Revolutionary War Paths : Revising myths about what happened at Valley Forge and other sites

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No one starved or froze to death when George Washington struggled to hold his recently defeated Continental Army together here during the legendary winter of 1777-’78.

In fact, only a handful of soldiers actually died here at the army’s winter headquarters.

Those were just a few of the myth-breaking facts I learned about Valley Forge during a recent Revolutionary War trip.

Arthur Stewart, superintendent of the 3,000-acre Valley Forge National Historical Park, said the second and third most often-asked questions by visitors are “Where are all the soldiers buried?” and “Where did the battle take place?”


Stewart added: “The first question always is: ‘Where are the bathrooms?’ ”

No battle was fought at Valley Forge. And it has no cemetery. More than 2,000 of Washington’s soldiers who camped here died that winter, but not at Valley Forge. When they became sick, most were taken to hospitals in Yellow Springs, Ephrata, Lititz, Reading, even Bethlehem, where many died. Soldiers died mostly from dysentery, typhus, typhoid--diseases spread by unsanitary conditions.

“The men used corners of their huts, inside and out, for bathrooms,” said professional guide Sue Habgood as she stood outside replica huts in the national park, “and they were not bathing. There were all sorts of diseases. They drank from mud puddles. Animal carcasses were strewn around. Things were very unsanitary. This was truly a filthy, filthy mess.”

A highlight of the tour, given for a group of visiting reporters, visiting was when a regal “George Washington” stepped out of a soldiers’ hut at Valley Forge.

“Had we not sustained ourselves that winter, there would have been no United States of America,” said Washington, portrayed by actor William Sommerfield. “If the army had dissolved, it would have been over. We would still be a colony of Great Britain.”

With the 220th anniversary of the Continental Army’s arrival at Valley Forge on Dec. 19 (the day they marched into Valley Forge following a disastrous fall campaign), a variety of fall events, starting in September, have been scheduled, and a three-day Revolutionary War driving tour has been developed by the Valley Forge Convention & Visitors Bureau. It features historic sites north and west of Philadelphia with ties to events in the final four months of 1777.

“Most people know about Valley Forge but aren’t aware of all the other historic sites in the area that have survived and are open to the public,” said Paul R. Decker, visitors bureau president.


Although a guide brochure with driving directions is available from the visitors bureau, no signs mark the tour route. I would not advise doing the entire tour in one weekend, as recommended. It features 11 places in five counties, including too many historic houses to enjoy on one trip.

I also went to one place not on the tour: History Center, the Chester County Historical Society’s museum in the town of West Chester, south of Valley Forge. It will open a Revolutionary War exhibit Sept. 5 and two more next January.

One of my favorite stops was Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site, about 25 miles west of Valley Forge. It has the weakest ties to the Continental Army in 1777, but it’s a serene and beautiful park, site of an iron-making furnace that began operating there in 1771, before the Revolution began. Hopewell made 115 cannons for the American navy during the Revolutionary War, said ranger Steve Shore, plus thousands of rounds of shot and shell for the army and navy.

If your primary interest is the Revolution, don’t miss Brandywine Battlefield and Cliveden House, center of the Battle of Germantown. But I also enjoyed three other houses: Waynesborough, home of Revolutionary War hero Anthony Wayne; Pennypacker Mills, where Washington and his army camped; and Peter Wentz Farmstead, which Washington used as his headquarters before and after the battle of Germantown.

The battle of Brandywine occurred because British Gen. William Howe intended to capture Philadelphia, capital of the rebellious American colonies. So in late July 1777, he sailed from New York City with 18,000 men in more than 200 ships. To confuse Washington’s spies, they headed directly out to sea.

The fleet turned south, then went up Chesapeake Bay, disembarking in late August near Elkton, Md. “They were only 40 miles closer to Philadelphia than when they left New York,” said Don Hoke, a ranger at Brandywine Battlefield.


Washington knew the British were coming and waited to stop them on high ground along the Brandywine River, more than 20 miles from Philadelphia.

The two armies clashed at Brandywine on Sept. 11, 1777. With 18,000 British troops attacking 11,000 Americans, Hoke said, it was the biggest battle of the Revolutionary War, given the number of soldiers engaged.

