Lower Merion Historical Society

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Renewing Valley Forge

by David Schmidt
Main Line Life
Originally published February 13, 2002

Most of us living in the Delaware Valley recognize just how much of the nation’s history occurred here, but we’re always delighted when the rest of the country takes notice.

To that end, the topic of The History Channel’s first special of the year, the Emmy-winning “Save Our History,” is about what the program’s producer calls the “most revered place of American history, Valley Forge.”

The executive producer for the hour-long program is Beth Dietrich-Segarra, a native of Eagleville and a graduate of Methacton High School. In college she majored in telecommunications, with a minor in history at Kutztown University, which she parlayed into a career as a producer and programmer for The History Channel, which she’d done for four years.

This was a production that appealed to her.

“It was a wonderful project and I knew that I wanted to be a part of it,” she said during a telephone interview. She was interested, she said, because she used to work at Valley Forge National Historical Park.

“In the summer of 1986, I worked as an interpreter [guide] at the park,” Dietrich- Segarra said. “Our job was to interpret history for visitors. I was very surprised to discover how much of what I thought I knew about Valley Forge was incorrect.”

For instance, many people asked where the battleground was. She gently told them “there was no battle fought at Valley Forge.”

“In those days armies took the winter off,” she said. “There really wasn’t any way for wars to continue during the hard weather.”

Another of the misconception was that Valley Forge faced a horrendous winter.

“Most people are surprised to discover that the winter of Valley Forge wasn’t all that bad – in fact, it was considered ‘moderate’ at the time,” she said. “It wasn’t that the winter was so bad, it was that any winter is bad when the men were dressed in tatters and often didn’t have shoes.”

The TV program will also highlight the condition of buildings in the park. The History Channel included the park on it list of 11 most-endangered historical properties.

Park Superintendent Arthur L. Stewart agrees with the listing, in spite of that being the job of the National Park Service. Ageographer by training, Stewart has 37 years on the job, and for much of his tenure has focused on park management.

“These facilities aren’t as well taken-care-of as most people think, and it has to do with availability of money,” Stewart said. “The National Park Service is backlogged in money for maintenance.”

Since the History Channel’s list was broadcast on a program in November 2000, a matching grant of $450,000 grant was offered. “We’ve already raised more than $1 million for the restorations and repairs,” Stewart said. “Most people think it’s just a matter of putting new roofs on these six structures, but that’s not it at all.”

Restoration must be done to 18th-century standards using 18th-century technology. “Several of the buildings have 20th-century roofs on them, and that has actually added to the damage,” Stewart said.

The History Channel was particularly alarmed by one building, the winter quarters for Major General William Alexander (Lord Stirling). It faces imminent collapse, “due to years of termite infestations, structural failure and water infiltration,” said Dietrich-Segarra.

The 20th-century roofs did more damage “because of incompatible materials and methods,” Stewart said. “In any case, we have to duplicate 18th century technology to restore these buildings to their original technological level, that’s the only correct way to do it.”

Stewart is glad that this will be happening and to arouse public awareness through the TV programs. The park jointly hosted a “premier” on Feb. 13 at the park with The History Channel and Comcast Communications.

According to Dave Breidinger, vice president of government relations for the Eastern Division of Comcast, “We’re thrilled to have Valley Forge nearby and we like to get out in the community and draw attention to the park,” he said. “The History Channel does such a good job of programming for local communities, so we are delighted with them.”

In addition to the modern problems of the park, the program also focuses on the positives of Valley Forge: It was there Washington forged a true military organization out of the multitude of unschooled American militia groups. This citizen’s army went on to defeat the British armies and force the Crown to relinquish its colonial claims to the Colonies.

To accomplish this, Washington turned to a German drillmaster by the name of Friedrich Wilhelm Augustin, Baron von Steuben, a 46- year-old Prussian, to instill discipline in the Continental Army.

Von Steuben, despite his many claims, was not a former Prussian general. He’d been a captain in the Seven Year’s War, but couldn’t find military work for the next 14 years. Somehow, along the way, he acquired the title of “baron.”

Finally in Paris the summer of 1777, von Steuben sought a commission in the American Continental Army. His offer of service was accepted, and he reported to Gen. George Washington at Valley Forge on Feb. 23.

Washington at once assigned him the task of training the troops. In this he proved so quickly successful that Washington obtained for him the appointment of inspector general, with the rank of major general, on May 5, 1778.

