Episode 057

Winter is Coming – Washington in Morristown, NJ

Washington prepares for his second stay in Morristown, NJ, which will turn out to be a far worse winter than one he would endure at Valley Forge. During his stay, his army is also on the verge of mutiny due to lack of food and supplies.

At the end of our episode last week, Savannah had fallen to the British in October of 1779, which put them in a prime position to advance onto Charleston. However, they would not make that march until May of 1780.

In the North, George Washington and his army are still positioned around New York but with Winter fast approaching he decides to settle back into camp at Morristown NJ. This will be the second time that Washington winters at Morristown, if you’ll recall from past episodes, following the victories at the Battles of Trenton in December 1776 and Princeton in January 1777, Washington led his troops to nearby Morristown. The forces remained in Morristown for the duration of winter until spring arrived, starting in January until May 1777.

Now if I were to ask, what was the worst winter that Washington and his men encountered? Most people would say Valley Forge, but in fact the second stay at Morristown contained far worse weather conditions than Valley Forge…

So why do we remember Valley Forge and not Morristown? The answer, in a nutshell, is that Valley Forge better fits the triumphal story of the Revolution passed down from generation to generation, while Morristown is viewed as an embarrassment. At Valley Forge, the story goes, soldiers suffered quietly and patiently. They remained true to their leader. At Morristown, on the other hand, they threatened to mutiny due to lack of food and supplies.

Despite the bitter cold, which Washington couldn’t have predicted…Morristown made strategic sense for a number of reasons. It was between Philadelphia and New York, aside from the surrounding forest land that made lumber an important industry, Morristown was a market center for local farmers and iron miners, which meant it was home to several skilled tradesmen, local industries that produced weapons and supplies, and it had a community able to provide enough food to a war-weary army. Also the Watchung Mountains and the Great Swamp stand between New York and Morristown and acted as a natural defensive work.

As a result, Morristown could not be taken by a surprise attack. The various roads passing through Morristown allowed the army to move in any direction to counter the movements of the British. Because of its roads and safe location, Morristown served as a military supply depot for much of the war.

Two years later, Washington returned with his troops. Between December 1779 and June 1780 Washington installed a second encampment in a 1500-acre section of forestland known as Jockey Hollow. The town was comprised of a church, courthouse, cemetery, two or three shops, a tavern, and about fifty houses.

The winter was bitter and exceedingly harsh, “intensely cold and freezing,” in Washington’s words. He was accompanied by his wife Martha and her children, John Parke Custis and Martha Parke Custis. They were all given shelter in the Ford Mansion owned by Colonel Jacob Ford, Jr. and his wife, Theodosia. The Georgian style mansion, built in 1774, became Washington’s headquarters; today it is a national historical park. The three-story mansion with shutters and dormer windows would have been luxurious to the Washingtons after their journey on the war trail. In his free time at the headquarters, Washington kept a daily weather journal chronicling that season’s severe climate.

While Washington stayed in relative comfort at the Ford Mansion, he soldiers were told to make camp in the woods. Soldiers were ordered to build log huts rather than billet in the comforts of town. As supplies of food and firewood dwindled, one soldier, Joseph Plumb Martin, wrote that his comrades were “so enfeebled from hunger and cold, as to be almost unable to perform their military duty or labor in constructing their huts.”

Private Martin continuted: “We are absolutely, literally starved. I do solemnly declare that I did not put a single morsel of victuals into my mouth for four days and as many nights, except for a little black birch bark which I gnawed off a stick of wood. I saw men roast their old shoes and eat them.” His uniform was “what laughingly could be called a uniform, and possessed a blanket thin enough to have straws shoot through it without discommoding the threads.”

General Johann de Kalb, a German soldier who served as a major general in the Continental Army, wrote that it was “so cold that the ink freezes on my pen, while I am sitting close to the fire. The roads are piled with snow until, at some places they are elevated twelve feet above their ordinary level.” and he also says: “Those who have only been in Valley Forge and Middlebrook during the last two winters, but have not tasted the cruelties of this one, know not what it is to suffer,”

Washington remained busy during the encampment trying to meet the needs of his large group, despite the lack of military action. The experience was tumultuous from the beginning, with the ongoing threat of mutiny beginning in December 1779. On December 16, Washington described the situation as “alarming” in a circular letter to the states, adding that he and his men had “never experienced a like extremity at any period of the War.” They were “intirely destitute of money,” and he feared that “the Army will infallibly disband in a fortnight.” By late April 1780, the circumstances remained dire. General Nathanael Greene observed that “A Country, once overflowing with plenty, are now suffering an Army employed for the defense of every thing that is dear and valuable, to perish for want of food.”

