The Light at Valley Forge

By Bro. LIONEL WINSHIP Valley Forge! The Master Mason - July 1926

From: Ron Blaisdell []
Sent: Friday, July 02, 1999 7:05 AM

THROUGH hurrying scud-clouds the pale moonbeams shone with weird light on snow-covered hills, dark blotches of woodland, the ice-bound Schuylkill. Up where the earthen walls of Fort Washington crowned the summit of Mount joy a vapor of light snow whirled before the bitter wind. The storm had ceased, but it was growing steadily colder. Along Valley Creek a few spirals of smoke rose from the miserable huts of Weedon's and Muhlenberg's divisions. From the redoubt by the river's bank came the hoarse cry of a sentry, "Eight o'clock, and all's well!" But all was not well that bitter winter's night in 1778. Here was the camp of misery; the Golgotha of a nation. Of the eleven thousand Continentals who shivered in draughty hut, deserted barn or secluded nook, three thousand were unfit for duty. Sickness stalked abroad unchecked; death touched with icy finger callow youth, middle-aged man, grey-haired veteran; hunger abode alike in the hut of the soldier and the marquee of the officer. Little food, less fuel, no pay - the army of ragged patriots still held close in their hearts the ideal of human liberty and gazed through the frosty air toward the City of Brotherly Love, where, it was supposed, Howe and his nineteen thousand regulars held wassail and toasted their shins. Said the Great Commander concerning his destitute troops, "Naked and starving as they are, we can not enough admire the incomparable patience and fidelity of the soldiery." COULD Washington see beyond the veil and glimpse the vision of the national shrine that would one day be established by a grateful people among the desolate hills and frozen streams of Valley Forge? We wot not. But he did not despair; for his trust was placed in Him before whom "all should humbly, reverently and devoutly bow." THE stone house of Isaac Potts loomed like a miniature fortress, but its windows were red with the glare of many candles. On either side the door stood with shouldered carbine a member of the Life Guard, commanded by Captain Charles Gibbs. Unlike most of the army, these men were warmly clad in great coat and high boots, while on the head of each was the peculiar leathern helmet topped by a plume which distinguished the corps. And now voices sounded within the house. The door suddenly opened. Like automatons the Life-Guardsmen presented arms. His Excellency, with his military cloak closely drawn about his form, descended the steps. He was followed by the Marquis de Lafayette and Colonel Alexander Hamilton, secretary to the Great Commander. Turning sharply toward the left the group of officers inclined their heads against the blast and plowed steadily through the snow. The salutes of various and sundry sentries were returned in silence. After a few minutes of brisk walking a long low structure was discerned just ahead. This building was a stone barn owned by Mr. Potts. As the officers neared the barn they discovered vaguely outlined in the gloom an encircling cordon of sentries, each of whom wore a leathern helmet. "Very good!" noted Hamilton. "Gibbs is not derelict in his duty." A rough wooden entrance, or anteroom, had been erected before the door of the barn, and here, his flushed countenance faintly illuminated by the rays of a lantern, stood with drawn sword a subaltern of the Guards. He came to salute. "Lodge has opened, Your Excellency," announced the Tiler. "I shall give the alarm immediately." Turning, he beat upon the door with the handle of his saber. A brief interval and the signal was answered from within. The door opened, the boyish face of Light Horse Harry Lee was revealed. With Lee the Tiler conferred in low tones. Again the door was closed, only to be once more opened. "Let them enter," announced Lee. The furnishings of the lodge room were crude indeed. The Altar had been fashioned from a box that had contained government supplies, but on it was the Great Light in Masonry. The Master's seat was an ordinary chair, but over it on the wall was suspended a gilded letter G. He who sat in the East was worthy of attention. The sparkle of his eye and the alert, almost ferret-like, cast of countenance bespoke the enthusiast. He was no other than Major Mordecai Gist, who, under the direction of General Stirling, had led as a sacrifice at Long Island that band of immortals formerly known to their fellows as "The Macaronis," but now enshrined in the memory of the American army as the indomitable Maryland battalion who gave their lives that the rest of the brigade might live. In after years Brother Gist became eminently distinguished in the Craft, attaining as he did the purple in the Grand jurisdiction of South Carolina. Now he sprang to his feet and returned the sign given by the officers who had just entered and stood before the Altar. "We're glad to see you, my brothers," he announced simply, "and invite you to a seat among us." Quietly the officers sought a place on one of the rough benches that lined the walls. The illumination was very poor, being supplied by two lanterns and a few tallow candles scattered about the lodge room. But the brethren gathered there were worthy any man's attention; for in the days to come their names were to go echoing down the corridors of America's history, and the sound thereof has not ceased unto this day. In the West sat General John Sullivan, unfortunate at Long Island and Brandywine, very successful in his campaign against the famed and dreaded Long House people of the Genesee Country; but, whether winning or losing, always the faithful friend and loyal brother. He was destined to become the first Grand Master of New Hampshire. He was now scarcely middle-aged. In the South sat he whom men now call "Mad Anthony Wayne." At the time he had yet to earn the title, but he was not to be long about it. Only the following summer he was to defeat in fair fight