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Highlights of Valley Forge National Historical Park: A Pennsylvania Family Day Trip!
Site of the Winter Encampment that Forged the American Revolution's Continental Army!
George Washington's Headquarters at Valley Forge, a national historical park in Pennsylvania, is a great place for a family to visit.
The park was the site of the 1777-78 winter encampment of the Continental Army fighting against the British in the American Revolution. Located just northwest of Philadelphia, the park is a great place to learn some American history or just simply enjoy the day outdoors. In fact, there seemed to be as many joggers, bikers and people on picnics when we were there as there were people seeing the historical exhibits!
Entrance is free, as is a shuttle that takes visitors around the park. You can also drive yourself, or take a paying tour bus.
We took all the photos in this review.
Washington's 12,000-Soldier Winter Camp
Start at the Park's Visitor Center
After the battles of Brandywine and Germantown in September and October, 1777, George Washington and his army of 12,000 retreated to Valley Forge for the winter. The site of the camp is about 20 miles northwest of Philadelphia, which had been captured by the British, and was close enough to keep the British from advancing while far enough away to prepare for an attack if need be.
During the winter about 2,000 huts were built to house the soldiers. Even so, disease still killed almost 2,000 men. The men trained and when spring arrived in 1778 the army was more disciplined and better able to handle battle against the British.
This history is well-told in a museum at the park's visitor center, which should be anyone's first stop (if only to pick up a map of the grounds). In addition to a history of the camp, the museum has fossils from the area as well as artifacts of the war such as American flintlock muskets. There's an exact replica musket you can lift up just to feel how heavy it would be to carry around -- I'd guess it weighs maybe 10 pounds but the sign doesn't give any details. The photo here is of the museum's exhibits.
After the museum, you can take a circuit around the park, either by shuttle, car or tour bus. The map recommends stopping at eight main spots, which is pretty much what we did.
Valley Forge Explained for Children
Washington at Valley Forge explains in clear language what happened during the winter encampment in a tale aimed at grades 4-8.
Valley Forge Huts
The Camp's Outer Line of Defense
The first stop after leaving the visitor's center is within walking distance from the parking lot, but I would suggest that if you are driving you might as well take the car because you'll need it after this.
Here you'll find some reconstructed huts representing the quarters of Gen. Peter Muhlenberg's brigade, which manned the outer line of defense. The huts are 14 feet by 16 feet, and slept 12 to a hut. They were also only 6 1/2 feet high, so we are talking very close quarters!
Some of the buildings have displays inside showing what a typical hut's contents would have looked like, and there were guides in period costume to answer questions.
Take a few moments to look across the fields, as the view is quite lovely and peaceful.
Valley Forge Guides in Period Costume
National Memorial Arch and the Wayne Statue
Memorials to the Men Who Served
The next stop on the tour was the most impressive -- the National Memorial Arch. This was dedicated on June 19, 1917 and later given some repairs in 1996-1997. The monument sits on a hill, so it looks even taller than it really is.
The original plan was to have two arches, one at each end of the park. But Congress approved $100,000 only for one. The design is based on Triumphal Arch of Titus in Rome. For more on the arch see here.
The inscription below is a great and noble one.
From there you travel to the site of a statue dedicated to Gen. Anthony Wayne, located where his troops were camped. His statue is situated so that he is gazing in the direction of his home in Chester County. For more on Anthony Wayne see here.
Memorial Arch Inscription
Naked and starving as they are
We cannot enough admire
The incomparable patience and fidelity
Of the soldiery.
George Washington at Valley Forge
Feb. 16, 1778
General Anthony Wayne Statue
Memorial to the Unknown Soldiers Buried at Valley Forge
Near the area where Wayne's soldiers camped is a small memorial to the unknown soldiers who died and were buried during that winter. The memorial isn't on the official map, and in fact was donated to the park by the Valley Forge chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution.
It's a shame that it isn't at least marked on the map as a show of respect. We stumbled upon it and were amazed that it's just tucked away off a path and pretty much ignored.
Should the Park Service Add the Monument to Its Map as a Show of Respect?
George Washington Headquarters
Plus the Former Train Station
To get to the next stop you drive along a winding public road that cuts through the park along a lovely brook called Valley Creek. As you go check out the classic covered bridge on your left -- it's from 1865.
