Back Channels: Restored grove at Valley Forge offers a walk among heroes and history

Posted: June 12, 2011

About 4,000 students from around the country visit the Freedoms Foundation at Valley Forge every year to learn about citizenship, democracy, free enterprise, and U.S. politics.

That's in the classrooms. Step outside and the campus offers a pretty decent history lesson as well. Unfortunately, that's been a well-kept secret for far too long. But thanks to the efforts of more than a thousand volunteers during the last 12 months, the foundation's 52-acre Medal of Honor Grove opens anew after a rededication ceremony Sunday.

A year ago, the site was overgrown, full of downed trees, broken benches, and dirty monuments. The turnaround has been led by State Sen. Andrew E. Dinniman (D., Chester), who wanted not only to clean the park, but also to ensure that it would be maintained and even upgraded.

The grove opened in the 1960s, with an acre devoted to each state, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia. Every plot contains an obelisk with the state's seal and a list of its native sons who were awarded the Medal of Honor. (All but one of more than 3,400 recipients have been men.) Many of the original fiberglass obelisks have been replaced with markers made of stone indigenous to each state. Pennsylvania's obelisk, for example, is black granite.

In addition, scattered about each acre are small markers with details about the heroes: name, rank, branch of service, where and when the action for which they were honored occurred. Of course, where the action took place is often where the person died, as most Medals of Honor are awarded posthumously.

A year ago, underbrush hid many markers. No longer.

Take a walk through today, down the lanes and into the wooded area. There's a quiet solemnity to the grove, with the obelisks giving the feel of a memorial garden or cemetery. Wander off the paths, into each state's acre, to read the small markers. History is all around, from the 1860s, when the medal was created, to the 1990s and Somalia, the last time the markers were updated.

Famous Civil War battlefields are represented, including Bull Run, Gettysburg, Antietam, Vicksburg. But heroism wasn't limited to those sites. Also mentioned are places like Hatcher's Run, Va., and Fort Blakely, Ala., plus many more.

Some of the acres have a dozen or fewer markers. New York has so many they are lined up in long rows, organized by conflict and branch of service. The first medals along one row were for sailors in the Civil War, with actions on the USS Metacomet, then the USS Minnesota, then the USS Santee, the USS Pontoosuc, the USS Brooklyn, the USS Richmond, the USS Lackawanna, and on and on.

About 2,500 medals were awarded for actions during the Civil War, including one for military surgeon Mary Edwards Walker. And many other conflicts would follow.

There are markers for service at Little Big Horn, Mont.; Wounded Knee Creek, S.D.; and Kickapoo Spring, Texas. From Cuba during the Spanish-American War, and China during the Boxer Rebellion.

Vietnam appears on many, many markers, as does Korea. From World War II, you see men honored for heroism in France, Italy, Belgium, Germany, Tunisia, Japan, the Philippines, Palau Island, Iwo Jima, the Solomon Islands, and "over the Coral Sea."

For each act of valor, there is a story, and a name. And those names are presented equally. The marker for Texan Audie Murphy, the World War II hero who later starred in a movie about his experiences, is no bigger than the ones honoring Army scouts Chiquito and Nantaje, Arizonans who served in the 1890s.

In Wisconsin, the marker for Maj. Gen. William Mitchell of the Army Air Corps, honored by a special act of Congress in 1946, is indistinguishable from one just a few feet away for Army Pvt. Horace Ellis, honored for "extraordinary heroism" with the Seventh Wisconsin Infantry at Weldon Railroad, Va., in 1864.

Visitors have always been welcome in this grove, but it hasn't always been a very welcoming site. That has changed. On Sunday, with two medal recipients in attendance, retired Maj. Gen. James E. Livingston and retired Army Col. Joseph Marm, a simple ceremony will acknowledge the efforts of the volunteers who made a difference, and the formation of the Friends of the Medal of Honor Grove. This new nonprofit, led by former Delaware County Council Chairman Wallace Nunn, will work with Freedoms Foundation to ensure the park is kept up to a standard that the heroes it honors deserve.

Come by to say thanks to the volunteers and admire their work. And during your walk, be prepared for a few lessons in courage, and sacrifice, and history.


Contact Kevin Ferris at kf@phillynews.com or 215-854-5305.

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