Revisiting Valley Forge

The Prayer at Valley Forge by Henry Brueckner

In the popular lore of America, George Washington remains the pivotal figure in the foundation of the identity of America, and the idea of the Republic being one nation under God, and being one of prayer, is not without critics. Similarly contested is a story of George Washington at Valley Forge, where he received a prophetic vision of America.

Valley Forge was the camp, some 18 miles from Philadelphia where Washington retreated after a tough loss. He reached Valley Forge on December 17th of 1777, and suffered through a tough winter, where the continental army itself was in question. With deaths from the wounded and an some senior leaders conspiring to replace Washington, Valley Forge becomes a true make-or-break event for the American future. It was a time when God’s providence would have been crucial for the Patriots.

The story, passed on by a soldier, Anthony Sherman, was that George Washington went to a clearing to pray, and had the following apparition which foretold trials that America would go through, but that it would yet prevail. He relays his story through a journalist, Charles Wesley Alexander, who wrote under the pseudonym Wesley Bradshaw.

Here is Anthony Sherman’s account of George Washington’s vision, as published by The National Tribune on December 1st, 1880:

Anthony Sherman’s Account

You doubtless heard the story of Washington’s going to the thicket to pray. Well, it is not only true, but he used often to pray in secret for aid and comfort from God, the interposition of whose Divine Providence brought us safely through the darkest days of tribulation.

One day, I remember it well, when the chilly winds whistled through the leafless trees, though the sky was cloudless and the sun shown brightly, he remained in his quarters nearly all the afternoon alone. When he came out, I noticed that his face was a shade paler than usual. There seemed to be something on his mind of more than ordinary importance. Returning just after dusk, he dispatched an orderly to the quarters who was presently in attendance. After a preliminary conversation of about an hour, Washington, gazing upon his companion with that strange look of dignity which he alone commanded, related the event that occurred that day.

Washington’s Own Words

This afternoon, as I was sitting at this table engaged in preparing a dispatch, something seemed to disturb me. Looking up, I beheld standing opposite me a singularly beautiful female. So astonished was I, for I had given strict orders not to be disturbed, that it was some moments before I found language to inquire the cause of her presence. A second, a third and even a fourth time did I repeat my question, but received no answer from my mysterious visitor except a slight raising of her eyes.

By this time I felt strange sensations spreading through me. I would have risen but the riveted gaze of the being before me rendered volition impossible. I assayed once more to address her, but my tongue had become useless, as though it had become paralyzed.

A new influence, mysterious, potent, irresistible, took possession of me. All I could do was to gaze steadily, vacantly at my unknown visitor. Gradually the surrounding atmosphere seemed as if it had become filled with sensations, and luminous. Everything about me seemed to rarify, the mysterious visitor herself becoming more airy and yet more distinct to my sight than before. I now began to feel as one dying, or rather to experience the sensations which I have sometimes imagined accompany dissolution. I did not think, I did not reason, I did not move; all were alike impossible. I was only conscious of gazing fixedly, vacantly at my Companion.

Presently I heard a voice saying, ‘Son of the Republic, look and learn,’ while at the same time my visitor extended her arm eastwardly. I now beheld a heavy white vapor at some distance rising fold upon fold. This gradually dissipated, and I looked upon a strange scene. Before me lay spread out in one vast plain all the countries of the world-Europe, Asia, Africa and America. I saw rolling and tossing between Europe and America the billows of the Atlantic, and between Asia and America lay the Pacific.

‘Son of the Republic,’ said the same mysterious voice as before,’look and learn.’ At that moment I beheld a dark, shadowy being, like an angel, standing, or rather floating in midair; between Europe and America. Dipping water out of the ocean in the hollow of each hand, he sprinkled some upon America with his right hand, while with his left hand he cast some on Europe. Immediately a cloud raised from these countries, and joined in mid-ocean. For a while it remained stationary, and then moved slowly westward, until it enveloped America in its murky folds. Sharp flashes of lightning gleamed through it at intervals, and I heard the smothered groans and cries of the American people.

