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Our 2018 Road Trip, Part 39: Washington’s Wartime Winter

George Washington statue!

Getting the obvious, obligatory out of the way up front: of course they have a George Washington statue.

A few weeks after we returned home from this vacation, Anne wore her souvenir Valley Forge T-shirt to breakfast at a Bob Evans. When the cashier asked what that was, Anne spent a few minutes providing a free history lesson while trying not to weep for our school systems. We tend not to buy or collect too many souvenirs, but this became one of the few times she found one useful for educational outreach.

I was out of earshot, so I couldn’t tell you if she also explained how Valley Forge is neither a valley nor a forge.

Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover:

Every year since 1999 my wife Anne and I have taken a trip to a different part of the United States and visited attractions, wonders, and events we didn’t have back home in Indianapolis. From 1999 to 2003 we did so as best friends; from 2004 to the present, as husband and wife. Normally we’ll choose one major locale as our primary objective, drive that-a-way, and concentrate on exploring the vicinity for a few days before retreating.

We crafted this year’s itinerary with a different approach. Instead of choosing one city as a hub, we focused on one of the motifs that’s recurred through several of our trips: grave sites of Presidents of the United States of America. Our 2018 road trip would effectively have the format and feel of a video game side quest — collecting nine American Presidents across ten presidencies, four states, seven days, and 2000 miles…

Though visiting Presidential gravesites was the primary objective for this trip, we couldn’t help sneaking in a few extra Pennsylvania locales of note while we were in the vicinity. We remained committed to overcompensating for our inadequate 2010 Philly experience. Valley Forge was an easy five minutes from Founding Farmers in King of Prussia, but apropos of our uncomfortable, dragged-out morning, I managed to fit in one more wrong turn on the way.

Quick primer for the uninitiated: once upon a time in December 1777, things weren’t going well for our Continental Army during the American Revolution. Washington and his 12,000 men found themselves in the Pennsylvania area, but the British had taken Philadelphia, which eventually needed to change. Our Heroes holed up in the tiny community of Valley Forge, built over 1500 living quarters, and hunkered down for the winter. It wasn’t a particularly brutal season from Mother Nature’s perspective, but the troops were ill-equipped to face it, as supplies remained at critical levels for months due to severe underfunding. Our nascent American government hadn’t yet figured out how to levy taxes without looking monarchical or sparking a backlash. Washington threw some of his own coins into the coffers, but he was hardly a billionaire and honestly shouldn’t have had to do that.

2000 casualties later, eventually the lands thawed, help came from other directions, France decided we were worth backing and things got a little better. As the Army regained its strength, the months were spent on intense training, becoming the unified fighting force and competent victors they dreamed of being. In June 1778 the British relinquished control of Philadelphia because they decided they’d rather go hold on to New York City instead. Thats when Our Heroes moved out and went back to revolting and freedom fighting and so on.

Valley Forge National Historical Park connects several key locations from the Army’s seven-month stay — some preserved, some recreated — and offers guided tours, but the option to explore at your own pace is viable if you know what you’re doing. I was in charge of the map and the driving; Anne was in charge of pointing out which stops mattered most to satisfying her historical curiosity.

The only tricky part was that some of the streets weren’t merely for navigating the park, but were actual highways that just so happened to intersect with the park, with non-park traffic using them as needed. In most parks, visitors can drive 15-20 mph while surveying their surroundings at their own leisurely pace. Here, driving 15-20 mph means blocking drivers trying to live their everyday lives, all of them probably bitter about having just wasted their last two hours trying to escape Philadelphia.

Muhlenberg Brigade!

Quarters for the men who served under Brigadier General Peter Muhlenberg, an ordained priest before the war. Today this is the main stage for the park’s cosplayer reenactments.

National Memorial Arch!

The tallest marker we saw was the United States National Memorial Arch, dedicated in 1917 in honor of those men and their winter.

arch general roster!

Arch features include this roster of American generals who served during the Revolution. This time, unlike a few previous stops, we saw no space alloted for Benedict Arnold.

arch speech!

Also inscribed upon it is an excerpt from a June 1878 speech by professional speaker and magazine writer Henry Armitt Brown, on the centennial occasion of the Army’s departure. Two months later, Brown was dead.

Scream face!

Brown’s death from typhoid fever may or may not be related to this spooky ghost-face. There was no sign saying it wasn’t cursed.

Masonic memorial!

A Freemason memorial stands across the way, silent on the subject.

Eagle Guardians!

A pair of eagles stand guard atop nearby poles, waiting for…something.

long and winding ramp!

Farther down the road, the next major feature could only be reached by traversing what felt like the longest wheelchair ramp in North America, a paved sidewalk made entirely of hairpin turns heading down a grassy hill.

Thataway to Washington!

In case we couldn’t decipher our map, signs near a small train depot pointed the way in unison.

Washington's Headquarters!

At the bottom of the hill was Washington’s Headquarters, naturally a bit bigger than the other cabins. It’s one of those rare places that can truthfully say “George Washington Slept Here”.

Washington's guards' cabins!

Not far away, Washington’s guards had their own separate accommodations.

Anthony Wayne!

Washington isn’t the only leader sculpted here. Brigadier General Anthony Wayne, a Pennsylvania legislator before the war, he later relocated to what would become our home state of Indiana and helped plant the fort that would beget Fort Wayne, IN.

Unknown Soldiers!

Monument to the Unknown Soldiers at Valley Forge.

von Steuben statue!

The Continental Army desperately needed formal combat training. Their savior arrived from Europe, one Major General Friedrich Wilhelm Baron von Steuben. Thanks to outside teaching and drilling, the simple townspeople were able to repel the nefarious invaders and retain control of their land and their destiny. His experience was later adapted into a film called Seven Samurai.

Washington Memorial Chapel!

Added to the grounds in 1903, Washington Memorial Chapel serves an active Episcopalian congregation and has a gift shop with snacks for tourists.

Justice Bell!

Inside the church stands the Justice Bell, a 1915 replica of the Liberty Bell. It was created to be a symbol to raise suffrage awareness, and was even called “The Women’s Liberty Bell”. Eventually votes for women became a reality, and it was renamed for reasons similar to why Carol Danvers changed her name from Ms. Marvel to Captain Marvel.

Nathanael Greene!

Outside the church stands Quartermaster General Nathanael Greene, whose duties in light of his pacifist Quaker faith were a challenge to reconcile, and not one he took lightly.

To the Mothers of the Nation...

Also on the church grounds is a 1912 tribute to those mothers throughout America’s history who saw their sons go off to war.

Patriots of African Descent...

A few hundred feet east of the church, across the street and with no convenient place to park anywhere near it, stands the 1993 “Patriots of African Descent” memorial, a solid reminder that the Continental Army and the aggregated forces who spent those hard months at Valley Forge were not all white guys.

To be continued!

* * * * *

[Link enclosed here to handy checklist for other chapters and for our complete road trip history to date. Follow us on Facebook or via email sign-up for new-entry alerts, or over on Twitter if you want to track my TV live-tweeting and other signs of life between entries. Thanks for reading!]

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