It was impossible to grow up near Philadelphia without learning the lore of Valley Forge, the stories of starving, poorly clothed, disease-plagued men of the Revolutionary War army.

But I don't recall that I ever heard about the women.

Last month, with help from a new book and a tour with its author, I took a fresh look at the venerable Valley Forge National Historical Park, where more than 400 women served, nursed and comforted the men of the Continental Army during the brutal winter encampment of 1777-78.

As we explored the park -- 3,600 acres of rolling meadows and woods dotted with monuments, cannons and replicas of log huts -- we walked in the footsteps of Elizabeth Stephens, whose farm was taken over by thousands of soldiers. We saw where 74-year-old Elizabeth Thompson managed commanding Gen. George Washington's household. We talked about Lucy Knox's extreme loss and great love and imagined how Hannah Till yearned for freedom from slavery as she cooked for Washington's entourage. I stepped into replicas of the spartan log huts -- the originals were warm but smoky -- that housed as many as 14,000 soldiers and, presumably, most of the women.

Washington "never really deals well with the women that are with his army, and yet he needs them," said Nancy Loane, a former Valley Forge seasonal ranger and author of "Following the Drum: Women at the Valley Forge Encampment."

The commander feared that female workers would spy and bring disease, debauchery and desertion, Loane wrote, and they sometimes didn't get food rations and weren't issued clothing. Some were wives, sisters or mothers who had joined soldiers in battle or worked as cooks, laundresses or nurses to survive. Some brought young children. Prostitutes also arrived, growing more numerous with time, a Washington aide complained.

On Dec. 19, 1777, when the soldiers marched into Valley Forge, a strategic site between British-occupied Philadelphia and the temporary capital of York, Pa., the first casualty was a woman -- name unknown -- who was crushed by a wagon.

Most of the women's stories were never recorded, but Loane's book brings some to life.

For instance, there's the love story of Lucy Knox and her husband, Gen. Henry Knox, Washington's artillery wizard, whose domain is now just a bland field with replica cannons. Their story is riveting: Lucy traveled 22 days with their 2-year-old daughter to join him here. She bemoaned the loss of contact with her wealthy parents and siblings, all British loyalists who didn't attend her wedding to Henry, a Boston bookstore owner. Nevertheless, she wrote, "I cheerfully renounced them for one far dearer to me." Only three of their 13 children survived to adulthood.

Or consider the plight of Elizabeth Stephens and her husband, David, who probably lived uncomfortably with two adult sons on the first floor of their 33- by 22-foot stone farmhouse while Gen. James Varnum and six staff members rented the second floor.

We looked from windows of the Stephens house past grazing deer to the grand parade ground where Baron Friedrich Von Steuben drilled the ragtag soldiers into shape, creating what Loane calls "the birthplace of the American Army."

Where Washington lived

On a Sunday, tourists crowded a must-see structure: Washington's cramped headquarters in the stone Isaac Potts house, with offices on the first floor and bedrooms on the second. Servants probably slept in hallways, the attic, basement and kitchen. Martha Washington's sitting room became a bedroom for others at night. Next door is a small bedroom where, one story goes, Gen. Charles Lee brought a "hussy" to spend the night.

Downstairs, Elizabeth Thompson, who supervised many of Washington's 90 or so moves during the war, made sure dinner was served at 3 p.m. each day. And Hannah Till and her husband, Isaac, not only cooked in the adjacent kitchen but apparently slept there, too, and earned enough during the war to buy their freedom.

There's plenty to see in exhibits at the park's Visitor Center and what seems like an out-of-place restored railroad station. There's a short film and both organized and self-guided tours. There's a monument to hundreds of African-American Revolutionary soldiers and, just outside the park, the Washington Memorial Chapel with its beautiful stained glass windows.

But not a lot about women, and they were here.

Not surprising to a few visitors.

Jim and Annamarie Aman, among perhaps 1,000 motorcyclists who visited the park on a POW-MIA run, agreed that "where's there's guys, there's going to be women."

Cait Stadler, a visitor from South Carolina, took a dimmer view of history in general: "You never hear about the women."

Robert Franklin is a retired Star Tribune journalist and University of St. Thomas adjunct faculty member. His grandfather, civil engineer Benjamin Franklin, surveyed the grounds for the park when it was established in 1893.