Valley Forge: Making and Remaking a National Symbol , Lorett Treese

Treese is the Unversity Archivist at Bryn Mawr and her familiarity with primary source material certainly comes through in this book, which is exhaustively researched almost exclusively from the organizational records of the many societies, commissions, and agencies (public and private) which have managed the historic site of Valley Forge.

Treese provides a comprehensive account of how the administrative and political history behind the site’s management shaped both the conceptual interpretation of Valley Forge and the literal geography and architecture of the site. Valley Forge is perhaps unique in that no battle occurred on its grounds. It was the winter encampment of Washington’s army in 1777-1778 during which inclement weather and logistical failures caused the poorly organized “army” to suffer undue (though often exaggerated) hardship. As the mythmaking goes, this is where Revolutionary America – as symbolized by its “rag-tag” army and steadfast general – through suffering, sacrifice, and determination “found its identity,” “came together,” and all the other hoary old clichés.

Due to the sparse population of the area and the “undramatic” nature of the events which took place there (which was basically just a bunch of people sitting around in the cold), the park did not encounter any sort of designation or memorialization until nearly a century after the event. By this time, most traces of the encampment had long disappeared. A blank landscape, a thin documentary record, an ill-defined event, a significant distance of time – all these characteristics allowed Valley Forge to be loosely interpreted, poorly managed, and easily altered in the history books and on the ground. Its peculiar provenance allowed management of the area to be administered by a long list of often competing private groups, clubs, and societies which had differing agendas behind their goals for, and uses of, the site – religious, historical, or political. Valley Forge eventually came under state control, was shuffled around administratively within the state system, and finally taken over by the NPS in 1976.

Treese shows how management of the park was often indicative of wider cultural trends of the time – monumentation, landscape restoration, reinterpretation, nationalism/Americanization, etc. Her account focuses more on the administrative battles and minutiae of planning than on Valley Forge’s exaltation (or exploitation) in larger national narratives or changes. The book is a triumph of research but, ultimately, a failure of scholarship as Treese makes little attempt at any overarching theme or insight. Chapters average 20 pages, but each has around 100 footnotes and you get the sense than she got entangled in all the meeting minutes, correspondence, and reports and was incapable of taking a broader or more analytic view of her findings.

That said, she rightfully decries the fact that, until recently, each new administrator sought to obviate the work of previous managers. As she puts it, “no battles were fought at Valley Forge until after the soldiers marched out… each new trend in historiography and historic preservation brought up new issues… each new trend left documentary remains and contributed to a second history of Valley Forge.” (pg. 213). A potent symbol of this is Washington’s Headquarters, which has been torn down, rebuild, or remodeled so many times that it is impossible for architectural archeologist to know what the original structure may have looked like. Treese’s point that “re-creations reveal only the extent of knowledge at that time” (pg. 154) is an important one for historians, preservationists, and archivists; and she convincingly argues that each recreation of the park is its own documentary artifact of the culture and times responsible for the recreation.

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