Valley Forge, Winter 1777. George Washington and his Continental Army were encamped and dug in against a British attack. They waited out the winter, but it was a brutal experience. The weather was very bad, and soldiers tried to endure disease, malnutrition, and exposure. Many deserted, and more than 2,500 soldiers had died by March 1, 1778. But the war news in general was also bad. The Continental army had suffered several extensive defeats in 1777, the British army was only 18 miles away, in relatively comfortable Philadelphia, preparing to wipe out the remaining Continentals as soon as the weather allowed them to mount an offensive.
And, on the international scene, the American rebels were more or less alone. The French had not yet allied with the Americans as winter came in 1777. The French would formally join the Americans in February 1778, but not engage the British militarily until mid-March. Until then, the American forces were alone, and increasingly desperate.
General George Washington tried to use the winter at Valley Forge to plan military strategies for 1778, to get his troops back in order, and to train them for further engagements. Undoubtedly it was a highly stressful period for the Continental Army. But it was an especially trying period for Washington himself. In addition to having his responsibility for his soldiers weighing on him, critics in the ranks of important Revolutionary political leaders who questioned his generalship and military acumen, were an irritant at the very least.
It’s not surprising, therefore, that Washington spent a lot of time at Valley Forge deep in thought and, indeed, prayer. One of the stories that’s been flying around the internet for years, as well as having a previous career in pamphlets and newspapers in the late 19th- and early 20th-centuries, says that Washington was visited by an angel or spirit who told him of the broad challenges facing the nation during the next century. This vision emboldened General George to persevere not only at Valley Forge, but during the rest of the Revolutionary War, and during the early years of the Republic. Our question here is, did an angel or a vision come to Washington in the depths of the Valley Forge winter and help save the American Revolution and secure the future of the country?
Well, no. There is no reliable evidence that this or anything like it happened. There is lots of very clear evidence of where this story came from, however, and that aspect of the history of “Washington’s Vision” is fascinating. Among other things, it’s yet another example of how many stories we’re told come from the Revolutionary period but are really products of the later 19th century. Here’s what happened.
First published in the Philadelphia Inquirer in June 1861, a couple of months after the outbreak of the Civil War, “Washington’s Vision” was written by “Wesley Bradshaw” (a pseudonym for Charles Wesley Alexander, a Philadelphia journalist who lived from 1836-1927). “Washington’s Vision” is Bradshaw’s account of meeting a Revolutionary veteran, Anthony Sherman, and hearing the old man’s tale of Washington’s vision at Valley Forge, which Sherman claimed had been related to him by an officer in Washington’s inner circle. (The full version of the article is reproduced below.)
According to Sherman, Washington often spent time in his cabin praying. One evening, the General told a nearby officer (who later told Sherman) that a “singularly beautiful being” had visited him during his time at prayer and told him the following. “Son of the Republic,” the being said, “listen and learn,” and the “being” proceeded to show Washington visions of the future of the Revolutionary War, and the rise of the United States to take a place among the other great powers in the world.
Then the visionary “being” told Washington of the scourge of slavery (an “ill-omened spectre”) and the coming of the Civil War. Americans “set themselves in battle against each other.” And “as I continued looking,” Washington said, “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. He said, ‘Remember, ye are brethren.’ Instantly the inhabitants, casting down their weapons, became friends once more, and united around the National Standard.”
The next vision of the future presented to Washington was a prosperous, industrious, and happy America. “I beheld,” Washington said, “…villages, towns, and cities springing up…
The visionary being had warned Washington of the struggles of the Revolution, the difficulties the young nation would face, and the Civil War. And that “being” stressed that the Civil War was the worst of these, but that the country would survive it if, “every child of the Republic learn[ed] to live for his God, his land, and the Union.”
Washington finished his story thus: “With these words the vision vanished and I started from my seat and felt that I had seen a vision wherein had been shown me the birth, progress, and destiny of the United States.”
