Valley Forge: Making and Remaking a National Symbol

Valley Forge: Making and Remaking a National Symbol

Valley Forge: Making and Remaking a National Symbol

Valley Forge: Making and Remaking a National Symbol


More than four million people a year visit Valley Forge, one of America's most celebrated historic sites. Here, amid the rolling hills of southeastern Pennsylvania, visitors can pass through the house which served as Washington's Headquarters during the famous winter encampment of 1777-1778. Others picnic and jog in the huge park, complete with monuments, recreated log huts, and modern visitor center, all built to pay tribute to the Valley Forge story. In this lively book, Lorett Treese shows how Valley Forge evolved into the tourist mecca that it is today. In the process, she uses Valley Forge as a means for understanding how Americans view their own past. Treese explores the origins of popular images associated with Valley Forge, such as George Washington kneeling in the snow to seek divine assistance. She places Valley Forge in the context of the historic preservation movement as the site became Pennsylvania's first state park in 1893. She studies its "Era of Monuments" and the movement to "restore" Valley Forge in the spirit of Rockefeller's enormously popular colonial Williamsburg. Treese describes a Valley Forge fraught with controversy over the appropriate appearance and use of a place so revered. One such controversy, the "hot dog war," a brief but intense battle over concession stands, was spawned by Americans' changing perceptions of how a national park was to be used. The volatile Vietnam era prompted the state park commission to establish its "Subcommittee on Sex, Hippies, and Whiskey Swillers" to investigate park regulation infractions. Even today, people differ over exactly what happened at Valley Forge during the winter of 1777-1778. The modern visitor sees the remains of over a century of commemoration, competition, and contention. The result, Treese shows, is a historic site that may reveal more about succeeding history than about Washington's army. This book will give its readers a new way to look at Valley Forge--and all historic sites.


"Are you finally going to tell the truth about Valley Forge?" he asked me. In researching this book, I had the opportunity to meet many people belonging to a number of organizations associated with this renowned historic site, most of them deeply committed to the place and concerned about what went on there. One dedicated gentleman was quite curious about what I was writing, and very serious when he posed that loaded question.

His question told me that the gentleman was well aware of a current lack of consensus about exactly what had happened at Valley Forge. His manner also told me that it was important to him that his particular view be promulgated as the correct one. Like most Americans, he perceived history as a search for a single, discoverable truth to be staunchly defended once it had been found.

Professional historians view history differently. They are well aware that the books and papers they produce contain not "the truth" but their own interpretation of a past that can never be completely recaptured, and that they cannot escape the biases and prevalent attitudes of their own time in judging the people and events of the past. In his book The Past Is a Foreign Country, David Lowenthal writes: "The past as we know it is partly a product of the present; we continually reshape memory, rewrite history, refashion relics." He adds that even those who define themselves as revisionists do not so much set the record straight as add one more version to an existing body of interpretations. In his book on creative interpretations of the American Revolution titled A Season of Youth: The American Revolution in Historical Imagination, Michael Kammen writes, "Even our most essential traditions have been subject to some startling shifts."

Valley Forge really has several histories. There is the history of the Continental Army's winter encampment of 1777-1778, but there is also a history of how that particular story has been told--something the profession-

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