A VISIT TOT HE REAL VALLEY FORGE
William R. Forstchen
Valley Forge. Just those two words conjure up a wide array of imagery for most Americans. Some immediately picture the famous painting of a neatly uniformed George Washington kneeling in the snow and praying. Others a ragged line of patriots, shivering in the cold, wrapped in blankets for warmth while drilling, for others a small log cabin, in a row of cabins, smoke coming from chimney’s as our gallant army waits out the winter of 1777-1778.
The log cabin image is a strong one and rests with nearly any who have visited that storied plain just outside of Philadelphia. Our national park service, on a very limited budget does a superb job of maintaining our historic sites such as Valley Forge, Gettysburg, Shiloh.
Perhaps a moment to look at the history of the site we see today is in order as we think about Valley Forge. After the Revolution the plains and hills of Valley Forge were abandoned. Various private groups, realizing the significance of this sacred place purchased property and in the modern sense, the Valley Forge we know finally came under the control of the Department of the Interior, National Park Service, in the 20th century. Nearly all of what you see there today was laid out and built by the famed CCC, the Civil Conservation Corps back in the 1930s, the log cabins, the pathways and roads, while various civic groups paid for and erected the heroic statues of our famed leaders.
"And there on sun lit afternoons you can watch well clad reenactors, dressed authentically, and spotlessly, in uniforms of the time, drilling, marching about in the somewhat strange and quaint formations of the time..."
In reality, you are not visiting the actual Valley Forge, you are visiting a park built above the real Valley Forge. And this is not to denigrate the heart felt and remarkable efforts of the men and women of our park service who labor with limited resources to maintain this sacred land. They do a superb job.
And there on sun lit afternoons you can watch well clad reenactors, dressed authentically, and spotlessly, in uniforms of the time, drilling, marching about in the somewhat strange and quaint formations of the time, and on the way out, purchase some rather good books, perhaps our own book on Valley Forge, and know that you have imbued your children with a better appreciation of what transpired there.
But let us, for a moment imagine a very different Valley Forge. We’ll call it the exciting “Valley Forge Reality Experience,” (just the name conjures up Disneyworld or Universal Studios down in sunny Florida).
No admission price, but before you step through the gate you will have to forgo a myriad of laws laid down by OSHA, the EPA, CDC, and a host of other government agencies and numerous civilian activist groups ranging from the WWF to PETA. Children as young as twelve can participate, but you will have to sign a virtual blizzard of waivers and release forms, witnessed and counter signed by a bevy of lawyers before stepping through the gate to the reality of your true experience of Valley Forge.
Forget the park with its almost cheery quaint cabins, the smell of burning hickory and maple wafting across the field. Get ready for a shock.
We’ll do this on a December day of course. . . Forget modesty, leave your modern clothes aside, all of them. Stepping through the gate you’ll be issued a wool blanket not washed in several months, linen or canvas trousers, knees and backside might need some patching. Shirt, filth encrusted, not washed in several months. Every second or third person through the gate might get a woolen uniform jacket of various hues, mostly by this point a dirty torn affair. And a hat, not the funny looking tri corners, just something to cover your head. Oh yes, all items will already be infested with lice and fleas, some lice carrying typhus. Almost forgot about shoes. Scramble if you see a pair—its first come first served—so at least half of you will make due with strips of canvas and burlap.
"Food, for the first twenty four hours, to get you in the proper mood and frame of mind, there will be none. After that, perhaps twice a day you might get a bit of “johnnie cake” which is simply a batter of “whatever” poured out on a flat rock by an open fire."
Food, for the first twenty four hours, to get you in the proper mood and frame of mind, there will be none. After that, perhaps twice a day you might get a bit of “johnnie cake” which is simply a batter of “whatever” poured out on a flat rock by an open fire. You might find this a bit hard to deal with at first, but every couple of days an emaciated cow or pig will be dragged into the camp, its throat cut, a scramble to catch the blood ensues, since it’s valuable as a broth for the sick, and chances are you will be one of them within a few weeks. Help yourself to the slaughter, everything goes into the pot, from brains to bones, to intestines and hooves. It’s the only meat you’ll get for a few days.
Almost forgot. Your weapon. You’ll be issued a nine-pound, smoothbore musket, caliber .72, and maybe a dozen or so rounds of dry ammunition. Too precious for you to try a couple of rounds. A sergeant, cursing and yelling at you, will walk you through how to load it, if and when the time comes.
And now to your “quaint cabin.” Nothing is there in that open wind swept field. If you are a group of a hundred or so, you’ll be issued one long ax of medium quality, no tempered steel axes, then several hatchets, a few shovels. . .Now get to work.
The forest is about a quarter mile away so the logs for your cabin will have to be dropped, trimmed and dragged back by hand. Firewood, same thing. It looks like you’ll spend your first week or two just lying out in the open, and the forecast is for rain, followed by freezing, rain, and then sleet. In fact a snowfall will actually be welcome after all that rain.
"Chances are, some of you will indeed die in the first week. We are of course pampered creatures of the 21st century. Get used to a different kind of death. Come a freezing morning and you awake to find the person next to you stiff and cold."
Chances are, some of you will indeed die in the first week. We are of course pampered creatures of the 21st century. Get used to a different kind of death. Come a freezing morning and you awake to find the person next to you stiff and cold. There will be no ambulances, police reports, appropriate mourning, with services and flowers. Simply drag him out into what is now your company street, ask your sergeant to get the dead cart, and watch your neighbor get hauled off to the burying field. And yes, some of you will be “volunteered” that day for grave digging, trying to cut through the soggy, or frozen earth, and forget about six feet, just make it deep enough to cover them over.
