On December 19, 1777, at 10 a.m., George Washington and his Continental Army marched out of Rebel Hill and Gulph Mills, past the Hanging Rock, and on to Valley Forge. As one historian wrote, “These grounds were the threshold to Valley Forge, and the story of that winter–a story of endurance, forbearance, and patriotism which will never grow old–had its beginnings here, at the six days encampment by the old Gulph Mill.” (see “The Gulph Hills in the Annals of the Revolution”, by Samuel Gordon Smyth, of West Conshohocken, in an address before the Montgomery County Historical Society, at Ashbourne, Pa., October 6, 1900; address included in Historical Sketches of Montgomery County, Volume 3, Montgomery County Historical Society (1905)).
Captured in the writings of the time and iconic paintings, we know that the March to Valley Foge was largely characterized by hardship for Washington’s 11,000 soldiers. William Trego, painter of the iconic painting The March to Valley Forge, is said to have been inspired by this characterization of the march from author Washington Irving’s Life of Washington. “Sad and dreary was the march to Valley Forge, uncheered by the recollection of any recent triumph. . . Hungry and cold were the poor fellows who had so long been keeping the field . . . provisions were scant, clothing was worn out, and so badly were they off for shoes, that the footsteps of many might be tracked in blood.”
A soldier in Massachusetts’ Eight Regiment, Lt. Samuel Armstrong, wrote: “Friday ye 19th. The Sun Shone out this morning being the first time I had seen it for Seven days, which seem’d to put new Life into everything — We took the Remains of two Days Allowance of Beef,…and two fowls we had left, of these we made a broth upon which we Breakfasted with half a loaf of Bread we Begg’d and bought, of which we shoud have had made a tolerable Breakfast, if there had been Enough!! By ten Oclock we [had]to march to a place Call’d Valley Forge being about five or six miles — about Eleven Ock we Sit out, but did not arrive there ’till after Sun Sit. During this march we had noting to eat or nor to drink.”
While getting his army on the move, General Washington was prolific with is writings on December 19. He wrote three letters at that time. One thanked Virginia patriot Patrick Henry for sending nine wagonloads of supplies for the Virginia troops. Two letter regarded sending soldiers down to Delaware on word on British activity in the area as well as encouraging patriotic residents of that state to take up arms and support the cause. Those letters follow:
Sir: I have received information, which I have great reason to believe is true, that the Enemy mean to establish a post at Wilmington, for the purpose of Countenancing the disaffected in the Delaware State, drawing supplies from that Country and the lower parts of Chester County, and securing a post upon Delaware River during the Winter. As the advantages resulting to the Enemy from such a position are most obvious, I have determined and shall accordingly, this day send off General Smallwood with a respectable Continental force to take post at Wilmington before them. If Genl. Howe thinks the place of that Importance to him, which I conceive it is, he will probably attempt to dispossess us of it; and, as the force, which I can at present spare, is not adequate to making it perfectly secure, I expect that you will call out as many Militia as you possibly can to rendezvous without loss of time at Wilmington, and put themselves under the Command of Genl. Smallwood. I shall hope that the people will turn out cheerfully, when they consider that they are called upon to remain within, and defend, their own state.
In a letter, which I had the honor of receiving from you some little time past, you express a wish that some mode may be fallen upon to procure the exchange of Govr. McKinley. As this Gentleman will be considered in the Civil line, I have not any prisoner of War proper to be proposed for him. The application would go more properly to Congress, who have a number of State Prisoners under their direction for some of whom Sir Win. Howe would probably exchange the Governor. I have the honor etc.
P.S. Let the Militia March to Wilmington by Companies, or even parts of Companies and form their Battalions there; Because if the Enemy move, it will be quickly.
To GOVERNOR PATRICK HENRY Camp 14 Miles from Philadelphia, December 19, 1777.
Sir: On Saturday Evening I was honored with your favor of the 6th. Instant, and am much obliged by your exertions for Cloathing the Virginia Troops. The Articles you send shall be applied to their use, agreeable to your wishes.37 It will be difficult for me to determine when the Troops are supplied, owing to their fluctuating and deficient state at present; However I believe there will be little reason to suspect that the quantities that may be procured, will much exceed the necessary demands. It will be a happy circumstance, and of great saving, if we should be able in future to Cloath our Army comfortably. Their sufferings hitherto have been great, and from our deficiencies in this instance, we have lost many men and have generally been deprived of a large proportion of our Force. I could wish you to transmit the price of all the Necessaries, you may send from time to time. This will be essential, and the omission upon former occasions of the like Nature in the Course of the War, has been the cause of much unneasiness and intricacy in adjusting Accounts.
I am persuaded that many desertions have proceeded from the cause you mention. The Officers were highly culpable in making such assurances. The Expedient you propose might, and I believe would bring in several, but I cannot consider myself authorised to adopt it.
The Letters for the Marquis were sent to his Quarters as soon as they were received. I shall present you to him according to your wishes. He is certainly amiable and highly worthy of Esteem.
I have nothing material to inform you of, Except that we are told by the Boston paper that a Ship has arrived from France at one of the eastern Ports, with Fifty pieces of Brass Artillery, 5000 Stand of Arms and other Stores. There are letters also which mention her arrival, but not the particular amount of the Stores. I have the honor etc.
P.S. I sent the Express on to Congress, which occasioned me to write by this Conveyance. I wrote you on the 13th Ulto. two Letters — one a private one. I am fearful and uneasy lest they should have miscarried, as you have not mentioned the Receipt of them.39
*To BRIGADIER GENERAL WILLIAM SMALLWOOD Gulph Mill, December 19, 1777.