Von Steuben was a well-trained European military man, but more importantly, he had the open-mindedness to see the value of the independent and often insubordinate American fighting men. In his view, once they learned how to fight, they would be even better than those soldiers who learned what to do by rote. The Prussian often commented that he’d never explained so much to troops as he did with the Americans at Valley Forge.

So Von Steuben set out to teach, as well as drill, the unruly American militiamen. Learning this manual of arms and how to fight a well-trained European army would also keep the desperately uncomfortable and ill-equipped men occupied during the Valley Forge winter, rather than deserting to their homes.

These militiamen discovered the value of standards. They developed the confidence that came from knowing what was happening in battle around them, and why their commanders gave them orders.

With this ability, the tide began to turn for the Americans, and the British began to learn that keeping these colonies a part of the empire was going to have a very high price. Von Steuben didn’t win the war for Washington, but he was a major factor in building a national army that would become the basis for the fledgling nation’s security.

The next winter, von Steuben prepared his Regulations for the Order and Discipline of the Troops of the United States (1780), which became the army’s standard drill manual.

In Virginia he fought under the Marquis de Lafayette and commanded one of the three divisions of Washington’s army at the siege of Yorktown. After the war, von Steuben was granted land, an annual stipend and American citizenship. He died in Steubenville, N.Y., in 1794.

In spite of Congress’ callous neglect to provide the means for keeping its army alive, the men of Valley Forge marched out the next spring better soldiers than the ones who scurried to the valley’s safety as winter fell on them.

Meanwhile, the refugee Continental Congress was wintering in York, having declared it the new nation’s capital. With their own hides at stake when the British moved, congressmen ordered Washington to winter at Valley Forge. “Just like real estate agents, issues of military geography still cry ‘location, location, location,’ ” Stewart said. “The location of the winter encampment at Valley Forge put the American army directly on the route the British would have to take to attack York.”

The British, meanwhile, were well-garrisoned in Philadelphia, eating well from foodstuff grown in Lower Merion and paid for with “real” money: pounds sterling. Officers attended balls and dinners, with their bright social life belying the fact that this was the capital of the rebellion. Many of the fine names of today’s social register seek to hide the fact that their ancestors were, for the most part, the ones doing the entertaining.

When the winter was over the tide had also begun to turn, and even those who’d sat chilled to the bone over scraggly fires in Valley Forge or drilled unceasingly under the Prussian eyes of von Steuben were filled with confidence and hope that this new army could do the unthinkable: win the war and create a nation.

von Steuben’s Heroes

Taken from information provided by U.S. Army Museum of the Noncommissioned Officer:


“In the early days of the American Revolution, little standardization of NCO duties or responsibilities existed. In 1778, during the long hard winter at Valley Forge, Inspector General Friedrich von Steuben standardized NCO duties and responsibilities in his Regulations for the Order and Discipline of the Troops of the United States (printed in 1779). Among other things this work (commonly called the Blue Book) set down the duties and responsibilities for corporals, sergeants, first sergeants, quartermaster sergeants, and sergeants major, which were the NCO ranks of the period. It also emphasized the importance of selecting quality soldiers for NCO positions. This work served for 30 years as the primary regulations for the Army.“The duties of the noncommissioned officer, as set forth by von Steuben, were:

“The Sergeant Major served as the assistant to the regimental adjutant. He kept rosters, formed details, and handled matters concerning the ‘interior management and discipline of the regiment.’

“The Quartermaster Sergeant assisted the regimental quartermaster, whose duties he assumed during the quartermaster’s absence. He also supervised the proper loading and transport of the regiment’s baggage when on march.

“The First Sergeant enforced discipline and encouraged duty among troops, maintained the duty roster, made morning report to the company commander, and kept the company descriptive book. This document listed the name, age, height, place of birth, and prior occupation of every enlisted man in the unit.

“Sergeants and Corporals were expected to instruct recruits in all matters of military training, including the order of their behavior in regard to neatness and sanitation. Outbreaks of disturbances were to be punished. Listings of sick were to be forwarded to the First Sergeant.

“In battle NCOs were to close the gaps occasioned by casualties and encourage men to silence, and to fire rapidly and true.

“The development of a strong NCO Corps helped sustain the Continental Army through severe hardships to final victory. Von Steuben called the NCO the ‘backbone’ of the Army and his regulations established the centerpiece for NCO duties and responsibilities from 1778 to the present.”