by Josie Byzek
Over the summer our family rented a cabin at French Creek State Park, located about an hour west of Philadelphia. We thought we’d spend the week hiking, kayaking or swimming, but found ourselves in a history hot spot, as we were close to Valley Forge National Park.
In December 1777, General Washington marched 12,000 tattered, undernourished and meagerly-equipped soldiers into Valley Forge. The war for independence wasn’t going so well, and our new nation had lost a string of battles and then its capital, Philadelphia, that fall.
The weather improved in February. In March, General Nathanael Greene became head of the commissary, and provisions started flowing into camp. April saw Prussian officer Friederich Wilhelm Baron von Steuben begin drilling the men into a fit fighting force. By the time the army marched out in June, it’s estimated close to 2,000 had died from disease, and more had stolen back to their home states. Those who remained were forged into a disciplined fighting force capable of winning against the British Army.
But on this cheery summer day, the sidewalk leading up to the Valley Forge Visitor’s Center has a street fair feel to it as docents in 18th century-themed costumes spin tales to children at story-telling benches and families wander by. The current facility is a temporary fill-in, while the original Visitor Center undergoes a $12 million upgrade that promises increased accessibility among other new benefits. It is slated to open this spring.
While at the Valley Forge Encampment Store, we purchased tickets for a 90-minute trolley tour. The lift-equipped trolley stops include the Muhlenberg Brigade huts, General Washington’s headquarters and the National Memorial Arch. There are parking lots at these sites, but we enjoy guided tours. The Arch was built in 1910 as a simplified version of the Arch of Titus in Rome, but we could see as much of it as we wanted to from the trolley, so we didn’t get out.
Muhlenberg Brigade Huts
Upon his arrival at Valley Forge, one of the first things Washington did was order a contest to see who could build huts the fastest. The finished products, smaller than most one-car garages, featured six bunks on each side wall and sheltered 12 men.
The originals are long gone but you’ll find replicas scattered throughout the park, and a few rows of them are open to the public at the Muhlenberg Brigade Area, which is named for the long-ago encampment of General Peter Muhlenberg. In addition to huts, you can see the field where the soldiers were drilled until they were no longer merely Pennsylvanians or Virginians or New Yorkers but Americans. If you come at the right time, you can catch reenactments of Revolutionary War-themed events (calendar at valleyforge.org).
This is my favorite place in Valley Forge to visit. I appreciate that although no battle was fought here, this is where the war was won. A sorry lot arrived at this site in December 1777, but a world-class Army marched out in April.
General Washington’s Headquarters
When we disembarked from the trolley, we weren’t exactly sure where General Washington’s Headquarters was, since all we saw was an early 20th-century train station, a few huts and a modestly-sized stone house across a broad field that we learned was called the Isaac Potts House. Potts’ tenant, Deborah Hewes, rented that stone house to Washington, who used it as his headquarters.
The house itself is not accessible and there’s probably no way that it could ever be. You can get close to it by rolling on the balcony past the train station to the very long ramp near the rear. Also, a virtual tour of the house is available at youtu.be/jJeY2rZINvI.
The house is humble, although not as humble as the Muhlenberg huts. A few years back our family toured Revolutionary War sites in Massachusetts, including Battle Road, and they were humble, too. And in Independence Hall in Philadelphia our early legislators sat at tiny round tables in unadorned surroundings. I wonder what the men at Valley Forge or their commander would think of our gargantuan military and superpower status today.
** This post was originally published on https://www.newmobility.com/2020/02/accessible-parks/