the picked Grenadier Guards on the bloody field of Monmouth; and later was to scale the heights of Stony Point, subdue at Fallen Timbers the dreaded Red Confederacy of the West, and then pass on to the realm of the immortals while yet be lacked nearly twenty years of the allotted age of man. Here was General William Alexander, the rightful Earl of Stirling, the hero of Long Island. He was now fifty-two years of age and had the reputation of being the best dressed man in the American Army, a distinction not difficult to achieve, by the way. Then there was Colonel Knox, able chief of artillery and close friend of His Excellency. By his side was General Nathaniel Greene, in strategy second only to Washington, and by Cornwallis equally dreaded and respected. Next came Baron Steuben, but newly arrived from "Foreign Countries," destined to whip the Continentals into such efficient military shape that their tread should shake the continent and free it of the foe. Next came Count Pulaski, the Pole, who was to die gloriously at Savannah while carrying the blood-red banner presented to him by the Moravian Nuns of Bethlehem. On the farther side of the hall sat General St. Clair, nearly always unfortunate as a soldier, but ever the true friend and brother, and gentleman unafraid. By his side was General Enoch Poor of New Hampshire, later to be distinguished in a battle fought on the banks of the almost unknown Chemung, while leading a brigade in the army of General Sullivan. Then there was Daniel Morgan, the old wagoner general. A man of strangely contrasted emotions and passions, he had come up from the ranks. Captured amid the snows Of Quebec, later his hunting-shirt men from the "Eastern Shore" were to form a regiment before which the foemen quailed. He fought like a demon at Saratoga, and later whipped the dreaded and versatile Tarleton at Cowpens, becoming the right-hand man of General Greene during the southern campaign. Truly, the fate of American abode in that Masonic gathering grouped in the Potts barn at Valley Forge. Worshipful Master Mordecai Gist rose in the East. "Your Excellency," said he, not unmindful of the deference with which all men addressed the Great Commander, "the routine work of the lodge has been finished. Remarks are now in order for the good of the Craft; and, as the good of the Craft at present is synonymous with the good of the nation, it may be that you care at this time to confide in the brothers some of those things that undoubtedly rest heavily on your mind." For a moment there was silence. Then slowly and with the dignity that became him so well, His Excellency rose to his great height. As yet but forty-six years of age, he was in the prime of his vigor. He threw back his cloak and stepped forward a pace. "Worshipful Master," he began formally, "and brethren. Indeed, this is a place where I may unburden my mind and yet feel absolutely certain that my confidence will be respected. Many of you, my brothers, were with me at Trenton; all have been faithful through adversity." The Chief paused as though to marshal carefully his thoughts. Then, "This, my brethren, is the second crisis of the war. Trenton was the first. In Philadelphia General Howe has a well-equipped force almost three times my present effective army. Our men are almost literally starving, the cavalry horses are dying from lack of fodder, there is no pay for officers or men, Congress seems careless of our wants, the people are growing indifferent, many are openly hostile." He paused suddenly and turned toward Lee. "I would ask the captain a question. You have scouted far and near with the cavalry of your Legion, Brother Lee; what response do you find the farmers of this vicinity are making to my appeal that they thresh out their grain at once, so that it may be purchased at fair prices for the use of the army?" Light Horse Harry rose. "Your Excellency, the response is poor, indeed. Most of the farmers have refused to obey, many will not sell at any price, some even go to the length of defending their property by the use of firearms. But yesterday one of my men was killed in the performance of his duty." "And the cavalry of the army, Brother Lee," insisted the Commander, "what of that? Is it not becoming inefficient through lack of supplies?" "It is barely one-third effective, Your Excellency." The Great Leader bowed. "Thank you, Brother Lee. Brethren, you have heard wherein lies out greatest danger: it is the lack of cavalry for scouting purposes. In spite of his numerical superiority, I do not think that General Howe will risk a regular assault on our entrenchments here. Not yet has he forgotten the lesson of Bunker Hill. But, brethren, we are open to surprise. The distance from Philadelphia is short, and there are many routes. During a storm, or under cloak of night, the enemy might attack at some exposed point before we were even aware that he was in the vicinity. Therein, my brothers, I repeat, lies the danger. But I would not have you despair. There is a Power that notes the sparrow's fall, and if we . . ." Somewhere outside sounded the sharp report of a carbine. Beyond the door of the lodge ensued sudden turmoil. Voices, angry and loud, blended in wild discord. Then sharp and impetuous came the alarm on the door - the rapping of the Tiler's saber hilt. Captain Henry Lee sprang to, his feet, "Worshipful "Master," he snapped, his ardent nature all aflame, "there is an alarm!" "Attend to the .." But before the captain could respond, the door of the lodge room was burst in and through the opening rushed a disheveled and panting man. He sped straight toward the Altar, and close behind with uplifted menacing saber sprang the outraged Tiler. But the, fugitive faced the Master, and then in a trice he gave that sign which must not be given except under certain imperative circumstances. And when so given the effect on the observers is almost always what it was at this time. "Hold!" shouted the Master, throwing