What Washington's Troops
Left Behind at Valley Forge
Valley Forge Dig 2000
Forge National Historical Park presents
a calm and peaceful face to the visitor.
It is difficult to imagine that over 200
years ago, during the first years of the
Revolutionary War, thousands of men of the
Continental Army called this home for seven
months. The archeologists at Valley Forge were eager
to get beneath the surface, and go below
the grassy meadows and leaf-littered forest
floor to find out what remained of the legendary
winter camp where Washington's army became
a well disciplined fighting force.
the past several years, the archeologists
of the National Park Service's Valley Forge
Center for Cultural Resources have been
thinking about Washington's men and what
they left behind. They knew that the log huts,
or cabins, standing in the Park today were
all 20th century recreations of the 18th
century huts lived in by the soldiers. All
the original huts were removed shortly after
Washington's troops left Valley Forge. In
fact, when Washington visited the area 15
years after the war, he noted that all the
huts were gone, and he was very happy that
the signs of war had been obliterated.
Dig Team: Pros & Volunteers
Three professional archeologists from the
Valley Forge Center of Cultural Resources
directed the excavation site, where General Washington and his Continental Army troops lived in the winter of 1777-78. The funding for the dig
was provided by Aurora Foods Inc., makers
of Log Cabin syrup, in partnership with
the National Park Foundation. This funding
allowed Valley Forge to purchase needed equipment
and to hire two student assistant archeologists.
David Orr, chief archeologist, directs student volunteers at the Valley Forge excavation.
Volunteers on the Valley Forge dig ranged in age from 10- to 80-years old.
is the case for most archeological excavations
such as this, the team also depended on
the assistance of a wide range of volunteers.
Over the summer, more than 60 adults and
students volunteered to be a part of the
Valley Forge dig team. The volunteers ranged
in age from 10 to 80-years-old. Most of
the volunteers gave a week of their time,
and many spent more than a week over the
summer volunteering on the project. Some
people had participated on archeological
digs before. For others, this was their
first time on such an adventure. A number
of other professional archeologists and
specialists also contributed their expertise
to this excavation.
the cold, wet winter experienced by Washington's
troops, this summer's project was hot, sweaty,
and bug-filled. Despite these conditions,
everyone had a good time and learned a lot
about the life of a Revolutionary War soldier
and the study of archeology.
Log Huts from 1777
Much of what is known of Valley Forge's appearance
during the Revolution comes from a few written
sources. No detailed descriptions or contemporary
drawings of the encampment survive. Washington's
General Orders of December 18, 1777, instructed
the troops how to build their huts:
Soldier's huts are to be of the following
dimensions, viz: fourteen by sixteen each,
sides, ends and roofs made with logs, and
the roof made tight with split slabs, or
in some other way; the sides made tight
with clay, fireplace made of wood and secured
with clay on the inside eighteen inches
thick, this fireplace to be in the rear
of the hut; the door to be in the end next
the street; the doors to be made of split
oak slabs, unless boards can be procured.
Side-walls to be six and a half feet high.
The officers huts to form a line in the
rear of the troops, one hut to be allowed
for each General Officer, one to the Staff
of each brigade, one to the field officers
of each regiment, one to the commissioned
officers of two companies, and one to every
twelve non-commissioned officers and soldiers."
map drawn up by Brigadier General Louis
Lebèque Duportail, a French engineer
assisting the American cause, shows the
general location of each of the Army's brigades
within the encampment. However, the map
shows nothing of the actual layout of the
brigades. A concept of an idealized layout
of a brigade can be gleaned from the notebook
of General Von Steuben, the Prussian General
credited with making the Continental Army
into a disciplined military force. The notebook
was written after the Army's time
at Valley Forge. His plan shows how the
tents in a camp would have been arranged,
and the archeology team presumes that the hut layout would
have been similar (see Figure 3).
3: General Von Steuben's idealized plan
for the layout of a camp.
the Dig Site
Much that was left behind from the Valley
Forge encampment lies beneath the soil.
The excavation team suspected that digging
could reveal much that was left behind and
was now buried. To start, they needed to
gather together as much historical information
as they could. This included letters the
officers wrote, general orders given to
the camp, a few diaries kept by enlisted
men, as well as the few contemporary maps
that are available. They also looked at
drawings and paintings from the time of
the Revolutionary War. A lot of thought
went into where would be the best place
in the park to find evidence about the encampment.
