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WALKINGWITH GEORGEWASHINGTON THE FOUNDER ANDTHE BRAVE SOULS HE LED
"Hold on to the railing when you go up the stairs," the park ranger called out.
(Now, if you just read that and said to yourself, "This is a newsletter by personal injury trial lawyers, so the person who is supposed to grab that handrail is about to get seriously injured, and this is a story about the lawsuit that followed," you're a truly astute reader. Astute, but wrong.) "Not just because it's safer," the park ranger continued, "but because that's the same railing George Washington held on to while he walked up those stairs when the Continental Army was camped out here for the winter of 1777–1778." Wow! Now that got my attention. I tend to subconsciously rest my hand on a handrail when I'm on stairs, but I certainly don't give it much thought. But when the handrail is the exact one used by the Founding Father himself? I haven't ascended stairs so slowly since I had to go up and tell my grandmother I broke her window! But that's another story. This happened this May, when I had the opportunity to walk the grounds of Valley Forge near Philadelphia with my family. We were there in the spring. It was about 70 degrees and sunny. The air smelled fresh and full of blooms. The view across the Schuylkill River could have been a postcard. It was about the best camping spot I'd ever seen. But the scene wasn't so idyllic when Washington and the Continental Army camped out at Valley Forge for six months in 1777-1778. Pennsylvania winters are
Washington's headquarters at Valley Forge
harsh, to say the least, with temperatures regularly in single digits. Records from that season show that there were heavy snows followed by above-freezing temperatures to thaw things out, creating impassable roads of mud. Shortly after the thaw came heavy rains. Then more freezing temperatures. The freezing temperatures turned everything to ice. An estimated 10,000–12,000 soldiers — if you could call them soldiers at that time, as they were mostly farmers with no prior military training or experience — camped with the army that winter at Valley Forge. The army lacked adequate clothes, shoes, blankets, food, money, medicine, or medical care. Other than that, they had everything they needed! The exposure and insufficient food rendered them vulnerable to all kinds of diseases that are nearly unheard of today. Nearly 2,000 died, and not a battle was fought during that winter.
As I walked through the grounds of Valley Forge and held the handrail that George Washington used, my mind couldn't help but try to recreate the conditions that these people lived through. I tried to imagine walking through the refrozen shards of snow and rains in bare feet with just a thin shirt to protect me from the wind as I went to get a small bowl of some kind of watery soup for my main meal. Then, after the meager meal, I drilled with my fellow soldiers under Baron von Steuben (Google him; he's a great story) as we prepared to challenge the world's best-funded military. My view of the battle is colored by the fact that I know which side ended up winning the war. It's easy for me to say in 2018, "It was all worth it!" But in 1777, each soldier knew that surviving that winter may just mean dying in the spring
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