The Overhanging Rock at Gulph Mills

overhanging rock
Photo by Phila. Inquirer
The Overhanging Rock

by J. Aubrey Anderson, Esq.
at the Presentation of the Overhanging Rock, Gulph Mills, Pa., December 19, 1924

This spot marks the last prolonged encampment — from Dec. 13 to Dec. 19, 1777 — of Washington and his army before going into permanent winter quarters.

It has never been satisfactorily explained just why the army lingered here. Most historical accounts pass over this period of seven days without mention at all. But Mr. W.S. Baker, an eminent historian, has suggested that "in all probability this locality was taken into consideration" as a place for passing the winter. He points out that contrary to the general belief the matter of winter quarters was still under consideration while the army lay at Gulph Mills. On Dec. 13, the day upon which the troops arrived at the Gulph, Timothy Pickering wrote:

"The great difficulty is to fix a proper station for winter quarters. Nothing else prevents our going into them...it is a point not absolutely determined."

On Dec. 15, John Laurens wrote to the President of Congress:

"The precise position is not as yet fixed upon, in which our huts are to be constructed; it will probably be determined today; it must be in such a situation as to admit of a bridge of communication over the Schuylkill for the protection of the country we have just left."

On Dec. 17th, Washington wrote as follows:

"The General ardently wishes it were now in his power to conduct the troops into the best winter quarters; but where are they to be found? Should we retire to the interior of the State, we would find it crowded with virtuous citizens, who, sacrificing their all, have left Philadelphia and fled hither for protection; to their distress humanity forbids us to add. This is not all. We should leave a vast extent of country to be despoiled and ravaged by the enemy, from which they would draw vast supplies, and where many of our firm friends would be exposed to all the miseries of an insulting and wanton depredation. A train of evils might be enumerated, but these will suffice. These considerations make it indispensably necessary for the army to take such a position as will enable it most effectually to prevent distress, and give the most extensive security; and in that position we must make ourselves the best shelter in our power.

"These urgent reasons have determined the General to take post in the neighborhood of this camp, and influenced by them, he persuades himself that the officers and soldiers, with one heart and one mind, will resolve to surmount every difficulty with a fortitude and patience becoming their profession, and the sacred cause in which they are engaged."

A further indication that Gulph Mills was considered for winter quarters is seen in the march of the army itself. When Washington broke camp at Whitemarsh on Dec. 11th, it was his intention to cross the Schuylkill at Matson's Ford, but quoting his own language:

"When the first division and a part of the second had passed, they found a body of the enemy, consisting from the best accounts we have been able to obtain, of four thousand men, under Lord Cornwallis, possessing themselves of the heights on both sides of the road leading from the river and the defile called the Gulf. This unexpected event obliged such of our troops as had crossed, to repass..."

The army then moved up the river to Swedes Ford and on the following night, Dec. 12th, crossed over the river, and on the morning of the 13th, marched to the Gulf. Had Valley Forge been definitely decided upon for winter quarters at this time, then the march to Gulph Mills was apparently without purpose. The logical course would have been to proceed direct from Swedes Ford at Norristown to the winter encampment because the army was already exhausted, without provisions and in a pitiable condition. From all of the foregoing circumstances we are led to the conclusion that the strategic value of the Gulph hills appealed strongly to Washington. These heights stretch from the Schuylkill River at Matson's FOrd for miles into the interior of the country. They offered the first considerable barrier to an approach by the enemy from Philadelphia. Moreover they commanded the Matson's Ford and the Swedes Ford at which points the army could be thrown across the river in case of necessity. The position met the requirements set forth in Laurens' letter of the 15th and in Washington's Orders of the 17th. It was evidently only after careful deliberation for many days that the final decision was formed to retreat to the next great range of hills, the hills of Valley Forge, for the establishment of permanent winter quarters.

During the encampment at Valley Forge the Gulph remained an important outpost. Troops were stationed here to guard the pass, and part of the time were under the command of Lieutenant Aaron Burr, the man who later at the height of his career just missed becoming president of the United States.

Gulph Mills is a spot to be venerated by every true American. The entire army under Washington was concentrated here, "encamped on the heights." Washington's letters written at this time were headed "Headquarters Gulf Mill" — others "near the Gulf," and one to the Board of War "Headquarters Gulf Creek 14 Dec. 1777." It was in his message of the 14th that the graphic description occurs — "the defile called the Gulf."

Here indeed was the beginning of the darkest, saddest, most tragic period in American History. Never since have the fortunes of America sunk so low. WIth the exception of Burgoyne's defeat in the North, the campaign of 1777 had been disastrous. The battles of Brandywine and Germantown had been lost. Philadelphia was in possession of the British. Congress had fled to Lancaster and later to York, and was virtually demoralized. A treacherous conspiracy seeking the overthrow of Washington had reared its head. A large part of the population was lukewarm in its adherence tot he patriotic cause, or openly aided the enemy. The commissary department had become so inefficient that food, clothing and supplies for the army virtually ceased. Then ensued that chapter of piteous suffering commencing on the march to Gulph Mills and not ending until months later at Valley Forge. Suffering so intense that it still wrings a cry of anguish from us who contemplate it today.

