Revolutionary War Historical Article

Washington Memorial Chapel at Valley Forge

By Donald N. Moran

Editor's Note: This article was reprinted from the February 2002 Edition of the Liberty Tree Newsletter

On the north side of the Valley Forge National Military Park stands one of our nation's treasures: The Washington Memorial Chapel. It is an active Episcopal parish in the Diocese of Pennsylvania, with an active congregation of 400.

It was built as a tribute to General George Washington. The inspiration for the Chapel was the result of a sermon preached by the Rev. Dr. W. Herbert Burk, Rector of the Saints' Episcopal Church in nearby Norristown. The corner stone was laid in June of 1903 and after completion a few years later, it opened to the public as a wayside Chapel for visitors to Valley Forge and as a national shrine for our citizens.

The exterior of the Chapel and the "Patriot Tower" is Gothic and very attractive. The inside is a magnificent tribute to George Washington and the men who served with him at the encampment.

Immediately above is photograph of a statue of General Washington which is in a niche in the front of the Chapel. It is interesting to study it. He appears burdened by the war, expressed by the anxiety in his face, determined by his firm grip on his sword and confident and hopeful by his pose. The statue was carved by Franklin Simmons, of Maine, while in Rome, Italy.

The beautiful choir stalls were carved in Belgium out of solid oak and stand nineteen and one half feet tall. Each stall has a carved statue of a member of the Commander-in-Chief's Guard. Each of these is hand painted in the correct colors of their uniforms. These choir stalls are depicted below.

The lectern in the front of the Chapel is a memorial to British General Braddock, Washington's commanding officer during the French and Indian War. It is the only memorial to a British soldier in the Chapel.

The Prayer Desk in the choir area honors Anna Holstein who preserved the Isaac Potts House, Washington's headquarters at Valley Forge.

The hand carved Litany desk in the center of the main aisle commemorates the prayers of the nation. A day of prayer for peace between England and the colonies was held on June pt, 1774. George Washington wrote in his diary "June 1st, went to church and fasted all day." This inscription is a copy of Washington's handwriting. Hand carved in the center of the desk, facing the congregation is another statue of one of Washington's Guard, and again painted in the correct colors. It is depicted below. It should be noted that the bearskin helmet was not adopted by the Guard until after Valley Forge, so the Guardsman is wearing the traditional tricorn hat.

The Altar Cross, of unusual grace and beauty, was given by a member of the Lincoln family as a memorial to President Abraham Lincoln.

Of singular beauty are the thirteen stained glass windows. All are the work of Nicola D' Ascenzo of Philadelphia. They alternate their primary colors of Red and Blue, divided by the white walls of the Chapel suggesting our national colors. The Martha Washington window, which is prominent over the altar was a gift from the Colonial Dames of Pennsylvania. The theme of this window is religious.

Over the main doors of the Chapel is the George Washington window. This window depicts thirty-six scenes from his life. It begins in the upper left hand medallion with his baptism and ends in the lower right hand corner with his reading of the Bible at Mt. Vernon. In the center is Washington at prayer at Valley Forge.

This was a gift of the Daughters of the Mercian Revolution.

Even the ceiling is a piece of art. Hand-carved seals of all the states decorate it. Regrettably, your author did not take notice as to how many were there, and therefore does not know if those states that came into the Union after the Chapel was built are represented.

Each of the pews is dedicated to a patriot or a group of patriots. The first pew is in memory of Washington and James Monroe, the only Presidents that served at Valley Forge. One pew is dedicated to Compatriot Theodore Roosevelt who was the only President of the United States to visit the Chapel until Compatriot Warren Harding visited on June 5th, 1921.

When President Roosevelt visited he addressed some fifteen thousand citizens in the "Woodland Cathedral", the grounds to the west of the Chapel.

To the east of the Chapel is the "Patriot's Tower". It was completed in 1953 and contains the Washington Memorial National Carillon. With the assistance of the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution, the monies were raised to erect the impressive tower. The tower contains fifty-eight bells. The national birthday bell, a bell for each of the fifty states, Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, the Virgin Islands, Midway and Wake Islands. The size of each bell was determined by the population of the states, territories and the District of Columbia.

The Justice Bell, a replica of the Liberty Bell, is the only tangible evidence of the women's battle to win the right to vote. Katherine Ruschenberger had the bell cast in New York in 1915 and it was used to publicize the suffrage movement until the 19th amendment to the Constitution was passed on August 26th, 1920. Through Mrs. Ruschenberger's will, the bell became the property of the Chapel.

Adjacent to the Chapel is the Valley Forge Historical Society Museum. The unsurpassed collection of over seven thousand artifacts offers us the opportunity to understand the value of the sacrifices made by the twelve thousand Continentals who were encamped here during the winter of 1777 -1778.

The spirit of Valley Forge is chronicled through galleries and displays that present the letters, weapons, and personal effects of the great and everyday Continental soldier. The Museum's surprisingly large collection of possessions, once belonging to George Washington, documents both the military and private civilian side of this great American hero.

You will see the General's surveying equipment, his silver field cups, and the Commander-in-Chief's flag with its six-pointed stars.

The sacrifices made by soldiers who lived in the log huts and farm houses of Valley Forge is vividly brought to life at the Valley Forge Historical Society Museum.

Valley Forge is certainly the most famous and most visited Revolutionary War Military Park. Unfortunately, many who visit it are content to tour the park in the cars and perhaps visit the Park's Visitors Center (very much worth visiting by the way), But a visit is not complete without spending a few hours at the Washington Memorial Chapel and museum.

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