Here's what many people know about Valley Forge: It must have been a lousy place to have spent a 1770s winter, what with all the half-starved soldiers standing barefoot in the snow, but today it's a great place to jog or ride your bike.

That's no big surprise.

Compared with their knowledge of World War II or the Vietnam War, Americans tend to be embarrassingly under-schooled on the Revolution. Today, though, that historical illiteracy holds potentially transformative repercussions for Valley Forge National Historical Park.

A group called the American Revolution Center (ARC) ignited a tempest with a plan to construct a museum complex on private land it owns inside the park.

ARC executives say society's Revolutionary ignorance shows the need for exactly what they intend to build - a first-class museum that will tell the complete and compelling story of the Revolution.

"The history has gotten obscured," said Thomas Daly, ARC's president and chief executive officer. The museum will change that by "telling the stories of the people," rich and poor, young and old, black and white.

The project's opponents do not doubt the need for tutoring. They favor building a museum - but not at the planned site, on ground they say is hallowed.

Because ARC intends to tell the full story, beyond the events of Valley Forge, the complex could be built anywhere from Massachusetts to Virginia, opponents say.

One of those opponents, Cinda Waldbuesser of the National Parks Conservation Association, said a multitude of localities could host the museum, but construction at the park site would scar a national treasure.

"There's only one Valley Forge. It can't move," she said.

Daly said it is crucial to set the complex at the place of the Continental Army's 1777-78 winter encampment. "Valley Forge is a microcosm of the American Revolution, in social, political, economic and military terms," he said. "It's really where the nation came together."

It is hard to overstate the historical importance of Valley Forge, the place where a rundown, ill-equipped army regrouped, then set out to defeat the British.

Armies of that era typically withdrew to camps in winter, the harsh weather limiting their ability to wage war. Gen. George Washington settled his troops 20 miles northwest of Philadelphia, near enough to keep an eye on the British, who had captured the city, but far enough away to forestall an attack.

Though Valley Forge has long depicted as the darkest hour of the Revolution, when barefoot soldiers left bloody footprints in the snow, the National Park Service has in recent years developed a more nuanced interpretation. The service now sees the original story of the encampment as romanticized. Yes, soldiers died at Valley Forge, but the main killer was disease. Definitely, the troops endured cold, lack of food, and poor clothing, but that hardship is more accurately described as "suffering as usual," they say.

ARC has received preliminary approval from Lower Providence Township officials to build a three-story museum, a four-story conference center, and a trailhead structure on the north side of the Schuylkill. The National Parks Conservation Association and five homeowners have filed a zoning appeal to try to prevent construction. Hearings are scheduled this month on a project that could change the future of the park.

Whether that future would be better or worse depends on where you stand, but there's little debate over the need for an improved understanding of Valley Forge in particular and the Revolution in general.

Why is that? Is it solely the passage of time, 200 years and counting? Is it the odd costumes? The funny wigs? Is it because the battles weren't especially bloody, not on the scale of what came later at Gettysburg, the Normandy invasion, or the advance on Seoul?

Paul Bushnell, a scholar at Illinois Wesleyan University, blames "Founding Father Syndrome" - an excessive reverence that has made the founders seem more like gods than men. Some paintings of Washington showed him surrounded by angels. The founders come to us chiseled in marble, their manner resolute and their victory assured.

In fact, independence was anything but certain, Bushnell said.

And, like others, those men "worried about sick children, smallpox, dysentery, and prices for tea, sugar, flour and rum."

Of course, it's not that the Revolutionary War is unknown. Experts devote decades to understanding its causes. New books appear all the time. Valley Forge draws a million visitors a year, while cities such as Philadelphia have built huge tourist industries on the Revolution. The recent HBO miniseries on John Adams drew raves.

Even the controversies over Thomas Jefferson's relationship with his slave Sally Hemings, and over Washington's ownership of slaves at the President's House, have helped, making people see the founders in new, less hagiographic light.

"There has been a sense that we're getting closer to them," said Randall Miller, a history teacher at St. Joseph's University who teaches a course on the Revolution and another on the Civil War. "They still talk a little funny, and they dress differently. . . . They lack modernity in many ways, though that's paradoxical, because they created the modern world."

What's especially frustrating, some historians say, is there was a moment 32 years ago, during the Bicentennial, when typical Americans dug into the Revolution.

"Not so today," said Robert Bray, another Illinois Wesleyan scholar, who paired with Bushnell to write and edit Diary of a Common Soldier in the American Revolution, 1775-1783: An Annotated Edition of the Military Journal of Jeremiah Greenman.

One problem, said Wes Cowan of Cowan's Auctions in Cincinnati, is that the war produced a relatively small amount of source material. That has hurt its ability to permeate through time and into modern consciousness.

Participants in the Civil War wrote troves of diaries, letters and journals. Not so in the Revolution, when many soldiers were illiterate. Also, photography wasn't around in the 1770s.

But by the time of the Civil War, photographers such as Mathew Brady could use their art to depict the horrific reality of the dead. Those images seared the public imagination and resonate today.

"It's not nearly as accessible," said Cowan, star of PBS's History Detectives. "We're talking about a period in the distant past of which no living person has a single memory."

ARC executives say their museum will use artifacts, manuscripts and lectures to tell the entire complicated story.

"The American Revolution is still in progress," Daly said. "If you accept that it's still in progress, we really need a lot more people to understand how it came to be. . . . As our friend David McCullough says, 'Who were those costumed figures?' "