Earlier this week I zipped by Valley Forge National Historical Park, so it seems like a good moment to discuss a most curious text about Gen. George Washington at that camp that appears on a lot of websites.
The text called "Washington's Vision" describes an angelic figure coming to the general in his tent at Valley Forge and giving him a prophecy about the future of the U.S. of A. Here's a sample:
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 stranger 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.I quoted some of this text as throwaway material on my other blog. Since then, I've dug deeper and learned more about its origin.
"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 mid-air, 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 in 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. . . .
The earliest publication of "Washington's Vision" that I've found was in the 24 June 1861 Philadelphia Inquirer. That December, it was published in the Pittsfield Gazette, and the following April in the New Hampshire Sentinel. In 1864, "Washington's Vision" was published as a pamphlet, now available for online viewing courtesy of Indiana University. It's possible that the original publication was an even earlier 1861 pamphlet that the Inquirer quoted from.
The author of the article/pamphlet, Wesley Bradshaw, describes hearing of Washington's experience through a veteran of Valley Forge named Anthony Sherman. In Prominent American Ghosts, Susy Smith claimed, "Sherman told the story to several people," and, "A Mormon periodical carried the account in 1856," though she doesn't identify that periodical. However, the 1861 text has Sherman saying something quite different: that on 4 July 1859 he told Bradshaw a tale "which no one alive knows of except myself." (I suppose Smith, also author of Confessions of a Psychic and E.S.P. for the Millions, may have had special sources for her information. But I doubt it.)
The 1864 edition of "Washington's Vision" comes with a cover blurb from Edward Everett, the important and sadly forgotten Massachusetts politician and orator. (I wonder if he ever actually saw the pamphlet.) The same publication contains poetry and a story about 99-year-old Jane Seymour knitting stockings for Washington's army, then much later for the Union army during the Civil War. It's patriotic propaganda through and through, as shown by the cover line "The First Union Story Ever Written."
Are there any reliable facts in "Washington's Vision"? A man named Anthony Sherman did serve in the Continental Army. He applied for and received a pension in the 1830s. However, his pension application said he wasn't at Valley Forge in the winter of 1777-78; he was with Gen. Benedict Arnold's army instead. Furthermore, Anthony Sherman is not listed among Revolutionary veterans receiving a pension in 1840, meaning he had died by that year—well over a decade before he supposedly spoke to Wesley Bradshaw in Philadelphia.
Wesley Bradshaw didn't exist, either. That was a pseudonym used by Charles W. (for Wesley) Alexander, the publisher of "Washington's Vision". John Adcock at Yesterday's Papers says that Alexander, using his "Wesley Bradshaw" identity, had already contributed to a series of illustrated pamphlets that
purported to be true stories of murderers and female fiends, full of torture, murder and melerdrama, usually beginning on page 19, so a 64 page work was not all it was advertised to be.(Note that Washington's Vision gets rolling on page 11.) Thus, if we believe the story Alexander tells in "Washington's Vision," he heard of an angelic prophecy crucial to the nation, and chose to publish it under the same pseudonym he used for exploitative potboilers.
In fact, a big part of Alexander's work was responding to recent public events with patriotic thrillers and legends. During and after the Civil War he wrote and published several novels such as Pauline of the Potomac; Or, General McClellan's Spy; its sequel Maud of the Mississippi, General Grant's Daring Spy; and the immortal The Angel of the Battlefield: A Tale of the Rebellion. In 1876, just in time for the Centennial celebration, Alexander came out with The History and Legends of the Old Liberty Bell in Independence Hall in Philadelphia. "Washington's Vision" is part of that fictional output, not a historic link to Valley Forge.
Nonetheless, "Washington's Vision" has been reprinted many times since 1861, including in the Grand Army of the Republic's newspaper, the National Tribune, in 1880, and its successor Stars and Stripes in 1950. And now it's on the internet, so it will never die.
[Thanks to M. T. Anderson and Nicole for the Susy Smith reference, and for getting me interested in this remarkable publication.]