We have so many parks in Pennsylvania, but I have to say one of our favorites has to be the Valley Forge National Historical Park. In truth, I must say that I have never seen so many gorgeous nature focal points in conjunction with a past that coincides with the forefathers of the United States.
When you visit Valley Forge, the first area that I recommend stopping at is their visitor center (1400 N Outer Line Dr, King of Prussia, PA 19406.) There is a very nice sized parking lot there, and some really cool services in the center that I recommend taking advantage of. The park has rangers on site that provide so much historical and tour information which is pretty sweet. Sometimes Valley Forge has special concerts or historical reenactments, so make sure that you check to see what is happening around your visit to the area (either checking with the park rangers, or under the event schedule on park’s website. I will leave that resource right under this post. Their site is also a fabulous place to get really in depth historical information too.)
It is important to learn about the historical context of the region, before we review the areas within in. (If you have been following this blog awhile, you know that I always like to dive into the histories of the areas that we talk about.) Of course, it is specific to Pennsylvania, but there was a major national impact as well in so many aspects. Valley Forge is the location of the famous winter encampment of the Continental Army under General George Washington (who later became our first president in the United States) in 1777-1778. It was at this very spot that the Continental Army really emerged as a disciplined and cohesive fighting force. The army had begun as a collection of various colonial militias that were supported by camp followers and allies.
In the year 1777 the British had Philadelphia occupied, so George Washington set up camp at Valley Forge for the winter, because this location was only a day’s march into the city. The nice thing about Valley Forge is that it is a natural plateau which made it easier to defend. It also gave the troops an opportunity to train and recoup from the years battles. The harsh Pennsylvania winter made many road unpassable and scant supplies stopped fighting as well.
This particular winter in 1777 through 1778 was not the coldest or worst in the Revolutionary War, but there was a considerable amount of freezing and thawing along with snow and rain. The shortages of their provisions and supplies made living conditions difficult, however, rather then just waiting in these conditions, they decided to take matters in to their own hands the best that they could. The army procured supplies, constructed gear and clothing, built log cabins, and cooked subsistence meals of their own concoctions to make it through this time period.
Provisions were more in supply in the early parts of winter, and in January of 1778, army records state that the men received an average daily ration of one-half pound of beef per man. It became more difficult in February, when the men sometimes went days without meat. There were also some shortages of clothing, the worse of which occurred in March, when the army listed 2,898 men unfit for duty due to lack of clothing. Many soldiers did still have a full uniform at this time, so during this time period, the well-equipped units did take their place and forged, patrolled, and defended the camp. A lot of people think of Valley Forge, and how many of the soldiers went without supplies, but the forces did really pull together as a team to do the best that they could to help each other. Those that did have the supplies really stepped up, and there was a lot of community involved here.
Another focal point that you take note of as you walk through Valley Forge currently, are the large amounts of reconstructed log cabins. If we take a moment and look back in the winter of 1777/1778, one of the major remedies against the harsh weather was the construction of the log cabin. This particular winter encampment was the first that thousands of men had to build their own huts. The officers of the army literally put the men into construction squads and had them build cabins according to a 14 foot by 16 foot model. One officer is quoted as to say that the cabins “had the appearance of a little city” when viewed from a distance. Also, in addition to these cabins, the soldiers had created miles of trenches, earthen forts called redoubts, and a state of the art bridge over the Schuylkill River (this was inspired by Roman designs.) One thing is for sure, this army certainly wanted to take their destiny into their own hands as much as possible!
On December 19th in the year 1777, 12,000 soldiers had marched onto Valley Forge, with 400 women and children. The encampment itself was also very diverse, with men, women, and children being from all walks of life of every occupation, different ethnic backgrounds, and many different religions as well. While most at the time were of English decent, African, American Indian, Dutch, Austrian, Germanic, French, Italian, Irish, Polish, Portuguese, Prussian, Scottish, Spanish, and Swedish persons also filled the ranks. The 400 women were the wives of enlisted men that followed the army all year, and also several general’s wives came on extended visits too.
Through the time period of the encampment, George Washington inspired his soldiers with his own resilience and a sense of duty too. With his persuasion, he enabled Congress to reform the supply system and end various shortages. He also managed to attract many experienced officers to his cause, including the former Prussian officer Friedrich von Steuben. Friedrich von Steuben trained the soldiers in new military skills, and also how to fight in more of a unified army. These particular reforms were in fighting tactics and supply systems, in addition to military hygiene and army organization that became the foundation of the modern United States Army.
In June of 1778, George Washington’s spy network informed him that the British were about to abandon Philadelphia. He swiftly took action and with a small force that went into the area, and took possession of the city. A lot of the army swiftly advanced from the north side of the Schuylkill River and southeast camp toward the Delaware River and New Jersey to bring about general engagement.
It was on June 28th, at the Battle of Monmouth New Jersey, that Washington’s army forced the British from the field utilizing their new battlefield skills. By the summer of 1778, it was known that the war effort was going very well. That decision to occupy Valley Forge and maintain a strong offensive pressure on the British was a smart one. When the British army did abandon Philadelphia, they had little to show for their past year’s efforts. Philly was once again under Patriot control, and because of the contributions of Friedrich von Steuben and others, the Continental Army was more unified then ever before.
