Valley Forge has been trending on Twitter—an odd thing, given the time of year and the current temperatures. After all, if any images come to mind when that Pennsylvania locale, not far from Philadelphia, is invoked, they are the famous ones of Washington and sometimes Lafayette inspecting troops and shivering—a tableaux that might be called “Patriots Being Cold.”
What is generally meant by “Valley Forge,” of course, is not the place so much as a moment, in the winter of 1777, when, at the least propitious moment in the revolutionary cause, General George Washington and his weary and demoralized army retreated to quarters there. It is the prime tale of American hibernation: the army went in dazed and beaten and, amazingly, came out, late the next spring, more or less intact and in superior fighting trim.
The reason for Valley Forge’s sudden return to mind, though, is an incendiary speech that one of the unapologetic incendiaries (are there any other kind?) of the January 6th insurrection, Representative Mo Brooks, Republican of Alabama, made early this month, at the Conservative Political Action Conference, in Dallas. Brooks is the congressman who appeared at the Trump rally on the morning of the 6th, and said, “Today is the day American patriots start taking down names and kicking ass.” This time, he told CPAC, “Our choice is simple: we can surrender and submit, or we can fight back, as our ancestors have done. Think for a moment about our ancestors who fought at Valley Forge. They didn’t fight the British—they fought for survival. . . . That’s the kind of sacrifice that we have to think about, and I ask you: Are you willing to fight for America? Are you willing to fight for America? . . . This is what America needs you to do, and you as members of CPAC, being here today, you’re the corps. You’re the ones that have to be the Energizer Bunny.”
As so often with Trumpist rhetoric, one is equally impressed by the incipient fascism, the implicit (and not so implicit) appeals to violence, and the weird right turns toward absurdity and bathos. From General Washington and a fight for survival to the Energizer Bunny? Really? But Brooks’s fighting words suggest that it may be appropriate to offer a quick review of what fighting meant at Valley Forge—where, in fact, there was none—and what it might mean for our understanding of the American founding. The reality of what happened isn’t hard to uncover, because it appears in pretty much every book on the Revolution, from Ron Chernow’s great, famously musicalized biography of Alexander Hamilton to Paul Lockhart’s fine 2008 book, “The Drillmaster of Valley Forge,” a life of the Baron de Steuben, the key figure in this winter’s tale.
Baron de Steuben was a Prussian military genius who, after having fought for Frederick the Great, came grandly over to America, with his years of military experience, to aid the revolutionary cause. Well, in truth, Steuben…