The more they studied the maps, reports
of earlier archeological work, historical
documents, and the clues evident in the
modern landscape, the more the Valley Forge
archeology team focused on a particular
wooded area as a good place to start digging.
area in question is where two Pennsylvania
Brigades built their cabins on a rocky hillside
now covered with trees. This area was probably
open pasture land at the time of the Revolution.
This hillside provided a good vantage point
for guarding the approach from Philadelphia,
the direction where a British attack was
most likely to occur. Studies showed
this land had never been plowed. This fact
was important to archeologists because plowing
disturbs the soil and damages any artifacts
or cultural features buried in the soil.
Since this hillside was fairly steep, the
men and officers had prepared -- by digging
into the slope -- flat areas on which to
build their cabins.
the Dig Site
The archeological work began in the early
spring. The initial step was to begin mapping
in detail what could be seen at
the surface. Spring was a good time to do
this work because the leaves were off the
low-lying shrubbery. They could see a line of very subtle depressions,
quite close together, near the crest of
the hill facing Philadelphia, occupied by
depressions in the land closely matched
the line of tents assigned to the enlisted
men evident in Von Steuben's plan. Behind
these, farther down the hill, were much
deeper depressions, spaced farther apart.
This area appeared to match the layout of
the officers' quarters, which is an area
that was also shown on the Von Steuben plan.
To their amazement, even farther down the
hill, they found some strange, circular
earthworks they could not identify at first.
But once again, Von Steuben's plan assisted
them. The excavation team realized these
were the remains of bake ovens, and they
were now in the support section of the camp,
where bread was baked, food was cooked,
and supplies were stored. When they tied
in all these features with the defensive
line of trenches at the top of the hill,
they saw that they had a cross-section of
the entire camp preserved, from the forward
military works to the support areas in the
rear. For the first time, they would be
able to study a slice of the daily life
of both the soldiers and officers from this
critical turning point in the American Revolution.
the Dig Site
Since the brigade covered a large region,
the dig team decided to excavate a representative
portion of each of the three main areas
of the camp. These were the enlisted men's
huts, the officers' area, and the support
area. Since archeologists are always aware that excavation removes resources
from their original location, this approach would preserve most of the camp intact for future generations to study.
Guided by the map they had produced,
they began their dig in June 2000, in the officers'
area where the log hut depressions were
the deepest and most distinct.
the officers' area the team excavated portions
of three huts and some of the activity areas
between the huts. The results were exciting.
Despite the fact that all of the logs from
the original huts were removed right after
the end of the Revolutionary War, they found
clear-cut details of hut construction. Despite
George Washington's orders, it is interesting
that none of these huts was made in exactly
the same way or to the same dimensions.
Two of the huts had very well preserved
stone hearths, or fireplaces. These were
so well made that they were probably constructed
by skilled workers (see Figures 4 and 5).
Plan of the stone hearth in one of the
The stone hearth shown in the plan in
Unlike the enlisted men, the officers probably
had plenty of assistance building their
quarters. The officers were expected to
provide their own equipment and provisions.
Tiny fragments of pottery and glass found
in the officers' hut areas showed that they
often brought high-quality dinnerware from
home to use at the Valley Forge camp. Non-military
personal items found in the officers' hut
areas during the recent dig included artifacts
such as ornate cufflinks (see Figure 6).
Military artifacts unearthed this summer
included musket and pistol balls, gunflints,
and metal parts from weapons (see Figure
A pair of ornate cufflinks and a civilian button.
A gunflint, musket balls, and the hammer
from a musket.
to orders, soldiers were not supposed to
cook inside their huts. The fireplaces were
intended for heating. The archeology shows,
though, that this was not always the case.
Frequently bones from their meals ended
up in the fireplace. One hut (see Figure
8) that was excavated this summer appears
to have a hearth built outside its walls.
This was probably a place where the soldiers
prepared food, perhaps during the spring,
when the weather permitted. This is the
first time experts have seen such a feature at
8: A working plan of the ongoing exacation
in one of the officer's huts.
group of student volunteers and their parents
from the Valley Forge Elementary School
were involved in removing the sod in the
enlisted men's area. To their excitement,
artifacts and animal bones began to appear
just beneath the surface. This was one of
the most productive phases of the excavation.