“Such were the words I heard from Washington’s own lips,” the officer told Sherman, “and America will do well to profit by them.”
Sherman then told the story to “Wesley Bradshaw,” who wrote it down as an article.
“Washington’s Vision” was one of many articles written by Charles Wesley Alexander along the same lines and with the same theme — other worldly spirits warning American leaders of the perils of disunion and civil war. “General McClellan’s Dream” (written and published by Alexander in 1862) is a famous example. In this story, Union General George McClellan had a dream in which the spirit of George Washington came to him and revealed secret Confederate battle plans that helped McClellan win an upcoming battle. In this dream, Washington said many of the same things about the crucial necessity of saving the Union that the “visionary being” told the General at Valley Forge.
These two stories were highly popular and widely read during the Civil War and the following decades of rebuilding the nation (1870-1900). “Washington’s Vision,” however, has seen a renewal of interest during the past twenty years, boosted, of course, by the internet and the ease with which such stories, myths, and urban legends have found renewed life. The spread of such patriotic tales really accelerated in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11th, and during the gearing up for wars that followed.
Unfortunately nowadays, these stories fly around without any critical analysis or attention to historical fact and detail.
There’s no evidence of Washington reporting such a vision to an officer at Valley Forge at the time. This dramatic story doesn’t appear in any of the recollections of his officers published after the war. And, of course, there is absolutely no evidence in Washington’s letters or papers that any such thing ever happened.
It’s highly unlikely that a soldier named Anthony Sherman (who “told” the story to Charles Alexander) was encamped at Valley Forge. Although enlistment records and army records for the Revolutionary War aren’t perfectly complete, they are nearly so. In fact, they are especially accurate considering that it was the 1770s. An officer named Anthony Sherman did serve in the Continental Army, but he was at Saratoga under the command of Benedict Arnold in late 1777, and not part of the Valley Forge contingent. Further, military pension records indicate that Sherman died in 1840, twenty-one years before he “told” of “Washington’s Vision” to Alexander in 1861.
Finally, there is no evidence of the historical truth of Alexander’s other stories, including McClellan’s Dream. (And, believe me, Buzzkillers, McClellan was a relentless self-promoter and certainly would have crowed about being given direction from THE Founding Father himself in the dream, especially if it resulted in a battlefield victory.)
There is a ton of evidence that Alexander’s articles, like many other creative pieces written during the late 1850s and early 1860s, openly used Revolutionary War-era themes in an effort to warn the nation of the coming Civil War (as was the case in Longfellow’s “Ride of Paul Revere”), to promote the Union cause, and to urge national unity. Although we cannot be certain in this specific case, it’s very, very likely that Alexander wrote these as patriotic propaganda, not as some kind of historical account.
The decades following the Civil War were perhaps the greatest period of patriotic literature, imagery, and symbolism. As Buzzkill Institute researchers have shown, and as we’ve talked about on other episodes, popular ideas of things like the American flag, the national anthem, and the Pledge of Allegiance were largely products of the 1870s (and succeeding decades), not the 1770s. And there’s precious little evidence of much of it before the 1860s and 1870s. In other words, there was no unstoppable flow of American patriotism and patriotic imagery that started in 1776 and has grown inexorably from then until now.
Patriotism, like everything else, has its periods of growth, stagnation, and re-birth. It changes over time, and almost nothing about American history has a pure and traceable 240-year pedigree. We don’t need Valley Forge ghost-stories to boost our national self-esteem. We ought to be grownups about it and accept that fact. We should concentrate on being proud of the good things that Americans have accomplished, we should be realistically contemplative about the stains on our national past, and we should have enough wisdom to know that there is indeed a difference.
“Washington’s Vision” (complete)
The last time I ever saw Anthony Sherman was on the Fourth of July, 1859, in Independence Square. He was then ninety-nine years old, his dimming eyes rekindled as he gazed upon Independence Hall, which he had come to visit once more. “I want to tell you an incident of Washington’s life one which no one alive knows of except myself; and which, if you live, you will before long see verified.”
