On December 19, 1777, General Washington led 12,000 soldiers and 400 women and children to Valley Forge, about 25 miles outside of Philadelphia. Once the 1,500 huts were built, it became the fourth largest city in the colonies, with a very diverse population of free and enslaved African-American soldiers, civilians, wealthy officers, impoverished men, immigrants, male and female camp allies, those who spoke several different languages, and those of distinct denominational religious preferences.
The history of Valley Forge is significant because it symbolizes how God forms character. Letitia Penn inherited the Manor of Mt. Joy from her father, William Penn, in 1701. This triangular plot of land consisting of about two thousand acres was later called Mt. Joy Forge in 1742, and eventually Valley Forge since it became a complete iron works. After a sawmill was erected, John Potts, a Quaker ironmaster, purchased the property in 1757. He had erected a gristmill by 1759. One of John Potts’ sons, Isaac, built a stone house, and he, along with John Potts’ son-in-law William (who lived in a larger stone house), had joint-ownership of the forge. It was here, in this valley, that the discipline required to win the war for independence was forged, resulting in the joy of liberty secured to future generations.
Though the location was providential in that the army could defend York, Pennsylvania (where the Congress had fled from Philadelphia), as well as be held together in one place, it was George Washington who wrote the following:
“Without arrogance or the smallest deviation from truth, it may be said that no history now extant can furnish an instance of an army’s suffering such uncommon hardships as ours has done and bearing them with the same patience and fortitude.
“To see men without clothes to cover their nakedness, without blankets to lie on, without shoes (for the want of which their marches might be traced by the blood from their feet), and almost as often without provisions as with them, marching through the frost and snow, and at Christmas taking up their winter quarters within a day’s march of the enemy, without a house or a hut to cover them till they could be built, and submitting without a murmur, is a proof of patience and obedience which in my opinion can scarce be paralleled….”
Like the Pilgrims’ first winter when half their number died, the Patriots would experience loss yet miraculous provision as a result of prayer, and thus gain hope for the future. One such provision, often overlooked, was the presence of Martha Washington. As Elisabeth Ellett observed, “Lady Washington, as she was always called in the army…was at Valley Forge in that dreadful winter of 1777-8; her presence and submission to privation strengthening the fortitude of those who might have complained, and giving hope and confidence to the desponding. She soothed the distresses of many sufferers, seeking out the poor and afflicted with benevolent kindness, extending relief wherever it was in her power….”
But it was the story of Isaac Potts, the Quaker who lived at Valley Forge, whose eye-witness account brought hope – not in man, but in God Himself. The Presbyterian pastor Nathaniel Snowden’s diary confirms Isaac’s story: “I knew personally the celebrated Quaker Potts who saw Gen’l Washington alone in the woods at prayer… I told him I was agreeably surprised to find him a friend to his country as the Quakers were mostly Tories. He said… ‘something very extraordinary converted me to the Good Faith! …I heard a plaintive sound, as of a man at prayer… to my astonishment I saw the great George Washington on his knees alone, with his sword on one side and his cocked hat on the other. He was at Prayer to the God of the Armies, beseeching to interpose with his Divine aid…. Such a prayer I never heard from the lips of man…. I went home & told my wife. I saw a sight and heard today what I never saw or heard before…. We never thought a man c’d be a soldier & a Christian, but if there is one in the world, it is Washington.”
Three major providences of God occurred at Valley Forge after Christmas, evidently following Washington’s observed prayer. First, there was the alliance with France, which for morale had an amazing effect among the suffering troops. The presence of the Marquis de Lafayette at Valley Forge was a great encouragement. Second, there was the arrival of Baron von Steuben, whose drills and discipline turned a volunteer army into a disciplined unit. Third, there was the miracle of fish. David Kerr writes the following: “There was also, a few weeks later, an early running of the Shad. It was far too early for this protein-rich fish to make its appearance, but for many soldiers, freezing and near starvation, it was nothing short of a miracle.”
The huts that lined the hillsides were abandoned in mid-June as the army set forth to fight. Out from the furnace of affliction, the suffering at Valley Forge, the mettle of discipline and character was forged, and the result was amazing. The army was solidified, unified, and disciplined. Their success following Valley Forge was much greater and, of course, resulted in victory at Yorktown.
But perhaps the best and most inspiring summary of Valley Forge comes from Henry Brown and his Centennial Oration:
“The tide of battle never ebbed and flowed upon these banks. These hills never trembled beneath the tread of charging squadrons nor echoed the thunders of contending cannon. The blood that stained this ground did not rush forth in the joyous frenzy of the fight; it fell drop by drop from the heart of a suffering people. They who once encamped here in the snow fought not for conquest, not for power, not for glory, not for their country only, not for themselves alone. They served here for Posterity…they died here that Freedom might be the heritage of all. …it was Liberty herself that they had in keeping…. And here, in this place of Sacrifice, in this vale of Humiliation, in this valley of the Shadow of that Death, out of which the Life of America rose, regenerate and free, let us believe with an abiding faith… (that it) shall bless the remotest generations of the time to come. And to Him, who holds in the hollow of His hand the fate of nations, and yet marks the sparrow’s fall, let us lift up our hearts this day, and into His eternal care commend ourselves, our children, and our country.”