The next area you will visit is a cluster of buildings that include the headquarters of George Washington that winter. But first stop in the former train station that used to be the main way visitors arrived at the park. Trains stopped there from 1911 until the 1960s. There's some cool photos of Boy Scouts troops arriving in the 1950s and 1960s for the National Scout Jamborees inside the train station, which has been converted to a small museum.
It's a short walk to the home that served as Washington's headquarters. The building was reopened in 2009 after undergoing a restoration. It is much smaller than the one he used in Morristown, New Jersey, in 1779-1780 (which we wrote about here), and when we mention it to the guide she nods her head. This is considered to be the smallest of all his winter encampments, she says.
The house was so small that the kitchen was built alongside to give it more space. I counted only five rooms in the main house, and the guide tells me 25 people stayed there -- including Martha Washington toward the end of the encampment!
Nearby the headquarters is a bronze statue of George Washington that is a copy of the marble one in the Virginia state capitol. Also, some huts have been reconstructed on the grounds that show how Washington's guards lived. The building is closed now for the winter, except for a few days around Presidents' Day, and will reopen March 2, 2013.
There's also a history of the area that is worth reading. While the only buildings on the site now are the park ones, at the time of the encampment Washington's headquarters was in a small village that had grown along the creek. There was a grist mill and forges (hence the name!), barns and stores. Unfortunately, the British had ransacked the village before Washington's troops had arrived.
George Washington Statue Near His Valley Forge Headquarters
Washington: A Life - If You Want to Know More About the First President
Washington: A LIfe was published in 2010 to very strong reviews, with author Ron Chernow praised for not just explaining the actions of the Father of the U.S. but also what about him personally that made him so great.
This would be a fine way for you to learn about George Washington.
Redoubts, Artillery Park and the Memorial Chapel
The Remaining Stops on the Tour
The next few stops along the tour don't take very long. Redoubts 3 and 4 at the next stop are almost completely overgrown, but you can still make out the contours of the hills where the cannon stood. This was the inner defense, and since the British never attacked was never used in battle. See photo below.
The next stop is the artillery park, which is the picnic area of choice for many people. A wide open field near the center of the camp, this is where most of the cannon were amassed and kept ready to be rushed in whatever direction was needed in case of attack. See the photo that accompanies the poll in this review.
After that, we stopped at Baron von Steuben's statue and Varnum's quarters. Von Steuben was credited with turning the men in the encampment into better soldiers through drills, earning him fame as one of the fathers of the Continental army. (For more on Von Steuben see here. )
Unfortunately, Varnum's quarters were closed the day we visited, and I couldn't see in the windows of the early 1770s farmhouse to check out what was inside.
The final stop on the tour was the Washington Memorial Chapel (photo to the right), which is an active Episcopal church on private land within the park. Inside the building is the Justice Bell, a replica of the Liberty Bell that served as a symbol of women's suffrage in the 1910s, as well as an amazing stained-glass memorial to the life and times of George Washington. Around back is a small bookstore and a snack shop where you can grab something to eat after the tour. For more on the chapel here is its website here.
Redoubt in Valley Forge National Historical Park
Pews of the Patriots, Washington Memorial Chapel
Valley Forge: The Crucible - Discovery Channel Documentary Narrated by James Woods
For More Information
- Highlights of Valley Forge National Historical Park: National Park Service
National Park Service official website of the Valley Forge park.
- Highlights of Valley Forge National Historical Park: Wikipedia
Wikipedia page about the national park.
What About You?
Valley Forge is a great place to learn about an important part of American history. It's also just a great park and place to be outdoors.
The photo here is of Artillery Park, a central locale in the encampment where many of the cannons were kept so they could be brought to bear in any direction depending on where the enemy attacked.
Have You Ever Been to Valley Forge?
Valley Forge's Former Train Station
The Revolution -- Forging an Army - A History Channel Special That Highlights the Time at Valley Forge
Valley Forge: A Winter Encampment
This is the 18-minute orientation film that the park shows daily to help visitors understand the events that occurred at Valley Forge that winter. It's well worth seeing.
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Valley Forge National Historical Park
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