Valley Forge is easily one of the most recognizable sites of the American Revolution. George Washington stands proudly in front of his army's log cabins, a blizzard whipping snow past his arrow-straight frame. His troops barely survive with no shoes or coats in a brutally cold winter.
Well, not exactly.
Marc Brier, a park ranger at Valley Forge National Historical Park, tends to think much of that is myth. A lot of his work is portraying the truth about the site as he plays a Continental Army soldier at the Muhlenberg Brigade line. His job is to squash the fiction but still explain that the winter spent there was harsh and deadly. Eight to 12 soldiers jammed into each tiny cabin, letting disease fly through camp.
That there were incredible hardships at Valley Forge is absolutely true. Almost 2,000 soldiers died, and some did not have shoes or adequate clothing. But Valley Forge had no cannonball battle like at Gettysburg. The camp was a winter haven for the army as it watched the British occupy Philadelphia and ensured the British didn't chase down the new U.S. government wintering over 1777-78 in York.
Brier points out that as many as 2,000 of the 11,000 American soldiers at Valley Forge died by disease, not gunshots. In 1893, it was established as a park to commemorate the hardships endured there. And the winter that year was a typical southeastern Pennsylvania winter, Brier says, not the constant blizzards and waist-deep snow of mythical tales.
Still, diseases like influenza, typhus, typhoid and dysentery decimated the army.
Visiting: One of the busiest historic parks in the country, Valley Forge is popular in part because of its location, just a few miles north of Philadelphia. Tour trolleys take visitors through the sprawling park, and the visitor center hosts movies, lectures and a museum. Visit George Washington's headquarters, learn about the iron forges in the town of old Valley Forge, take a tour of Gen. Varnum's headquarters. For more information about what's going on in the park, check http://www.nps.gov/vafo/planyourvisit/today.htm.
Bring your bike, jogging shoes or hiking boots along. Or trailer your horse to the park. About 20 miles of hiking trails wind through the park, as do another 20 miles of biking trails, much of them paved. Bikes are available for rent in the visitor center parking lot.
Valley Forge is about 80 miles east of York, just north of Philadelphia. To get there, take Route 30 east to the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Exit at Valley Forge Exit 326, and follow the signs for about two miles to the park.
Check out photos from the park.