forward his hand. "Tiler, return at once to your place. Stranger, and brother, as I esteem you to he, why this sudden and wholly untoward interruption? If indeed you are of the Craft, you must realize that its forms and ceremonies are not to be disregarded and outraged. What have you to say?" "Howe," he gasped, "General Howe is marching against Valley Forge. He will attack before the dawn. Thee are in great danger, my brothers. He comes by way of Chester Valley." His Excellency stepped forward. "Worshipful Master," he said calmly, "I would like to question the brother." "You have my permission." Gist sank back into his chair. "My brother," began the Chief, "you are a Quaker?" "I am a member of the Society of Friends." "And as such, you are opposed to war?" The man still leaned against the Altar, but his breath, it would seem, was better. "And thee," he interrogated, "art the great leader of this army?" "The Congress," murmured the Chief' "have selected me to command their armed forces at this time. But my question, brother," he continued gently, "why did you seek to warn us, and how did you secure the information?" "Both because of my religion," returned the stranger, "and because we are taught in our Order to render obedience to the laws of the government under which we live, I had elected to give passive allegiance to the king. However, not long since, I did receive a letter from my kinsman, Isaac Potts, wherein he stated that one day while walking near a piece of woods on his farm he heard a voice in earnest petition. Upon investigating he discovered the leader of the American army upon his knees engaged in importuning Almighty God for guidance, succor and deliverance. Friend Potts, greatly affected, silently withdrew. When informed of the occurrence, I could only conclude that the cause of the colonies must of necessity be favored by Deity when such a man is the leader. And this being the case, I owe my allegiance to the land of mine birth, rather than to a foreign king who resides far across the sea. "Hence, when it came to pass that my good wife overheard the conversation of some officers of the king who abide in mine house, she discovered that they mediated an attack on this camp tonight, being emboldened thereto, doubtless be cause of the storm." The messenger paused and coughed strangely. He clutched again at his breast. "And so," he choked, "I arose, hurried to a friend who lives beyond the city, and secured the loan of one of his horses. I was pursued by a detachment of Simcoe's Rangers, but the British are not skillful in the use of the rifle. I escaped, for the time being, but was not so fortunate when I ran your picket line. My horse was shot and . . . I made my way to the house of Friend Potts. They told me thee was here. I could not delay. I . . . that is all, my brother." He swayed dizzily, his hand groping. The Great Leader sprang forward. "My brother," said he tenderly, "are you wounded?" The shadow of a warm smile flitted over the face of the stranger. "Unto death, I fear," he muttered, and pitched headlong across the Altar. Upon the Great Light appeared a sudden dark stain. Tenderly they placed the body at case, then the Master, rising to the emergency, solemnly announced, "Brethren, the lodge is closed." The Great Leader raised his hand. "Gentlemen," said he, "to your posts!" IT was not far from midnight when the sentries in Fort Washington discerned far down the valley a blur on the background of snow. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, the shadow came nearer. It could mean but one thing. And now a musket flashed. Followed the rolling of many drums, the hoarse shouts of officers, the tread of marching columns. The heavy guns in Fort Washington began to roar; bombs, leaving behind trails of sparks, rose high in the air and burst far down the valley where now the blur upon the white background had ceased to advance. It was soon over. Finding his enemy fully alert and waiting for the assault, and having yet in his mind a vivid picture of that terrible slaughter on the slope of Breed's Hill, Howe quietly drew off his chagrined army and returned to Philadelphia. For obvious reasons he failed to mention the projected attack in his dispatches to the Crown, probably being entirely willing to forget that such a trivial occurrence ever took place. For reasons directly opposite, but equally cogent, the American commander did not report the incident to Congress. The curious student of history will therefore probably search in vain for any written record of the raid that might easily have resulted disastrously to the Cause but for the loyalty of him who so unceremoniously entered the military lodge held in the barn of Isaac Potts. The messenger was found to bear the name of one of the oldest and most honored families in Philadelphia. And so next day, amid the snows of Valley Forge, they buried him. While in the distance the three crashing salvos from the artillery of Brother Knox rang out on the frosty air, the brethren of the Ancient Craft stood about the grave with bared heads. Worshipful Master Mordecai Gist read the burial service in tones that occasionally trembled, indomitable fighter though he was. The final echoes of the distant artillery firing died away among the rugged hills flanking the Schuylkill as Brother Gist neared the end of the service: "So in the bright morning of the World's resurrection, thy mortal frame, now laid in the dust by the chilling blast of Death, shall come again into newness of life, and expand in immortal beauty in realms beyond the skies. Until then, dear brother - until then - farewell!" Another sacrifice had been placed upon the Altar of Freedom.


Everyone is entirely free to reject and dissent from whatsoever herein may seem to him/her to be untrue or unsound. - Morals and Dogma Ron Blaisdell, PM Capital of Strict Observance No. 66

Music on this page is [k 216] violin concerto Movement #2 by Brother Wolfgang Amadeius Mozart.