A second time the angel dipped water from the ocean, and sprinkled it out as before. The dark cloud was then drawn back to the ocean, in whose heaving billows it sank from view. A third time I heard the mysterious voice saying, ‘Son of the Republic, look and learn,’ I cast my eyes upon America and beheld villages and towns and cities springing up one after another until the whole land from the Atlantic to the Pacific was dotted with them.

Again, I heard the mysterious voice say, ‘Son of the Republic, the end of the century cometh, look and learn.’ At this the dark shadowy angel turned his face southward, and from Africa I saw an ill-omened spectre approach our land. It flitted slowly over every town and city of the latter. The inhabitants presently set themselves in battle array against each other. As I continued looking I saw a bright angel, on whose brow rested a crown of light, on which was traced the word ‘Union,’ bearing the American flag which he placed between the divided nation, and said, ‘Remember ye are brethren.’ Instantly, the inhabitants, casting from them their weapons became friends once more, and united around the National Standard.

And again I heard the mysterious voice saying, ‘Son of the Republic, look and learn.’ At this the dark, shadowy angel placed a trumpet to his mouth, and blew three distinct blasts; and taking water from the ocean, he sprinkled it upon Europe, Asia and Africa. Then my eyes beheld a fearful scene: from each of these countries arose thick, black clouds that were soon joined into one. Throughout this mass there gleamed a dark red light by which I saw hordes of armed men, who, moving with the cloud, marched by land and sailed by sea to America. Our country was enveloped in this volume of cloud, and 1 saw these vast armies devastate the whole country and burn the villages, towns and cities that I beheld springing up. As my ears listened to the thundering of the cannon, clashing of swords, and the shouts and cries of millions in mortal combat, I heard again the mysterious voice saying, ‘Son of the Republic, look and learn.’ When the voice had ceased, the dark shadowy angel placed his trumpet once more to his mouth, and blew a long and fearful blast.

Instantly a light as of a thousand suns shone down from above me, and pierced and broke into fragments the dark cloud which enveloped America. At the same moment the angel upon whose head still shone the word ‘Union,’ end who bore our national flag in one hand and a sword in the other, descended from the heavens attended by legions of white spirits. These immediately joined the inhabitants of America, who I perceived were well nigh overcome, but who immediately taking courage again, closed up their broken ranks and renewed the battle.

Again, amid the fearful noise. of the conflict, I heard the mysterious voice saying, ‘Son of the Republic, look and learn.’ As the voice ceased, the shadowy angel for the last time dipped water from the ocean and sprinkled it upon America. Instantly the dark cloud rolled back, together with the armies it had brought, leaving the inhabitants of the land victorious!

Then once more I beheld the villages, towns and cities springing up where I had seen them before, while the bright angel, planting the azure standard he had brought in the midst of them, cried with a loud voice:’While the stars remain, and the heavens send down dew upon the earth, so long shall the Union last.’ And taking from his brow the crown on which blazoned the word ‘Union,’ he placed it upon the National Standard while the people, kneeling down, said, ‘Amen.’

Anthony Sherman’s account of George Washington’s Vision, published by The National Tribune in December 1st 1880

A Marian apparition?

The account may come as surprise to Catholics, as it communicates a clearly Marian figure. Furthermore, Washington’s incapacitated reaction is similar to the experience of other seers of Marian apparitions. This is notable for several reasons, but perhaps most significantly is that the identity of America has never been an explicitly Catholic one, but from a spiritual standpoint, it is difficult to arrive at another possibility for this woman of singular beauty.

For this reason, this storied moment of prayer, providence, and prophesy becomes even more consequential. Where did Washington turn when things looked most dark? Who guided him? How are we to interpret the message he received?

Challenges from critics

As one can imagine, there is no shortage of historians calling the account into question. Much of the skepticism falls on the messenger, Anthony Sherman.

Particularly, the following graph appears on multiple sites without attribution:

I am unaware of any eighteenth-century evidence that corroborates this story. The soldier mentioned as having a first-hand account of the “Vision,” Anthony Sherman, was a soldier in the Continental Army. However, according to his pension application, written by him, he states that he was at Saratoga under the command of Benedict Arnold at the end of 1777 and only joined the main forces in 1778 in New Jersey just before the Battle of Monmouth.

