience part of American history for yourself.