Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Prayer at Valley Forge?

The piece of art that heads this blog is known as "The Prayer at Valley Forge" and there is a lot of speculation as to whether it ever even happened. We first need some background information on where Valley Forge was located and why in the world George Washington was there. Washington needed somewhere to camp his troops and bear the winter of 1777-1778. Washington realized that the morale of the civilian population was vital to winning the war. In this frame he refused to demand goods at gunpoint from the civilians and he also refused to settle his army in towns that would hurt or strain the infrastructure and economy. As a result Washington chose a spot on some hills about 20 miles north of Philadelphia (recently taken by the British). This way he could keep an eye out for chinks in the defense of the city while not bothering neighboring towns.  Washington had his men create a large camp with rigid structures to hopefully withstand the winter conditions. The soldiers lacked adequate winter clothing as the months of war had worn away most of their uniform to rags. Washington's ability to sympathize with his troops and others is something we hear little about, but there are a few quotations that give us an insight into his care for others.

"The misfortunes of war, and the unhappy circumstances frequently attendant thereon to individuals are more to be lamented than avoided; but it is the duty of everyone to alleviate them as much as possible." (Flexner,110)

"However, although they seem to have little feeling for the naked, distressed soldiers, I feel super-abundantly for them, and from my soul pity those miseries which it is neither in my power to relieve of prevent." (Flexner,111)

 It was during these hard months and with these sentiments taken into account that the above 1975 painting was created by Arnold Friberg. The myth is not totally unfounded however and I found a great article written by a fellow blogger who explains the origins of this myth as well as the flaws with it. It boils down to one man's shaky journal entry about how a man he knew encountered Washington praying in the woods near Valley Forge and there just isn't much evidence other than this to back up the claim. Thus, the painting and stories that continue down this thread are considered fiction. I chose the piece because it represents the very kind of myths that this blog is dedicated to looking into and because if nothing else, it is a beautiful painting! Here is a link to the in depth article on the historicity of the painting.

As the winter turned into spring, Washington's troops used the time to train (something that they had little time to do since they enlisted). The furlough and training in Valley Forge proved profitable  for the Continentals as they prepared for the 1778 campaign and a hard earned victory at the battle of Monmouth.

The sympathetic sentiment that Washington would show again and again is a trait to be admired in a leader and helped keep public relations for the Continental Army as positive as possible. If Washington had been a man of the Bible we might read his reflections on Romans 12:15b "...mourn with those who mourn" and we see this trait best exemplified in Christ who wept with Martha and Mary at the death of their brother Lazarus (John 11:35) and his compassion in feeding the multitudes who came to hear him speak in Mark 8. Yet, as we will continue to find as we study Washington, he was not a Christian and therefore his meditations sadly lack the reference to the most sympathetic man who ever lived and who Washington desperately needed to know.