Washington’s army was outflanked during the 3 1/2-hour-long battle. “We should have been annihilated,” Hoke said. “We were out-shot, out-gunned, out-manned, out-maneuvered and out-generaled.”

Despite his defeat, Washington did not surrender and managed to keep his army intact. But the British took Philadelphia 10 days later.

Today, the 50-acre Brandywine Battlefield Park in Chadds Ford has a reconstructed farmhouse Washington used as his headquarters during the battle, plus a house used by his aide, the Marquis de Lafayette, who was wounded.


Just south of Valley Forge, Waynesborough is a country manor house whose most famous occupant was Wayne, one of Washington’s generals. The house, built in 1745, contains a few items that belonged to Wayne--even a lock of his hair--and several interesting documents, including his commission signed by Washington.


“Wayne was opinionated, proud, vain, combative,” said historian Thomas McGuire. “He loved to hang out at local taverns and punch people out. He always voted to attack.”

Wayne suffered the most disastrous night of his military career on a hilltop in Paoli, just a few miles from his home.

On Sept. 20, 1777, a night remembered as the Paoli Massacre, 1,200 British soldiers armed with swords and bayonets attacked 2,000 Americans at Wayne’s hilltop encampment.

Just north of Valley Forge, Pennypacker Mills at Schwenksville was the home of Pennsylvania governor Samuel W. Pennypacker. It’s a beautiful place, surrounded by 160 acres on a hill overlooking Perkiomen Creek.

George Washington slept here, and his army camped around the house, before and after his attack on Germantown. But Washington would not recognize the house today. After Pennypacker bought it in 1900, he had it enlarged into a Georgian-style colonial mansion. The interior contains the Pennypacker family’s original furnishings.

Pennypacker, governor from 1903 to 1907, served in the Civil War, which explained why a Union reenactor was out front.


Peter Wentz Farmstead is off Pennsylvania Highway 73, only seven miles from Pennypacker. Surrounded by 97 acres of fields, gardens and grazing farm animals, the farmstead retains an authentic air.

Washington used the farmhouse, built in 1758, as his headquarters before and after the battle of Germantown. Inside, the general shared his elaborate plan for a four-pronged attack on Germantown with us.

“We are in sore need of a victory, like Princeton or Trenton,” the man portraying Washington said.

From Wentz Farmstead, Washington launched his attack on Germantown, 14 miles away and now part of Philadelphia.

The Battle of Germantown began early in the morning Oct. 4, 1777. The Americans nearly won--”Remember Paoli!” was their battle cry--but Washington’s plan was too complicated, McGuire said.

Cliveden House, a focal point of the battle, was surrounded by the Americans. Despite a steady shower of musket fire and cannon balls, about 100 British soldiers inside refused to surrender.


Scars from the battle remain on the house today, but Cliveden has been restored with historic furniture and decorative arts.

After major defeats at Brandywine and Germantown, Washington’s army marched into Valley Forge on Dec. 19, 1777.

Valley Forge was only 18 miles from Philadelphia, where the British army was quartered, but in those days, as “Washington” noted, “18 miles is a long distance in the middle of winter.”


GUIDEBOOK: Revolutionary Places

Getting there: United and USAirways fly nonstop from LAX to Philadelphia. Advance-purchase, round-trip fares start at $440.

Valley Forge National Historical Park is about a 30-minute drive west of Philadelphia. Visitors center open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. At the visitors center, admission tickets for Washington’s headquarters are available: $2 for adults, children are free; telephone (610) 783-1077.

Tour information: The Revolutionary War Driving Tour is contained within the Valley Forge Spring/Summer Visitors Guide & Calendar of Events. For a copy, telephone (888) 847-4883 or (610) 834-1550 or write, Valley Forge Convention & Visitors Bureau, 600 W. Germantown Pike, Plymouth Meeting, PA 19462.


For more information: Pennsylvania Bureau of Travel Marketing, 453 Forum Building, Room 400, Harrisburg, PA 17120; tel. (800) 237-4363 or (717) 787-5453.