Is This America’s Valley Forge Moment?

  • Our current quarantine has an eerie simularity to events at Valley Forge during the American Revolution.
  • Valley Forge was a turning point leading to the successful American revolution.
  • Will we do the same today?

From our pandemic-induced quarantine, to the protests of police brutality leading to riots and violence the nation’s cities, it is clear that America is having a “moment.”  But what kind of moment?  And what lasting impact will this moment to have on our society and our nation, even our future economic stability?

Washington was painfully aware that his troops were fighting cold, struggling with starvation, and without even the most rudimentary shelter.

These questions came up recently as I was reading “Valiant Ambition,” Nathaniel Philbrook’s book about George Washington and the American Revolution.  And as it turns out, there is a surprising parallel for our current predicament from revolutionary times — the story of Valley Forge.

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Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, is where Washington, General of America’s Continental Army, chose to sequester his battle-weary troops for the winter of 1777.  It has even become something of a staple of Americana to draw a metaphorical connection between what Washington and his troops were forced to endure and the title location — “forge.”

At first the comparison might seem a bit of a stretch.  But consider the following four seeming parallels across the two-and-a-half centuries that separate these two events.

Unseen.  In our current adversity the enemy is something completely “unseen”, a microscopic virus capable of moving about society and infecting thousands.  But Washington and his Army also faced an “unseen” enemy.  British troops were  twenty miles away occupying Philadelphia, the fledgling nation’s capital, however it might as well have been two thousand miles, due to the deep snows of winter.

Inaction.  Today we’re all-too-familiar with the admonitions from federal, state and health authorities to “stay home” to decrease spread of Covid-19.  In the wake of protests and rioting, such warnings have taken the dire tone of actual curfews.  Similarly the troops at Valley Forge were called upon not to engage in military action against the British.  Both we, and Washington’s troop, are commanded to “shelter in place.”

Shortages.  They were extreme at Valley Forge, and Washington was painfully aware that his troops were fighting cold, struggling with starvation, and without even the most rudimentary shelter.  Such deprivation make our own much-ballyhooed scarcity of toilet paper and masks seem slight by comparison.

Diversity.  It’s often called a great strength of our nation, but it is paradoxically also an exacerbating issue for us, just as it was at Valley Forge.  Consider the assemblage of 10,000 disparate men, women and children of all ages, with differing backgrounds, and ethnicities, all encamped together amidst the worst of circumstances.  Conflicts and outright rioting were all-too-common.

Washington and his officers had but two inducements with which to keep troops under control — gunpowder and alcohol.  For us?  Hand sanitizer and, if we’re honest, an extra margarita or glass of wine have become the common coping mechanism in our troubled time.

***

But, you say, those revolutionary forebearers of ours had something we lack today: the vaunted Spirit of ’76!
Alas, despite what we may wish to believe, our so-called American Spirit or Character did not simply erupt fully formed  from pen on parchment in 1776.  It had to be “forged.”  Yes, there’s that metaphor.  ­It is frankly hard to escape.

“By that winter,” writes Philbrook, “the famed ‘Spirit of 1776′ had long since passed.”  There was a realization by Washington and each soldier that the war was to be a long, drawn-out affair.

Nor could Washington and his troops look to Congress for relief.  After printing out currency worth nearly nothing, Congress was engaged in its own war, with itself, debating whether Washington was the guy to lead their military.

Perhaps you hear an erie echo when recently our own Congress took its scheduled break, with angry citizens decrying  Congress’ disregard for the pandemic crisis and the plight of so many Americans financially distraught because of it.

As mentioned, the conditions at Valley Forge brought anger and recrimination from the troops directed at their leaders.  Washington himself remarked upon the low morale — “The spirit of desertion among the Soldiers, never before rose to such a threatening height, as at the present time.”

Take the following tableau — angry citizens marching through city streets, looting shops, setting fires and demanding justice from their government.  Does this brings to mind a recent TV footage of New York, Minneapolis or Atlanta?  Rather this was happening all over the colonies at the time of Valley Forge, as citizens were “breaking ranks,” voicing their doubts about the course of the revolution.  The word is “mutiny,” and yes, it almost happened at Valley Forge.

Now does this sound like the story of the American Revolution that you were taught in grammar school?  Or depending upon your generation, perhaps not taught at all.

***

Valley Forge was a crossroads, not only in the American Revolution, but in the forming of those ideals which we strongly associate with our national heritage.

But, while Valley Forge could have been the deathknell of the revolution, it was not.

Rather than wait for a change of heart from Congress or an early Spring, Washington and his officers launched into several efforts that seem starkly practical amidst the pomp and festoonery of traditional eighteenth century warfare.

Fortifications were redesigned (by the very first Army Corps of Engineers), with soldiers erecting high earthen walls surrounding Valley Forge.  A new quartermaster implemented a more dependable supply chain.

Now better fed and clothed, troops were able to attend to tasks such as bringing down scores of pine trees to build cabins, 2000 in all, to house themselves against the elements.  Washington even brought in a Prussian officer to transform the ragtag militia into a trained and drill-hardened army.

Meanwhile in his headquarters, Washington engaged his young officers in remodeling the underlying principles of army organization and structure.  What Philbrook calls a kind of “think tank” could equally be referred to as a “task force.”

And so after a winter that seemed poised to put an end to the emerging nation, something quite different was emerging at Valley Forge.  The entire encampment was “forged” into a disciplined, focused Continental Army that would almost miraculously go forth to pursue the successful completion of the revolution.

***

Valley Forge was a crossroads, not only in the American Revolution, but in the forming of those ideals which we strongly associate with our national heritage.  As Philbrook puts it, “Valley Forge in many ways helped put the United States on the long road to defining those ideals in ways satisfactory to all, a process still in the making.”

In our current “Valley Forge moment” we are undergoing a similar trial.  And even as angry protesters topple statues of previously-revered heroes of our founding, we find ourselves cast into the formulation of nothing less than a new collective national character.  Will we now pick up the mantle from Valley Forge?  One thing is clear: we can no more go back to who we were prior to this year than Washington could have “un”-crossed the Delaware.

And here is that looming metaphor again — simply put, our collective futures depend upon whether out of this crisis we can forge a recommitment to those values of community, coexistence and commonality that were the touchstones to our coalescence as a nation in the first place.  If so then we stand a better than even chance of emerging from our “wintering” of 2020 stronger and more unified.

I suspect that as far as our American spirit and character are concerned, the “forge” never really went away, or even cooled.

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Kirby Timmons

Kirby Timmons is a film and tv writer with credits on THE WALTONS, THE INCREDIBLE HULK and THE LIFE & TIMES OF GRIZZLY ADAMS. He is the author of a children's book, THE UNOPENED STOCKING, as well as articles appearing in THE LOS ANGELES TIMES, LOS ANGELES HERALD-EXAMINER and LOS ANGELES DAILY NEWS.

3 thoughts to “Is This America’s Valley Forge Moment?”

  1. Thanks for reading my Independence Day essay. As someone once said about history, “things change in order to remain the same”. Happy 4th!

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