Dr. Sir: With the Division lately commanded by Genl. Sullivan, you are to March immediately for Wilmington, and take Post there. You are not to delay a moment in putting the place in the best posture of defence, to do which, and for the security of it afterwards, I have written in urgent terms to the President of the Delaware State to give every aid he possibly can of Militia. I have also directed an Engineer to attend you for the purpose of constructing, and superintending the Works, and you will fix with the Quarter Master on the number of Tools necessary for the business; but do not let any neglect, or deficiency on his part, impede your operations, as you are hereby vested with full power to sieze and take (passing receipts) such articles as are wanted. The Commissary and Forage Master will receive directions respecting your Supplies, in their way; but I earnestly request that you will see that these Supplies are drawn from the Country between you and Philadelphia, as it will be depriving the Enemy of all chance of getting them; and in this point of view, becomes an object to us of importance.
I earnestly exhort you to keep both Officers and Men to their duty, and to avoid furloughs but in cases of absolute necessity. You will also use your utmost endeavours to collect all the straglers &ca. from both Brigades, and you are also to use your best endeavours to get the Men Cloathed in the most comfortable manner you can.
You will be particular in your observation of every thing passing on the River and will communicate every matter of Importance to, Dear Sir, etc.
MY CLOSING THOUGHTS…
While the main army left Rebel Hill and the Gulph on December 19, both places remained outposts for soldiers who could warn the army in Valley Forge if the British decided to approach from Philadelphia.
Aaron Burr remained at a picket post at the base of Rebel Hill on Gulph Road during the Valley Forge encampment. General Lord Sterling, was in charge of the Gulph Mills encampment, and he spent the winter on Rebel Hill at the home of John Rees.
Rebel Hill’s role in the Revolutionary War was not over on December 19. In May 1778, General Washington and a large force of troops returned to Rebel Hill to provide backup for General Marquis de Lafayette, who was engaged in battle with the British in Conshohocken at the Battle of Barren Hill. When Lafayette’s forces retreated, they retreated to Rebel Hill and its surroundings. Lafayette’s forces included a number of Oneida Indians who had joined Washington’s Army. (No wonder my siblings and I found many arrownheads as we played in the Rebel Hill woods, and we found buckshot that was used in muskets at that time, too.)
Of course, Hanging Rock remains a natural landmark of the Gulph Mills/Rebel Hill encampment. Hanging Rock jutted far out over Gulph Road, much farther than it does today. As cars got more prevalent and needed more room, Hanging Rock became a transportation problem. In 1924, the owner of the Rock, J. Aubrey Anderson, donated it to the Valley Forge Historical Society, which put a plaque on it noting that Washington and his army passed by it and that is marked the spot of the December 13 – 18 encampment. Stairs were built so people could climb up to the top of the rock to picnic at the small park that was up there until the P & W line was completed. All of us who lived in the area as children remember the school bus stopping every day at Hanging Rock until oncoming traffic stopped and the bus could swing out onto the other side of the road and around the rock. In 1995, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation finally decided to cut down the size of the rock (s0me of it got knocked off in many truck accidents). In 1997, the Hanging Rock, also called the Overhanging Rock, was added to the National Register of Historic Places.
So, thus ends my daily diary of the role that my childhood home on Rebel Hill and Gulph Mills played in the Revolutionary War on December 13 through 19, 1777. And, by Rebel Hill, I don’t mean just what we now as Rebel Hill today. Rebel Hill Road extended over into what we now call Union Hill (Hillside Rd., DeHaven St., etc.) during the Revolutionary War. Rebel Hill was one large and long hill until 1952, when the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation sliced through Rebel Hill to make way for the Schuylkill Expressway.
My Mom was right when she talked about George Washington and Rebel Hill. We lived, and still own our family home, on historic ground. I am proud of our history, and I hope that others are, too. Tonight, I’m going to Valley Forge National Park to a program and reenactment commemorating Washington and his army’s march in to Valley Forge. Maybe next year we can do a program and reenactment of Washington and his army’s march in to Rebel Hill and Gulph Mills. Maybe at the community center on Rebel Hill?
It is this proud history that started me on my path to write my upcoming novel, Becoming Valley Forge. A description follows below. I hope you’ll look for it when it’s published in August 2012. And if you have any more stories about Rebel Hill and Gulph Mills or artifacts, please get in touch with me at svance@TheElevatorGroup.com.
Becoming Valley Forge by Sheilah Vance, ISBN: 0-9824945-9-2, $15.95, Trade Paperback, 270pp; August 2012
This epic historical novel shows how the lives of ordinary men and women who lived in the shadow of Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, were changed forever beginning in early 1777, when the Revolutionary War battles came to their doorsteps, leading them and their loved ones to Valley Forge from winter 1777 through summer 1778. James, a former slave, lives as a blacksmith on Rebel Hill, with his patriot friend, Fred. Both are reluctant to volunteer for the army because they need their wages. But ten days later, they join the march to Valley Forge. An outraged farmer’s daughter. Becky, builds a network of women from the local area and the colonies to support the troops after both brothers enlist and fight in the Battle of Paoli. Her sister, Sue, who runs a brothel in Philadelphia that services many British officers during their occupation of the city, becomes a patriot spy. Their paths converge at Valley Forge, where Washington’s army, a young nation, and the fascinating characters in the book are forced to grow and become what we mean when we say “Valley Forge.”