In his new book American Ramble, Neil King, Jr. shares what he learned about America on his 26-day walk from D.C. to N.Y.C.
Introduction by Melissa Jacobs
In the spring of 2021, Neil King, Jr. decided to take a walk … a really, really long walk. Mr. King, a veteran journalist who explored the world during the 20 years he spent at the Wall Street Journal, decided to walk to N.Y.’s Central Park from his home in Washington, D.C. Mr. King wanted to rediscover this part of his country as it emerged from COVID and the divides of 2020. He started walking – and writing, of course.
I arrived in Valley Forge one Friday morning on foot, midway through a 26-day walk from my house near the U.S. Capitol to New York’s Central Park—out to look at our country and the story the land could tell me in between those two places.
I was coming down fast through the woods on the Horseshoe Trail wearing shorts with a pack on my back and a right shoe still sporting a hole where the big toe poked through. My sole sustenance that morning was a warming slab of the previous night’s dinner and my water-filled Hydro Flask, from which I sipped.
What von Steuben found upon arrival that day—February 23, 1778—was a forlorn scene bordering on the grotesque. Melting snow, oozing latrines. Horse carcasses protruding from slush among denuded hills. Hundreds of timber huts housing soldiers short on clothing with not much to eat but hard tack. The bloody footprints left in the snow by the shoeless would later become legendary.
This was Washington’s Continental Army, midway through a winter that morphed, a century later, into our prime symbol of national grit and resilience. A winter that was a turning point in the war, thanks in no small part to the imposing von Steuben.
We were a poor, pathetic, naked infant of a country then. Without swift and significant help, Washington wrote Congress that winter, his army “must inevitably be reduced to one or other of these three things. Starve—dissolve—or disperse.” Congress had no money, no reliable way to raise funds. Shoes, pants, jackets, gun- powder, blankets, saddles were almost all nonexistent. Why should farmers supply the rebels, for nothing in return, rather than the British in Philadelphia for silver and gold? Washington wrote that a third of his men were “unfit for want of Cloaths.”
Such was the forlornness of what von Steuben found on arrival that day at Valley Forge.
What I found upon arrival was the historian Lorett Treese, climbing from the driver’s seat of her Honda Civic in the parking lot of the Valley Forge Post Office, a period piece of gray fieldstone with white shutters and a Stars and Stripes flapping high atop a flagpole.
“This post office,” Lorett announced, before anything else,“was built in the 1930s pretty much just so people could post letters from Valley Forge. Its purpose was really just the postmark.”
We hadn’t even said hello and she was singing my tune already. Lorett had driven two hours to show me around a place she’d written a whole book about. Except her book, Valley Forge: Making and Remaking a National Symbol, wasn’t about that foul winter when Washington’s men nearly starved in their huts. It was about when and how we Americans decided to care about that winter, which is what I wanted to hear about. When I called a month earlier, just before setting off on my long way, asking her to be my guide, she didn’t hesitate.
Tall, thin, late sixties, dressed in heels and with a cinched belt around the waist of her jacket, Lorett was a snappy former archivist at nearby Bryn Mawr College who now just writes books. She is what you might call a microhistorian, meaning she goes deep on very specific topics and extracts abundant meaning therein. She’s written profusely on the Ohio Valley Mound People, multiple histories of different railroads, and about the collapse of Quaker rule in Pennsylvania on the eve of the Revolution. And, yes, about Valley Forge.“Let’s go see Washington’s Headquarters,” she said.
We walked down from the high ground to where a stone house stood in a wide clearing. A railroad track ran along the Schuylkill to a station perched above the stone house where Washington spent that winter. Lorett’s heels clicked on the flagstone. She sketched the story.
No sooner had the Continental Army left in the spring of 1778 than fresh saplings began to sprout. The farmers moved back to replace their fence lines and haul away the huts for firewood. The fields were replanted. The Potts family that owned the house where Washington had quartered retook the house and rebuilt the forge. Washington himself dropped by nine years later, in the summer of 1787, to give the place a wistful look. Over the decades veterans would sometimes return teary-eyed to poke among the ruins. When the aging Marquis de Lafayette made his triumphant tour of the U.S. in 1824, he thought about dropping by, but sent his regrets.
Lorett mentioned a forgotten newspaper writer, Henry Woodman, who helped plant the seed for remembering Valley Forge as an important place. Woodman grew up in these hills and along the banks of Valley Creek. His father had camped there as a soldier that dreadful winter. In 1850, as the country was again preparing to tear itself apart, Woodman wrote a series of letters for the Doylestown Intelligencer, one every week for thirty-two weeks, April to December. He told of the place and what had happened there and all the development and boom times since then. And how that valley deserved far more attention.
