Washington’s Prayer at Valley Forge.
The accounts of Isaac Potts discovering Washington at prayer always represent him as an old man, and I have seen one, at least, where he is called a blacksmith. How incorrect such statements are, the readers of this volume will readily see. In 1777 he was only twenty-six years of age, and, like most of the Quakers, was decidedly opposed to the war; but he remained at Valley Forge during its occupation by the American forces, and no doubt superintended the grinding of the grain which Washington ordered the neighboring farmers to bring in to his suffering army. These mills were large, and in good repute for the quality as well as the quantity of flour manufactured there; and it was not in human nature, or Quaker nature either, for Isaac to be very much pleased to run his mills according to military requisitions, to see his peaceful valley invaded by men at arms, or to give up his own quiet home to the commander-in-chief of a defeated army, who, in his opinion, was waging a wicked and hopeless war. That he changed his mind when he overheard Washington’s devotions is evident. The following account of the incident I copied from a paper in the possession of one of his grand-daughters. It is in the handwriting of and signed by his daughter Ruth Anna, who died in 1811. There is no note to show from what it was taken; but as she copied and thus preserved it, we may infer it to be a tolerably correct version of facts. The story differs in some particulars from that in Weems’s “Life of Washington,” and also from the account given by Watson and Lossing.
IN 1777, while the American army lay at Valley Forge, a good old Quaker by the name of Potts had occasion to pass through a thick wood near headquarters. As he traversed the dark brown forest, he heard, at a distance before him, a voice which as he advanced became more fervid and interested. Approaching with slowness and circumspection, whom should he behold in a dark bower apparently formed for the purpose, but the commander-in-chief of the armies of the United Colonies on his knees in the act of devotion to the Ruler of the universe! At the moment when Friend Potts, concealed by the trees, came up, Washington was interceding for his beloved country. With tones of gratitude that labored for adequate expression, he adored that exuberant goodness which, from the depth of obscurity, had exalted him to the head of a great nation, and that nation fighting at fearful odds for all the world holds dear.
He utterly disclaimed all ability of his own for this arduous conflict; he wept at the thought of that irretrievable ruin which his mistakes might bring on his country, and with the patriot’s pathos spreading the interests of unborn millions before the eye of Eternal Mercy, he implored the aid of that arm which guides the starry host. Soon as the General had finished his devotions, and had retired, Friend Potts returned to his house and threw himself into a chair by the side of his wife.
“Hegh! Isaac,” said she with tenderness, “thee seems agitated; what’s the matter?” “Indeed, my dear,” quoth he, “if I appear agitated ‘tis no more than what I am. I have seen this day what I shall never forget. Till now I have thought that a Christian and a soldier were characters incompatible; but if George Washington be not a man of God, I am mistaken, and still more shall I be disappointed if God do not through him perform some great thing for this country.”
—Mrs. Thomas [Isabella] Potts James, Memorial of Thomas Potts, 1874.