The Valley Forge encampment exists in the hearts and minds of the American people with a sense of reverence unmatched by many related sites. It is because of this that we feel extremely honored to be able to dig on such hallowed ground. This summer’s excavation will be our third season excavating on the Washington Memorial Chapel property. There is much to do as well as much that has already been done, but first a little history:
The Valley Forge encampment began on December 19th, 1777 when the first troops began to arrive and settle in for what would turn out to be a six-month stay. Having lost control of the city of Philadelphia, coupled with a devastating loss at the Battle of Germantown, things were not looking positive for the Continental Army. In addition to this, General Washington was also faced with the difficult situation of having at least one in three men physically unfit for duty as well as many of his soldiers coming up on expiring enlistments.
General Washington observes his army marching into winter quarters at Valley Forge.
Oil painting by William B.T. Trego, 1883. Valley Forge Historical Society
Despite these hardships, Washington was in a perfect position for a winter encampment. Located twenty miles Northwest of Philadelphia, the army was close enough to the city to maintain pressure on the British forces as well as being far enough away to prevent a surprise attack. Located in this natural limestone sink, a virtual city of roughly 2,000 hand built log huts was erected to house the Army for the winter.
Many have this image of the Valley Forge encampment as being the pinnacle of hardship; men facing the worst old man winter had to offer, enduring this all while being practically naked. There were hardships indeed, but the Valley Forge encampment did not see anything worse than you would normally expect. In fact, the encampment was a turning point for the Army.
It was during this period that a true uniform fighting force began to emerge. Under the direction of General Frederich Wilhelm Ludolf Gerhard Augustin von Steuben, new design and tactics were drilled that would serve to unify the army. The common misconception exists that the army prior to the encampment was a ragtag group of farmers fighting for their freedom. In fact, many men knew how to fight, however many different methods were employed. It was Von Steuben’s oversight and instruction that helped unify the Continentals with confidence and created a cohesive structure.
Baron von Steuben drilling American recruits at Valley Forge in 1778 by Edwin Austin Abbey
After six months of allowing the winter to pass, the Continental Army packed up and moved out of Valley Forge on June 19, 1778, six months to the day after arriving. They quickly set their sights on the British Army as they left Philadelphia. On June 28th at the Battle of Monmouth in New Jersey, the Continentals proved that they were once again a force to be reckoned with by forcing the British from the field.