“I now request some of my readers who have never visited these places to visit,” he wrote in his final letter. Readers should come to stand on a hill with a view of it all and attempt to imagine, he advised, “the cold, chilling wind and driving snows, and other accumulated sufferings. ”And while you do that, while you figure to your imagination the state of things then existing there,” he wrote, “contrast it with its now prosperous condition.” That was us then, and this is us now.
Valley Forge, he concluded, is “worthy of being rescued from oblivion. And this small section of country will always occupy a conspicuous place in the history of our national existence.” I had had very similar thoughts myself when standing in that forlorn Maryland field where Frederick Douglass had his famous fight.
Woodman’s letters rippled across the country and within the halls of Congress, but it still took a quarter of a century—and an- other civil war—before his sentiments took hold. “Woodman promoted this as a place to come, as a place to care, but it wasn’t until the Centennial in 1876, that people really did,” Lorett said.
Lincoln gave his famous speech at Gettysburg four months after that battle. The cornerstone for the first major monument at Gettysburg was laid in July 1865. In Montana, the government erected the first monument to the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1881, five years after Custer and his men fell on those grassy hills. It took a century, by comparison, for the Centennial and Memorial Association of Valley Forge to acquire Washington’s Headquarters and to begin to memorialize those grounds.
Multiple forces converged to begin converting Valley Forge into what it is now. People had leisure time and actual weekends and a desire to break from the city. The Centennial sparked an awe for America’s colonial past at a time of economic expansion but also seething ethnic and racial friction. The state created a park here in 1893.A decade later, an ambitious Episcopal priest laid the corner- stone of a large church that was to blend religion with military patriotism.
A fancy train station rose eight years later along the Schuylkill to bring the day trippers out from Philly. Six years after that they dedicated a huge arch in the style of the Arc de Triomphe. In the 1950s, after years of archaeology and close study, the state began to erect rough replicas of the log huts the soldiers built—huts that also began to rot over time and needed to be replaced. I ducked into one of these huts, dark and dank inside, with wooden bunks along both sides that no soldier ever slept in.
“It’s when they built these huts that they really tried to make Valley Forge look like Valley Forge looked to the troops,” Lorett said. Sometimes, people really want the present to look like the past, as though the past could remain forever new. The layering continued when, in 1976, President Gerald Ford came to dedicate the place as a national historic site and federal park. It had finally won that status.
Toward the end of our morning, Lorett took me to one of her favorite places in the park, the place she said truly captures the binding element that made Valley Forge such a potent and durable symbol. In the late 1860s, a series of paintings and etchings swept the country of a pious Washington bent on one knee in the snow, praying by himself in the dark woods of Valley Forge for God to protect and redeem his troops. Washington was a sporadic churchgoer, and not known for his piety. The story of him kneeling in the forest is almost certainly apocryphal.
“But for the Victorian sensibility of the late nineteenth century, that’s what this place became: a symbol of Christian suffering and perseverance,” Lorett said. “If you have faith in your darkest hour, God will get you out of it.”
Those images inspired Reverend Herbert Burk, a local Episcopal minister, to build what became the imposing Gothic spires of Washington Memorial Chapel. “And voilà, presto, here the state, the military, and the church all merged into one,” Lorett said as we walked up the drive to the Chapel. We stood on a rise with much of the valley sweeping down before us, much as Henry Woodman had advised the visitor to do.
At the entrance to the church, which was locked, an ornate iron gate bore a small statue of a patriot soldier, musket in hand, along with Jesus’s Four Evangelists: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. The army marched in league with the Apostles.
In 1904, President Teddy Roosevelt came here to praise Valley Forge as a more important and lasting symbol than Gettysburg. The Civil War site had been a place for just one heroic burst, Roosevelt said, while Valley Forge spoke “to a more difficult thing— constant effort.”
“I think as a people we need more to learn the lesson of Valley Forge than the lesson of Gettysburg,” Roosevelt said. One was merely a battle. The other, an epic story of endurance.
And that, Lorett said, had been the lesson ever since, a lesson both national and deeply personal. “If you don’t give up, you will make it through. The one big message is perseverance.”
To continue on, no matter how severe the forces that are pushing back. You don’t have to be shoeless in the snow to have your own dark winter. I had had my little version with a grave illness that had helped set me on this long walk. We all have them, and we push on.
Connect with Main Line Tonight!