You will recall that on Dec. 11th the army had reached Swedes Ford on the east side of the river. From there on let the participants tell their own story.

John Laurens writes: "The next morning (December 12) the want of provisions — I could weep tears of blood when I say it — the want of provisions render'd it impossible to march until the evening of that day."

Lieutenant McMichael writes: "Dec. 12 — at 6 p.m. we march to the bridge (made of wagons) which we crossed in Indian file and at 3 a.m. encamped near the Gulph where we remained without tents or blankets in the midst of a severe snow storm."

And good Dr. Waldo writes: "We are ordered to march over the river. It snows — I'm sick — eat nothing — no whisky — no baggage — Lord-Lord-Lord — . Till sunrise crossing the river cold and uncomfortable."

And on the 13th he records: "The army marched three miles from the west side of the river and encamped near a place called the Gulph and not an improper name either. For this Gulph seems well adapted by its situation to keep us from the pleasure and enjoyments of this world, or being conversant with anybody in it."

And again he writes: "Dec. 16, cold rainy day — baggage ordered over the Gulph, of our division, which were to march at ten, but the baggage was ordered back and for the first time since we have been here the tents were pitch'd to keep the men more comfortable."

Listen to his description of a soldier: "There comes a soldier — his bare feet are seen thro' his worn out shoes — his legs nearly naked from the tattered remains of an only pair of stockings — his breeches not sufficient to cover his nakedness — his shirt hanging in strings — his hair dishevell'd — his face meagre — his whole appearance pictures a person forsaken and discouraged."

Yet it was at this moment of his country's weakness and in the midst of an army suffering from cold and dying from neglect and hunger that Washington wrote his memorable Orders of Dec. 17th in which he expresses his thanks to the officers and soldiers for the fortitude and patience with which they have sustained the fatigue of the campaign; in which he asserts — "although in some instances we unfortunately failed yet upon the whole Heaven hath smiled upon our arms." And in these he makes the confident prediction "that, by a spirited continuance of the measures necessary for our defence, we shall finally obtain the end of our warfare, Independence, Liberty and Peace." But above all it was in these same orders that he announced his determination not to retire into the interior of the country but to place the army — think of it, this army of wretched, ragged Continentals — in such a position "as will enable most effectually to prevent distress, and give the most extensive security," and he concluded with the declaration that he himself would "share in the hardships and partake of every inconvenience." Was ever sacrifice more heroic or patriotism more sublime?

On the 18th, the day was spent by the army as a day of thanksgiving and prayer. On the 19th the camp moved to Valley Forge where four days later, in despair, Washington wrote:

"I am now convinced beyond a doubt, that, unless some great and capital change suddenly takes place in that line (the commissary's department), this army must inevitably be reduced to one or other of these three things: starve, dissolve, or disperse in order to obtain subsistence in the best manner they can."

It is narrated in the Bible that when Joshua marching against Jericho came to the River Jordan, the river parted and Joshua and his people crossed over. And the Lord commanded Joshua to set up twelve stones:

"That this may be a sign among you, that when your children ask their fathers in time to come saying what mean you by these stones?

"Then ye shall answer them — and these stones shall be for a memorial unto the Children of Israel forever."

One hundred and forty-seven years ago when Washington's army, defeated and in despair, passed up the Gulph Road on their memorable and piteous march to Valley Forge, those half frozen, half naked, half starving men were not thinking of memorials. They were thinking most likely of death and the ruin of their cause. But God himself even then had set up a memorial eternal and lasting as the very hills of which it forms a part — the Overhanging Rock at Gulph Mills. Just as it witnessed the sufferings of Washington and his army so has it seen the progress and glory of this mighty Nation. No man-made monument can surpass it in beauty, or equal its power to arrest attention and fire the imagination. It is unique. It is impressive. It is one of Nature's wonders. It tells a story which even he who runs may read — the story of the upbuilding of the American Republic. It proclaims Gulph Mills as no other marker ever can or will. Once gone not all the art and science of our boasted 20th Century civilization can replace it.

Yet there are some people who lightly talk of destroying this historic landmark because it encroaches somewhat on the highway, asserting that it interferes with progress. Let those who would tear it down in the name of progress remember that the progress of which they are so proud was purchased for them by the blood and the suffering of the men who tramped under this very stone in their striving for that Independence, Liberty and Peace which was to become the foundation of America's greatness.

To destroy this marker would be to defame ourselves. It would convict us of forgetfulness of sacrifices made for us by our forefathers.

Let this memorial stand. Let it be a sign among you so that when your children ask "what means this stone"? tell them that an army of immortals passed through this gorge in defeat and despair, to even greater despair at Valley Forge, but that the spirit which sustained them here, sustained them there, and out of it "the life of America arose regenerate and free."

Let us widen the road. Let us bridge the Gulph Creek itself if necessary but at all costs let us preserve this God given memorial to the best traditions of America.

Courtesy National Center for the American Revolution/Valley Forge Historical Society

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