He said, “From the opening of the Revolution, we experienced all phases of fortune, good and ill. The darkest period we ever had, I think, was when Washington, after several reverses, retreated to Valley Forge, where he resolved to pass the winter of 1777. Ah! I often saw the tears coursing down our dear commander’s careworn cheeks, as he conversed with a confidential officer about the condition of his soldiers. You have doubtless heard the story of Washington’s going to the thicket to pray. Well, he also used to pray to God in secret for aid and comfort.
“One day, I remember well, the chilly winds whistled through the leafless trees. Though the sky was cloudless and the sun shone brightly, he remained alone in his quarters nearly all afternoon. When he came out, I noticed that his face was a shade paler than usual, and there seemed to be something on his mind of more than ordinary importance. Returning just after dusk, he dispatched an orderly to the quarters of the officer I mentioned who was in attendance at the time. After preliminary conversation of about half an hour, Washington, gazing upon his companion with that strange look of dignity that he alone could command, said to the latter:
“I do not know whether it is due to the anxiety of my mind, or what, but this afternoon, as I was preparing a dispatch, something seemed to disturbed me. Looking up, I beheld, standing opposite me, a singularly beautiful being. 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 the visit. 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 the eyes. By this time I felt strange sensations spreading through me, and I would have risen, but the riveted gaze of the being before me rendered volition impossible. I assayed once more to speak, but my tongue had become useless, as though it had become paralyzed. A new influence, mysterious, potent, irresistible, took possession. All I could do was to gaze steadily, vacantly at my unknown visitor. Gradually the surrounding atmosphere seemed to become filled with sensations, and grew luminous. Everything about me seemed to rarefy, including the mysterious visitor.
“I 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 an arm eastwardly. I now beheld a heavy vapor at some distance rising fold upon fold. This gradually dissipated, and I looked out 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 as an angel standing, or rather floating, in mid-air between Europe and America. Dipping water out of the ocean in the hollow of his 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 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 string up one after another until the whole land form 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.’
“And this time the dark, shadowy angel turned his face southward, and from Africa I saw an ill-omened specter approach our land. It flitted slowly over every town and city of the latter. The inhabitants presently set themselves in battle 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. He said, ‘Remember, ye are brethren.’ Instantly the inhabitants, casting down their weapons, became friends once more, and united around the National Standard.
“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 lips and blew three distinct blasts; and taking water from the ocean, he sprinkled it on 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; and throughout this mass there gleamed a dark red light be which I saw hordes of armed men, who, moving with the cloud, marched by land and sailed by sea to America, which country was enveloped in the volume of cloud. And I dimly saw these vast armies devastate the whole country and burn the villages, towns, and cities that I had beheld springing up.
“As my ears listened to the thundering of the cannon, the slashing of swords, and the shouts and cries of millions in mortal combat, I again heard the mysterious voice saying, ‘Son of the Republic, look and learn.’ When the voice had ceased, the dark 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 shown the word ‘Union’ and 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’d 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 standard while the people, kneeling down, said ‘Amen.’
“The scene instantly began to fade and dissolve, and I, at last, saw nothing but the rising, curling vapor I had at first beheld. This also disappeared, and I found myself once more gazing upon the mysterious visitor, who in the same voice I had heard before said, ‘Son of the Republic, what you have seen is thus interpreted. Three great perils will come upon the Republic. The most fearful is the third, but in this greatest conflict the whole world united shall not prevail against her. Let every child of the Republic learn to live for his God, his land, and the Union.’ With these words the vision vanished, and I started from my seat and felt that I had seen a vision wherein had been shown me the birth, progress, and destiny of the United States.”
“Such, my friends,” said the venerable narrator, “were the words I heard from Washington’s own lips, and America will do well to profit by them.”