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Park ranger takes a new look at Valley Forge winter | (KRT) It was winter, 1777. Food was sometimes in short supply and there wasn't enough clothing to go around when George Washington led his army into Valley Forge.

Several thousand troops died of diseases.

But once the 10,000 soldiers who arrived at Valley Forge on Dec. 19 built log cabins, life was fairly comfortable - perhaps more so than modern Americans have been given to understand - inside the sturdy wood-and-clay structures.

That is the conclusion park ranger Marc Brier reached after he and several volunteers spent from Jan. 27 to Feb. 1 in a replica of a Revolutionary soldiers' cabin monitoring the temperature to see what it was like after several days of heating.

By Sunday afternoon, with the thermometer reading 31 degrees outside, the temperature in the cabin had reached 64 degrees by the wall near the fireplace, about 70 degrees right in front of the fire, and about 47 degrees at the far end, by the door.

The week's observations, during weather that was colder than most of the 1777 winter, "backs up what we suspected," Brier said. "The cabins worked ... They (the soldiers) had a decent house to live in - a home for the winter, a good place to come back to" after spending the day outside.

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Of course, "home" was a cramped, dark, 14-by-16-foot space with 12 men squeezed into it.

Brier is seeking to add to what he said was already considerable evidence countering the popular notion - one he said was started by local amateur historians in the 1850s - that Washington's army was a bedraggled crew clinging to survival that winter of 1777, on the verge of freezing and starving.

Yes, Brier says, the soldiers suffered hardships - privation was their constant companion - but the men who arrived at Valley Forge did not "just stay in their huts and wait until spring."

"We have this image of the soldiers, a few guys huddled around a campfire in the snow, instead of a professional army that was able to come in here, build 2,000 log cabins, and dig miles of trenches," Brier said. "They even built a bridge across the Schuylkill in January.

"If they were hurting so bad, how did they do these things?"

Brier said he was not seeking to diminish the sacrifices made by the men of the Continental Army. Rather, he said, he wants to give the soldiers more credit than history has accorded them.

In his view, the soldiers "were organized. They knew what they were doing. They used the technology of the day. And they made themselves comfortable enough to take care of the rest of their duties."

He has read some of the men's diaries, and says they back him up.

"In most of these diaries, the people that lived in the cabins say they were tolerably comfortable," Brier said.

One officer, for instance, wrote that one wall of the cabin he shared with other men was lined with books from the library in Philadelphia. The other wall was lined with cheese his mother had sent.

The officer concluded that "with this, we declared it quite an elegant mansion."

But were the soldiers warm? Brier set out to prove that they were, as scientifically as he could.

Brier, a ranger at Valley Forge for 18 years, came up with the plan of doing a warmth test with a friend, Troy Shirley, a former ranger.

Rangers had lit fires in the cabins for a day in the past, but never for a week. The theory was that it would be much warmer after a week of constant fire, conditions such as those Washington's soldiers would have experienced.

On the Tuesday night after the project began, it snowed. The next day, Brier was barely able to reach the cabin on snow-covered park roads.

But the crew of rangers and volunteers kept the fire going. By the following afternoon, Brier was pleased. The secret, he said, was in the construction of the cabins. The fire was built about two feet into the room, behind a semicircle of hearthstones, with the chimney back in the wall. That way, the smoke went up the chimney, but the heat from the coals radiated out into the room.

Temperature sensors lined the walls. Brier said one log registered 23 degrees before the fire was started. Two days later, it was 44; by Sunday it was 50 degrees. Brier dug the heel of his boot into the cabin's dirt floor, and nodded, pleased. The ground had begun to thaw.

Eventually the dirt had turned to mud, then dried out, but had not frozen again.

The crew recorded the temperatures in various bunks lining the walls, four stacks of three bunks each. At 8 a.m. Thursday, the top bunk closest to the fire registered a relatively cozy 45.6 degrees. Probably a sergeant slept here, Brier theorized.

The bunk farthest from the fire - and closest to the door - was a decidedly chilly 30-degree home for a rank-and-file soldier.

But Brier also said he wanted to emphasize that the soldiers were much more accustomed to the swings and extremes of outdoor temperatures than most people are today, so it would be difficult to judge the comfort levels of 1777 patriots by 2004 standards.

Even so, many of the visitors who heard Brier's account of Valley Forge hut life remained impressed by the harsh conditions the soldiers must have endured.

"I still think it was very tough," said Devon, Pa., resident Jeff Ogren. "Finding food and firewood, standing guard in the cold - it was brutal."

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© 2004, The Philadelphia Inquirer Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services