The winter at Valley Forge in 1777 was a brutal experience for General George Washington and his Continental army. The soldiers endured not only the bitter cold but also disease and hunger. Many deserted and by the following March more than 2,500 had died. By this point, the Continental army had already suffered several significant defeats. The British army was encamped 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 attack.
General Washington used that time at Valley Forge to plan his military strategies, get his troops back in order, trained and ready for any impending enemy encounters and, of course, to pray. The American forces up until then had fought fiercely and bravely to gain independence from corrupt British rule. They now felt very much alone and increasingly desperate. It is said that at one point General Washington knelt in the snow before his weary, starving, pitiful army and, with tears streaming down his cheeks, prayed to God for blessings upon his dedicated and suffering men.
Recorded in the Library of Congress, and first published in 1861 (we find it again in the National Tribute, Washington, D. C., December 1880) is the eyewitness account by colleague, Anthony Sherman, of Washington’s vision of a “Beautiful Lady”. We leave this account for our readers to discern.
I want to tell you about an incident in Washington’s life. From the opening of the American Revolution we experienced all phases of fortune, now good, now ill, one time victorious and another time conquered. The darkest period we 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 tears course down our dear commander’s careworn cheeks as he would be conversing with confidential officers about the condition of his poor soldiers. You have doubtless heard the story of Washington going to the thicket to pray. It was not only true, but he often used to pray in secret for aid and comfort from God, the interposition of whose Divine Providence brought us safely through the darkest days of tribulation.
One day – I remember it well – the chilly wind whistled through the leafless trees, though the sky was cloudless, and the sun shone brightly. He remained in his quarters nearly all afternoon, alone. 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 dark, he dispatched an orderly to the quarters of another officer, who was presently in attendance.
After a preliminary conversation of about half an hour, Washington, gazing upon us with that strange look of dignity, which he alone could command, said,
“I do not know whether it is owing to the anxiety of my mind, but this afternoon, as I was sitting at this table engaged in preparing a dispatch, something dis- turbed me. Looking up, I saw, standing opposite me, a singularly beautiful female. 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 purpose of her presence. A second, third, even a fourth time did I repeat my question but received no answer from my mysterious visitor – except a slight raising of her eyes. By this time, I felt strange sensa- tions spreading through me. I would have risen, but the riveted gaze of the being before me rendered voli- tion impossible. I essayed once more to address her, but my tongue had become useless. Even thought itself had become paralyzed. A new influence, mysterious, potent, irresistible, took possession of me. All I could do was to gaze steadily at my unknown visitor. Gradually, the surrounding atmosphere filled with sensation and grew luminous. Everything about me seemed to rarify, the myste- rious visitor, herself, becoming more airy and yet more distinct to my sight than before. I now began to feel as one dying, or rather to experience the sensation which I have sometimes imagined accom- panies dissolution. I did not think, I did not reason, I did not move. All, alike, were impossible. I was conscious only of gazing fixedly at my companion. Presently, I heard a voice say: ‘Son of the Republic, look and learn!’
“At the same time, my visitor extended her arm eastward. I looked and beheld a heavy white vapor ris- ing at some distance, fold upon fold. This gradually dissipated, and I watched before me lay spread out in one vast plain all the countries of the world: Europe, Asia, Africa, and America, the billows of the Atlantic Ocean, and between America and Asia lay the Pacific. ‘Son of the Republic, look and learn.’
“At that moment I beheld a dark shadowy being, standing, or rather floating, in mid-air between Europe and America. Dipping water out of the ocean with his right hand, he cast it upon America, while that in his left hand went upon the European countries. Immediately, a cloud arose from these countries and joined in mid-ocean. For a while it remained stationary, and then it moved slowly westward until it enveloped America in its folds. Sharp flashes of lightning gleamed through at intervals, and I heard the smothered groans of the American people. A second time the angel dipped water from the ocean and sprinkled it as before. The dark cloud was then drawn back to the ocean in whose heaving bellows it sank from view. A third time I heard the mysterious voice say: ‘Son of the Republic, look and learn.’
“I cast my eyes upon America and beheld villages, towns, and cities springing up, one after another, until the whole land from the Atlantic to the Pacific was dotted with them. Again, I heard the voice say: ‘Son of the Republic, the end of the century comes. Look and learn.’
“And with this, the dark, shadowy angel turned its face southward, and from Africa an ill-omened specter approached our land. It flitted slowly over every town and city of the land. The inhabitants presently set themselves in battle array against each other. As I continued to look, I saw the bright angel – on whose brow rested a crown of light, on which was traced the word UNION, place an American flag between the divided nations and say, ‘Remember, ye are brethren.’
“Instantly, the inhabitants, casting from them weapons, became friends once more and united around the National Standard. Again, I heard the voice of my most beautiful and mysterious visitor say: ‘Son of the Republic, look and learn.’
“At this, the dark, shadowy angel placed a trumpet to his mouth and blew three distinct blasts. Taking water from the ocean, he sprinkled it upon Europe, Asia, and Africa. Then my eyes beheld a fearful scene. From each of these countries arose dark black clouds that were soon joined into one. Throughout this mass there gleamed a bright red light by 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 saw these vast armies devastate the whole country and burn the villages, towns, and cities that I saw springing up. As my ears listened to the thundering of the cannon, the clashing of the swords, and the shouts and cries of millions in mortal combat, I again heard the mysterious voice say: ‘Son of the Republic, look and learn.’
“As the voice ceased, the bright 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. Once more, I beheld villages, towns, and cities springing up where I had seen them before – while the bright angel, planting the azure standard he had brought in the middle of them, cried in 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 her angelic brow the crown on which was blazoned the word UNION, she placed it upon the National Standard while people, kneeling down, said ‘Amen’. The scene instantly began to fade away, and I saw nothing but the rising, curling vapor I had first beheld. This also disappeared, and I found myself once more gazing upon the mysterious beautiful visitor, who said: ‘Son of the Republic, what you have seen is thus: three great perils will come upon the Republic. The most fearful is the third, but the whole world united shall not prevail upon her. Let every child of the Republic learn to live for God, His land, and the Union.’
“With those words the vision vanished, and I started from my seat and felt that I had seen a vision wherein had been shown to me the birth, progress and destiny of the United States. In union she will have her strength, in disunion her destruction.”
Such, my friend, were the very words I heard from Washington’s own lips. America will do well to profit by them.
Were these visions of Our Lady? Was it her revealing to George Washington her love and intercession for America at different stages in the nation’s development and history?
It is important to realise that from the very foundation of our country, Our Lady has had a great love for America and its people and has been leading them. The first bishop of the original thirteen colonies and close friend of General Washington, Bishop John Carroll, consecrated the United States of America to the Immaculate Conception in 1792. Recently, this consecration was renewed by all the bishops of the United States on May 1, 2020.
May we have at heart the role we each need to play in asking Our Lady’s intercession for America. Through our own personal consecration to her, and in reparation for the sins of America, may she lead us to holiness. The Book of Genesis 3:15, speaks of Our Lady who will “crush the serpent’s head”. At Fatima, Our Lady promised that “at the end My Immaculate Heart will triumph”. May we always live up to her desires for us, as Patroness of our land.