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Walk in the footsteps of Black Patriots at Valley Forge Park

African-American re-enact theof their ancestors at Valley Forge National Historical Park.

Walk in the footsteps of Black Patriots at Valley Forge Park

By Audrey Peterman

     Of more than 165 units of the National Park System that I’ve visited, Valley Forge National Historical Park in Pennsylvania is second only to Acadia National Park, Maine, in its impact on my life. Acadia was the first national park I ever visited, and at the time, I didn’t even know there was such a thing as a National Park System. The overwhelming natural beauty I saw there made me feel as if I had been living in a mansion but until then I’d only seen the kitchen, and suddenly I’d stumbled into the grand ballroom.                               

    What a difference! When I visited Valley Forge many years and many park units later and found that my Black ancestors were part of General Washington’s army that played such a definitive role in winning the Revolutionary War, I couldn’t believe I had never learned that in any history class or seen it in the media anywhere. 

    The great American mythologist Joseph Campbell (1904-1987) said that every culture has myths by which it lives; a story that’s so deeply rooted and prevalent that it’ goes past your mind and into your very being, into your very gut.’  Suddenly I saw how the American myth had been constructed to make white Americans the only heroes by deliberately erasing the contributions of all the other racial and ethnic groups that participated in the liberation and development of our country. And just like that, I was free. The story of the brave, suffering white soldiers had held me enthralled for so long, and if this was not completely true, then everything else I’d learned about our country’s history was open to question. Thankfully, the National Park System provides a window into history where it actually happened, and gives us the opportunity to create a more factual ‘myth.’

    Just 30 minutes outside Philadelphia, Valley Forge National Historical Park preserves is the encampment General George Washington and his Continental Army camped in the bitter winter of 1777-78.                         

    Conditions were extremely dire and the troops lacked food and adequate clothing. Some even lacked shoes and left bloody footprints in the snow. General Washington’s troops were the most racially integrated of any army that our country fielded before Vietnam. Approximately 5,000 soldiers of African descent served in the Continental Army during the Revolution. The troops included Americans of Hispanic and Native descent working side by side with their white brothers. Women were as much deprived as the soldiers as they worked as cooks, laundresses and seamstresses supporting the army.

    A fascinating part of the story is how the arrival of Baron Friedrich Wilhelm August von Steuben as a volunteer started a chain of events that changed the rag tag army into a disciplined, well supplied fighting force. Baron von Steuben had considerable military experience as he had fought in the Prussian Army, including the Seven Year War from 1756-1763. As a result of a fortuitous meeting with Benjamin Franklin in France, von Steuben was sent by the Continental Congress to join General Washington’s army as a volunteer.  Nothing could have turned out more favorably for the Americans, as von Steuben used his military knowledge to develop the army into a strong, organized fighting force. Their morale and abilities were so greatly improved that this winter encampment is credited with being a vital turning point in our victorious revolution.

At this park, you can walk back through the American Revolutionary War, starting at the Visitor Center. Watch the movie and take in the exhibits. Tour General Washington’s headquarters. Tour the soldiers’ log huts that have also been reconstructed. Take in the interactive exhibits of General Washington and his advisors. Stop at the statues and monuments throughout the park, including the statue of Baron von Steuben and the Monument to Patriots of African Descent. It will change your view of America and increase your sense of pride in the accomplishments of our forefathers.

    (Audrey Peterman is author of the new book Our True Nature: Finding A Zest for Life in the National Park System and co-author of Legacy on the Land: A Black Couple Discovers Our National Inheritance and Tells Why Every American Should Care, available at Autographed copies from


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