Mapping led the excavation team to expect this area to
be a hut, but further excavation revealed
an area of intense activity revolving around
an outdoor stone-rimmed fire pit that proved
to be surrounded by trash deposits. Archeologists
love trash deposits for what they can tell
about the parts of daily life that people
rarely write about in history books.This
trash deposit area indicates that the enlisted
men were apparently cooking their meals
very near the front line fortifications,
far from the camp kitchen area. This practice
was contrary to orders. Although the archeologists cannot
be sure of the quantities, they appeared
to have eaten the traditional diet of beef
and pork. Based on preliminary study, the
bones seem to come from poorer cuts of meat
like foot bones, or from old, stringy, animals.
These cuts of meat were probably boiled
for a long time in order to make them more
interesting feature of this site was a rock-lined
path, or road, that probably ran between
the first row of huts and the fortifications.
The archeologists speculated that these rocks were laid
down to cover a muddy track along the row
of huts. Revolutionary War period artifacts
and animal bones were found both above and
beneath the stone pavement.
The team was
particularly intrigued to find several
military buttons in this part of the site.
These buttons, which indicated the regiment
of the wearer, came from various British,
not American, regiments! A few of the buttons
were inscribed with a "K8," indicating the
King's Eighth Regiment (see Figure 9). Further
research revealed that this regiment remained
in Quebec (hundreds of miles to the north)
for the entire war. However, Americans under
General Anthony Wayne had captured British
wagon trains headed to Quebec several months
before the encampment at Valley Forge. It
is probable that the poorly supplied Americans
were re-using the valuable British uniforms.
Valley Forge has a letter from the Quartermaster
General of the Continental Army that describes
how boiling the red British coats with chestnuts
would turn the cloth a more acceptable brown.
It can be speculated that this area of Valley
Forge was the place where the red coats
were dyed and transformed into American
uniforms, and the British buttons were lost
or discarded in the process.
A British uniform button, from the King's
A musket ball found nearby is shown below
Camp Support Area
The third area examined was in the support
area of the camp. This was the area where
food was stored and cooked, bread baked,
and draft and food animals were to be penned.
Orders and general military practice of
the time indicated this support area should
be behind the lines. Additionally, the officers
were usually placed between the men and
the supplies and provisions.
the mapping phase of the 2000 archeological
dig, the team identified two fairly large, circular
earth features that appeared to be camp
kitchens or bake ovens. Such kitchens appear
as circular symbols on Von Steuben's plan
(see Figure 3) and are
pictured in at least one Revolutionary War-era
painting (see Figure 10). According to descriptions,
bread was baked for the brigade in ovens
placed within the central earth mound, and
food was prepared in pots arrayed around
the mound's perimeter. The Valley Forge experts assumed that the
cooking area would be a focus of activity
in the camp. A trench through one of the
earth features was excavated in the hopes
of finding artifacts used in the cooking
or baking process, which could have been
discarded by the cooks and bakers, or used
by men coming to retrieve their rations.
The results of digging in this bake oven
area were inconclusive and very few Revolutionary
War artifacts were found in this area. The team
plans to explore and excavate this area further
Figure 10: A contemporary illustration of a military camp kitchen.
to Continue the Dig
The Valley Forge archeological team was
excited to find that many of the finds it
made this summer were in a suberb state
of preservation, and the Valley Forge excavation
area far exceeds their initial expectations.
Next year they plan to continue the work of
digging into the areas where General George
Washington and his Continental Army troops
encamped over 200 years ago. They plan to
extend the mapping begun this year to include
even more of the brigade area. They also plan
to complete the excavation of the huts in
both the officers' and enlisted men's areas,
and excavate additional huts. They will further
investigate the features between the huts,
which should include trash deposits and
trash pits. They will try to locate the privy
pits, which are likely to have been refilled
with fascinating garbage that should reveal
much about the soldiers' diets and daily
lives. Next summer Valley Forge will once again plan to
enlist the assistance of a new group of
enthusiastic volunteers in these efforts.
For more information on the Summer 2000 excavations, call the Center for Cultural Resources, Valley Forge National Historical Park at 610-783-0250. Or to volunteer for a future excavation, call Paulette Mark at 610-783-1061. Or write for information at: Valley Forge National Historical Park, P.O. Box 953, Valley Forge, PA 19482-0953.
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