And then to that great cause of anxiety for so many of us who take a squirt of hand sanitizer at least once an hour—sanitation.
Almost forgot to mention that once through the gate you will not be cloaked with the cheery smell of hickory and apple wood fires. Hanging over everything like a rotted curtain is a stench of every foul smell you have ever experienced. And there will be no aerosol cans to spray it away with.
The privy pit, if someone is thinking, will at least be dug down wind. No cute looking wooden outhouse—split lumber is far too precious for that. Just a board to sit on out in the open while others walk by. We’ll skip the details of how soft the “toilet paper” is, a sergeant might advise using your paper money which you are paid with, for that’s just about how much it is worth.
Half of you, given the lack of sanitation, will be running to that privy every hour or so. We won’t go into the details of the common aliments, of “the bloody flux,” or dysentery. But the harsh reality is that many of you will start losing the race to get to the privy in time. And for your entire time in this visit you will only have one set of breeches—unless you are willing to pull a pair off a dead neighbor being taken to the burying pit.
"Since all of us are inoculated against small pox, typhoid, and a host of other diseases we won’t worry too much about them, but there are plenty of other things here that can kill you instead."
Since all of us are inoculated against small pox, typhoid, and a host of other diseases we won’t worry too much about them, but there are plenty of other things here that can kill you instead.
Now, consider enduring all this for five long months, through winter rains, snow, deep freezes, the calf-deep mud of spring, and then the increasingly hot days as summer approaches. A third of you have died, another third have had it to the point that you are screaming, banging on the gate into this “Valley Forge Reality Land,” willing to offer anything to get out.
Those of you who stay and can manage to stand upright? A German officer shows up who most of you think is someone comic, but also more than a little crazy. Day after day he now marches you up and down a field, cussing at you, at times praising you, and hour after hour making you repeat over and over how to load your cumbersome musket.
Then finally comes the day. The gate to your “Reality Land” is sprung open and you march out. But there is one more experience left for you, and that is “Battle Land.” After marching for about sixty miles in hundred-degree heat, you see a thin red line of red ahead of you, deployed out into formation.
Forget all the foolishness you’ve ever seen in any movie. This whole thing about lines had a purpose, to lay down rapid fire, in a compressed area and sweep your opponent from the field. None of this dodging around behind trees and behind stone walls, you are in New Jersey farm country (rather near where a big amusement park stands today).
" A .72 round ball of soft lead does a lot more damage at times than a jacketed 5.56 round. You will see those to either side of you torn apart but you are expected to stand and deliver back"
You march to within sixty or so yards of that red line, and then as trained, you start banging away, and they fire back. A .72 round ball of soft lead does a lot more damage at times than a jacketed 5.56 round. You will see those to either side of you torn apart but you are expected to stand and deliver back
You survive. That red line behind the curtain of smoke turns and runs. There might even be some cheering, but the temperature has soared to 105 degrees, and for every man shot, another is down with heat stroke. And there are no such things as ice machines and air conditioning. As for the wounded, there is no such thing as anesthesia while an arm comes off. And try as you might to argue with the surgeon, he has never heard of anti-sepsis, or anything called antibiotics or morphine.
So your tour of the Valley Forge Reality Experience is at an end. And unlike the ghostly sergeants and officers who trained you, you get to flee back through the gate, tear off the rags, take a very long shower, have a full medical team wearing hazmat suits waiting to examine you, run tests, make sure you didn’t bring back any parasites inside your body, (we won’t go into the more grisly details of what they can do to you for years afterwards) or diseases lingering in your lungs and blood. You get some time with a psychiatrist to go over your post traumatic stress and why you wake up screaming; some extra meds to take, sign-off on all those release forms, get in your car and drive in one hour a distance it took you a week to march.
"Now lie awake your first night back home, in your memory foam mattress bed, heat turned up high, and ask your family to leave you alone for awhile. Stare at the ceiling and think about it all. Is this what freedom is truly about? Is that the cost I just witnessed?"
You might stop on your way at that battlefield near that amusement park in New Jersey. Beautiful spot today, faded headstones, one for a mass grave of some men you got to know, and even a statement of reconciliation that here buried as well were some of the men in red whom you helped to kill, but are now brothers resting in peace.
Now lie awake your first night back home, in your memory foam mattress bed, heat turned up high, and ask your family to leave you alone for awhile. Stare at the ceiling and think about it all. Is this what freedom is truly about? Is that the cost I just witnessed? That sergeant who cussed and yelled at me, then collapsed at my side on the battlefield, what would he say if he could but walk through my house now, and sit down at my dinner table, and oh the luxury of just sleeping on the floor in my basement! Did I even think about these things when a week ago when I stepped into a voting booth (which was what a lot of this suffering was about). Did I think about it while I pulled a few levers and then walked out? Can I even remember a few lines of what they wrote in a Declaration they were willing to die for and a Constitution they wrote after the suffering had ended.
Did I think about any of it?
Should we think about it now, and every blessed day we live with the freedom, and the responsibilities these patriots gave to us?
William R. Forstchen, Ph.D., is a Faculty Fellow at Montreat College in Montreat, North Carolina. Author of more than forty books, he is co-author, with Newt Gingrich, of the new novel, Valley Forge: George Washington and the Crucible of Victory.