©Bert Gildart: According to Peter Maugle, a park ranger whom we visited yesterday while touring Valley Forge National Park in Pennsylvania, the crude inoculations conducted during the winter of 1777 helped save hundreds—perhaps even thousands—of lives.
“The British didn’t believe in inoculations,” said Peter, “and so masses of them died from smallpox. Yeah, our methods were crude, but they worked. Doctors simply poked the pustule of an infected person with a needle and then poked uninfected men with the same needle just seconds later. Then they sent them off to an isolated area of the encampment.
“Soldiers got sick alright, but it was a very mild form of smallpox, and they quickly recovered. Then doctors would bring them back, inoculate another group, and then isolate them.
“Sounds crude, but it worked. Imagine. And that was way before Louis Pasteur. ”
We met Peter at the old stone home that served as General George Washington’s office and home during the winter of 1777, the second year of the Revolutionary War. To do so, we had cycled about six miles through this bike-friendly park, cruising along paved trails. As we traveled, we passed statues and tired log huts now overshadowed by varied colored leaves, some red from maple, others yellow from hickory.
Once, these huts had billeted men of the Continental Army. Once, too, the home we finally reached had headquartered General George Washington, and his secretary, Alexander Hamilton.
The weathered home is original—not a replica—and Valley Creek, which feeds the Schuylkill River, still runs in front of the home, having never altered its channel. There’s a blue flag in front of the building with 13 six-pointed white stars, the personal pattern of General Washington, which accompanied him everywhere. It’s an old setting, and the home may be 246-years old, for it was probably built in 1760. Nevertheless, the stone house seemed warm and inviting.
Peter had greeted us cordially when we stepped inside, and at first we did a double take. He was dressed as a member of the Continental Army and as such he wore a regimental coat that in his case was blue. Blue, however, was not de rigueur, and could just as well have been tan or brown. “Colors,” said Peter, “varied according to the state. However, the red vest I am wearing symbolizes that fact that I am one of Washington’s ‘Life Guards.’”
Peter said that from this relatively secure home, Washington trained his troops and sometimes rallied their moral, for there was nothing easy about life at Valley Forge. The young ranger emphasized that point, saying that although there was no fighting at Valley Forge, its winter conditions could be brutal.
“This park portrays the other side of a soldier’s life. And it wasn’t a pretty side; not glamorous at all. It wasn’t easy, and despite inoculations, many died from other diseases as well as cold and starvation. But many lived, too, and it was because of the things that happened here, that we had fighting men to combat the British.”
Peter said that over 12,000 men wintered here and the National Park Service had recreated huts that show the hardships of life. At the time of occupancy, the army had been divided into 12-man squads, and each was responsible for building one of the huts. Washington provided the dimensions, saying that each hut should measure 16 x 14 and stand 6.5 feet high.
Work was intensive, and within weeks over 2,000 log huts were up and ready to serve as a sanctuary for the men. The huts were heated with wood, and because of their small size, they were probably quite warm.
Beds were made from wooden slats and covered with straw which served as mattresses. But because blankets were lacking, men frequently sat up during the night, something Washington commented on in his journals often with rigid and somewhat convoluted entries:
Our numbers fit for duty from hardships and exposures they have undergone, particularly on acct. of blankets (numbers being obliged and do set up all night by fires instead of taking comfortable reset in a natural way) have decreased near 2000 men.
In order to keep the men occupied, Gen Washington worked on the training and discipline of the troops. At times he had them scouring the countryside for food and once, he had them build a bridge across the Schuylkill River. But often, life in the woodlands of Pennsylvania was simply one of survival, something the blustery fall wind served to remind us, making it an easy decision to remain inside and learn more from Peter’s years here at Valley Forge.
The Continental Army might have flagged had it not been for the arrival of the German officer, Baron von Steuben. Washington quickly learned of the man’s talent for training troops, and within months promoted Stuben to major general. Apparently the men were a dedicated lot, for despite the death of over 2,000 soldiers at Valley Forge, the majority remained true to the cause, and there were few desertions. Most importantly, it was the training here of the men under General Washington and General Von Stuben that created a first-rate fighting force.
Today, if you cycle along paths adjacent to the fields on which Stuben trained the men, you no longer hear the cadence of men bellowing out drill routines, instead the fields are covered with tall grass and you’ll see a huge population of deer. Though easily spooked, they wander among the statues commemorating such men as Stuben who helped transform the newly formed Continental Army into a unit that eventually marched down the long road to victory.
“It created,” said Peter, “a new country, free of harsh taxation and British rule.”
For a few more minutes, we wandered around the old Washington headquarters, walking upstairs to see the general’s old room. We then took our leave and as we climbed back onto our bikes, we both expressed the opinion that freedom does have a tragic price, but that sometimes the price is worth human life, for under some regimes, the alternative is the perpetuation of suffering and misery.
Unfortunately, there is a very logical follow up question that asks if all the wars Americans have engaged in—or are engaged in—are so honorable?
That is a question beyond the scope of this blog, and is one I will leave to others who are much better equipped to answer than I.
LEAP AHEAD TO MEMORIAL DAY 2015
4th ed. Autographed by the Authors
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