A funny thing happened on our way to Gettysburg – we ventured off the beaten path and somehow slipped back another century in time.
We set off from the city on a fine spring morning. As happens every time I cross the Hudson, I found myself humming Simon and Garfunkel’s America at the first sight of a New Jersey Turnpike sign.
…counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike,
we’ve all gone to look for America…
And, indeed, I guess that is what we were doing; looking for America, teasing away its layers of history, one road trip at a time. This trip, we were headed for Gettysburg, with a vague intention of a scenic drive through Pennsylvania’s Amish country. Heading a bit southward instead of due west, we saw signs for Valley Forge and decided to take a detour and wind backwards in time from the Civil War to the Revolutionary War.
A few years back, I read Ron Chernow’s fine biography Washington: A Life and it spurred a nascent interest in American history that had somehow failed to sputter to life during those droning fifth period high school classes taught by the wood shop instructor. The clock ticked ever so slowly back then.
David McCullough’s John Adams was another book that brought the American Revolution to life for me, as did David Hackett Fischer’s Paul Revere’s Ride. The clincher might have have been the dully named but quite readable Miracle At Philadelphia: The Story of the Constitutional Convention May – September 1787 by Catherine Drinker Bowen. The rusty wheels of my brain slowly clicked and whirred and I belatedly came to realize the dire risks and grim sacrifices that were made to wrest the colonies away from the tea-taxing British and into a country dedicated to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Remaining mindful, of course, of Benjamin Franklin’s quip:
“Well, Doctor”, Franklin was queried, “what have we got—a Republic or a Monarchy?”
Ben famously replied:
“A Republic, if you can keep it.”
The getting of that republic was no easy task. As Thomas Paine wrote in his tract, Common Sense, “…these are times that try men’s souls”. As the hardbitten winter of 1777 wrapped its grip around the northeast, it was a time that tried men’s bodies and spirits, as well.
The Continental Army, under the leadership of General George Washington, was shabby, ill-equipped, ill-fed and rife with typhoid, smallpox and pneumonia. It is said that two out of three men had no shoes. When they stumbled into Valley Forge in December, 1777, there were no guarantees that this ragtag army would one day be victorious over the British.
Washington was revered by his men in part for his insistence on remaining with them through all trials, including this harsh winter encampment chosen for its strategic location near British-occupied Philadelphia. Twenty miles to the northwest, Valley Forge was near enough to remind the British of the Continental Army’s presence and far enough to prevent a surprise attack by the redcoats.
During that winter, the Continental Army was solidified as a fighting force through disciplined training and through Washington’s ultimately successful attempts to persuade Congress to provide adequate supplies for his troops. By February, it was learned that France would lend much-needed support to the colonists and in June, 1778, the renewed army marched out of Valley Forge and re-took Philadelphia.
A visit to Valley Forge is a great opportunity to brush up on history, but it is also a lovely destination for hiking and fishing. The park boasts thirty miles of hiking trails, scenic picnic areas and trout-fishing streams.
It was well worth our detour to visit Valley Forge. If you go, stop first at the Visitor Center where you’ll find a very informative mini-museum and helpful staff who will give you a map marked for a driving tour. All told, we spent maybe an hour and a half there, but you could easily spend twice that amount of time, especially if you bring a picnic lunch. As mentioned above, the park is a hiker’s paradise, and, best of all – dog-friendly!