The infamous Snopes.com has the following variation from David Mikkelson, which labels the Sherman’s account as false:

(Although an officer named Anthony Sherman did serve in the Continental Army, he was at Saratoga under the command of Benedict Arnold at the end of 1777 and therefore wasn’t with Washington’s forces at Valley Forge during the winter of 1777-78, so it’s likely mere coincidence that Alexander chose that appellation for the name of his fictitious narrator.)

– David Mikkelson / Snopes.com

However, none of these criticisms offer any evidence of their account of Sherman. There is this claim that Anthony Sherman was first with Benedict Arnold, who was the notorious disgruntled general who switched to the Loyalists to fight against the Patriots during the Revolutionary war, but there is no examination of the historical records available.

An examination of historical records

Sites such as ancestry.com, and fold3.com now have searchable records of historical documents, including war pensions, and other documents pertaining to Revolutionary War enlistment of individuals.

For Anthony Sherman, the following can be found in the records of Refugees of Long Island to Connecticut on Ancestry.com

This record is for a refugee of the war who was corroborated by three others in the same log book, for Captain Joshua Griffeth, Lieutenant Obadiah Havens.

Wikipedia states the following about such refugees:

During the American Revolutionary War, New York Patriots fled from the advancing British and Loyalist forces and departed from Sag Harbor by boat and ship for Connecticut.

Additionally, record for a Colonel Smith can be found in the National Archives’ Compiled Service Records of Soldiers Who Served in the American Army during the Revolutionary War for Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania was of course, the state of Valley Forge, where Washington took his soldiers during the winter of 1777.

Also, the following pension can be found for an Anthony Smith, of Suffolk, New York, who was a private in the company of Captain Davis or the Regiment commanded by Lieutenant Livingston in the New York line for fifteen months.

And a subsequent page of the pension indicates the persons of Captain Davis and Lieutenant Livingston refer to John Davis and Henry Brockholst Livingston of General George Clinton‘s brigade.

Captain John Davis has the following history from the Decennial register of the Pennsylvania Society of Sons of the Revolution:

Lieutenant, Colonel Samuel John Alice’s Pennsylvania Musketry Battalion, March 19, 1776; First Lieutenant, Captain Lewis Farmer’s Company, Pennsylvania Rifle Regiment, Colonel Samuel Miles, April 6, 1776; taken prisoner at Long Island; Captain, Ninth Regiment, November 15, 1776; transferred to First Regiment, January 17, 1781, Pennsylvania Line; retired January 1, 1783; at Three Rivers, Paoli, Brandywine, Germantown, Monmouth, Stony Point, Green Spring, and Yorktown. Member of the Pennsylvania State Society of the Cincinnati.

The battles of Brandywine and Germantown occurred prior to Washington’s retreat to Valley Forge and the Battle of Monmouth occurred in 1778 after George Washington emerged from Valley Forge.

It was the last battle of the Philadelphia campaign, begun the previous year, during which the British had inflicted two major defeats on Washington and occupied Philadelphia. Washington had spent the winter at Valley Forge rebuilding his army and defending his position against political enemies who favored his replacement as commander-in-chief.

With these records, the existence of an Anthony Sherman certainly is true, with ample records to suggest that he served under the Revolutionary Army as a soldier that rose to the rank of Captain. Also, these other figures under whom whom Anthony Sherman served placed strongly in the history of the Revolutionary War, taking part in decisive battles and serving under men who would go to high political offices. Nothing in the materials reviewed suggested any change in allegiance that would corroborate the claim that he served under Benedict Arnold.

A new look at an iconic moment

Typically, stories of faith never have enough information to dispel all doubts of authenticity, and the veracity of the claims falls on the readers’ discernment. However, the amount of bad-faith criticism heaped upon the account does make an argument that the story is in good-faith, and history tells us that the enemies of the Faith do seek to decouple the identity of nations from what we know by faith to be true.

We know truly that our enemy, the devil, would never want history related to the American Christian identity to prosper, and that is all the more reason to carry this story as tradition, and hand it down to each generation.

If nothing else, the historical records presented here should show the reader that a closer examination of this prophetic vision of America from a fresh perspective is merited.

– By WQPH Contributors