There are so many longer gained successes that can be attributed to Valley Forge. The very concepts of basic training, professionalization of officer corps, and distinctive branches of the army such as the corps of engineers, all had their start here. Valley Forge National Park provides a memorial to admire and discover the Continental Army’s sacrifices and achievements. I know I feel this massive sense of gratefulness to the soldiers that changed our lives forever.
If we look back to this particular place that is so special to the United States, it is important to review its beginnings and remember the individuals who really put their lives on the line for the country. This post has definitely went more in depth historically. I truly believe though, especially when a place has a major significance, and not just in the Revolutionary War, but an impact on our lives today, it is so important that we take the time to study and learn about it.
Now, lets get into some really neat areas in the park that I recommend checking out on your visit! After you arrive at the visitor center, you will want to follow the path along the road of North Outer Line Drive. As you walk down the path, you will see this massive mound of earth that is seemingly emerging out of the land. This was an “Redoubt Earthwork Defense System.”
These were constructed by the soldiers in the war as fortifications connected by miles of entrenchments that were created to strengthen the natural advantages of the terrain. (Also, as a side note, the word redoubt means a place of retreat in French.) This particular redoubt was one of five, and it was used as an overlook towards the direction of Philadelphia, so that the area could be protected from an attack.
The officers utilized telescopes to observe longer ranges as well. Another thing that you have to take note of is that back in 1777, this view to Philadelphia was completely open since there were not trees or buildings here at the time. Philadelphia location wise is about 20 miles southeast of this area. As we walked around the redoubt, it was you really do get the sense of what it would feel like as a solider fighting for independence at that time. We were very impressed with the recreated cannons as well that were pointed out of the redoubt.
As you travel down this same path, by the North Outer Line Drive, you will notice a lot of reconstructed log hut cabins. These are really neat, and you can actually walk inside of some of them. You can see that there was a bunk bed set up in the cabins, and the wooden fire place was lined with clay to keep the room safe and warm from the harsh Pennsylvania winter.
The next spot I recommend is right where the North Outer Line Drive and Gulph Road Intersect which is the National Memorial Arch itself. It is really picturesque and quite magnificent. This particular arch was constructed to commemorate the arrival of George Washington and the Continental Army into Valley Forge.
The designer of it is Paul Philippe Cret, and his vision was to make a simplified version of the Arch of Titus in Rome. In classical tradition, it is known that the triumphal arch of one or three openings was erected to honor emperors or generals. This particular arch with its single opening is classically proper as a national tribute to George Washington and the troops that he lead. It is truly magnificent in person, and has an elegant reverence that exudes from it.
Another historical building that you have to check out is located on the other side of the park. It is called Varnum’s Quarters. James Mitchell Varnum was an American lawyer, legislator, and general in the Continental Army. He was from the state of Rhode Island, and in the winter of 1777, he was in correspondence to his home state and Congress, and had tried to procure provisions for his troops. After the winter, he did return to Rhode Island for special military duties. The actual building of Varnum’s Quarters was built in the early 1700s. There have been some renovations over the years, but we were impressed with how this very historical structure has held up!
My final must see recommendation (honestly the whole park is truly filled with so many historical gems, but just to keep on the highlights of the park) is of course George Washington’s Headquarters. As you walk up to the headquarters, you will see the Valley Forge Train Station. (This beautiful area was constructed in 1911 to receive visitors to the park. Now, the National Park service actually uses this 1911 passenger station as an exhibit space. The railroad tracks are still visible and being utilized by Norfolk Southern Railroad as a freight line.)
The house known as Washington’s Headquarters was originally built sometime in the 1750s by the Potts family. At the time of the Valley Forge encampment, a relative of the Potts family rented the house to George Washington and his military family. This gorgeous house is a two-story Quaker-German house, and it is just so amazing that this structure has been preserved for us to look at today.
When you do plan your visit to Valley Forge, I highly recommend taking the full encampment tour, and walking around the whole park area. The areas that I reviewed are some of my favorite stops in the park, but there is honestly so much history here, and I would recommend really taking your time to walk around the area to fully absorb the richness of it, and also the immense beauty of the Pennsylvania nature as well. I hope you enjoyed my photo perspectives and stories from inside the park. This place is so beautiful in its own reverence.
As a side note and another stop that I recommend if you are in the area is the Valley Forge Memorial Chapel (this is on Route 23 right in the park.) It is a national memorial to George Washington, and is currently an active Episcopal church. They are not formally affiliated with the Valley Forge Park, but this beautiful building is such a wonderful example of Gothic Revival in the United States.
Let me know in the comments if you have visited the Valley Forge National Park, and what you have thought of it as well. I hope that you are having an amazing day, and remember to click that subscribe button!
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-For Additional Reading
If you are traveling to the Pennsylvania region, and are interested in learning about its history, a really amazing resource is the book “Pennsylvania A History of the Commonwealth” by which is edited by Randall M. Miller and William Pencak. It is so informative, and reviews the history of our state, in addition to the geography, architecture, archaeology, art history, and even stories of folklore and folklife that are specific to this area.
I personally recommend this book if you are planning a trip to Pennsylvania, or even if you are just interested in learning about the state in general. If you would like to check it out, click on the link below!
If you would like to check out the full list of travel books that I recommend make sure that you check out this comprehensive guide!