Washington himself complained to Greene, about the lack of space for his slaves at Ford Mansion. There was no “place at this moment in which a servant can lodge, with the smallest degree of comfort. Eighteen belonging to my family, & all Mrs [Jacob] Fords are crouded together in her Kitchen, & hardly one of them able to speak for the colds they have caught.”Washington then took the situation into his own hands, building several new rooms upstairs and a nearby log cabin to accommodate the Fords and his staff.

But if supplies could be moved in and out of Morristown relatively quickly, due to it’s road network… why then, were soldiers wanting for food and uniforms? This is where the weather comes into play…

On January 3, the encampment was engulfed by “one of the most tremendous snowstorms ever remembered,” army surgeon James Thacher wrote in his journal. “No man could endure its violence many minutes without danger of his life.” When tents blew off, soldiers were “buried like sheep under the snow…almost smothered in the storm.” The weather made it impossible to get supplies to the men, many of whom had no coats, shirts or shoes and were on the verge of starvation. “For a Fortnight past the Troops both Officers and Men, have been almost perishing for want,” George Washington wrote in a letter to civilian officials dated January 8.

The prospect of mass desertions worried General Nathanael Greene. “Here we are surrounded with Snow banks, and it is well we are, for if it was good for traveling, I believe the Soldiers would take up their pack and march,” he reported on January 5. The following day, Greene’s fears were almost realized. “The Army is upon the eve of disbanding for want of Provisions,” he wrote. Although the army did not break up as Greene feared, men deserted almost daily, about at the same rate as they had been leaving throughout the war, including the winter spent at Valley Forge. The rest toughed it out, and most of those survived.

Ironically, the largest threat to the continued existence of the Continental Army came in the spring, with the passing of harsh weather. Then, soldiers hoped for better fare at their mess, and they did get some food—but not with the regularity they would have preferred. The army’s supply line continued to experience periodic lapses. When nature was to blame, soldiers found the inner strength to endure, but when human error was the cause of their discontent, they were less tolerant. So when little meat turned to no meat in the middle of May, many felt it was time to force the issue.

“The men were now exasperated beyond endurance; they could not stand it any longer,” Private Martin recalled. “They saw no alternative but to starve to death, or break up the army, give all up and go home. This was a hard matter for the soldiers to think upon. They were truly patriotic, they loved their country, and they had already suffered everything short of death in its cause; and now, after such extreme hardships to give up all was too much, but to starve to death was too much also. What was to be done?”

Finally, on May 25, Martin and his fellow soldiers in the Connecticut line snapped. It was a “pleasant day,” Martin recalled, but as the troops paraded, they started “growling like soreheaded dogs.” That evening they disregarded their officers and acted “contrary to their orders.” When an officer called one of the soldiers “a mutinous rascal,” the rebel defiantly pounded the ground with his musket and called out, “Who will parade with me?” Martin reported the response: “The whole regiment immediately fell in and formed” with the dissenter. Then another regiment joined in, and they both started marching to the beat of the drums—without orders. Officers who stepped in to quell the incipient mutiny found bayonets pointed at their chests. Meanwhile, the defiant troops continued parading and “venting our spleen at our country and government, then at our officers, and then at ourselves for our imbecility in staying there and starving in detail for an ungrateful people who did not care what became of us.”

Two days after the men had so dramatically registered their complaints, a shipment of pork and 30 head of cattle arrived in camp.

The winter of 1779-80 in Morristown also included several important events among Washington’s men. His secretary, Alexander Hamilton, met and fell in love with Elizabeth Schuyler, the daughter of a general. They married a year later on December 14, 1780. Prior to his later treason and betrayal of the Continental Army, Benedict Arnold was court-martialed in Morristown on December 23, 1779. Arnold was accused of using his role as an officer for his own financial benefit. He was found guilty of two minor charges and let off with a slap on the wrist. Lastly, on May 10, 1780, the Marquis de Lafayette arrived in Morristown at Washington’s Headquarters with news that the French would be sending an expeditionary force of about 6,000 men lead by the Count de Rochambeau. Lafayette later recounted that upon his reunion with Washington, the general’s “eyes filled with tears of joy . . . a certain proof of a truly paternal love.”

In a letter dated March 17, 1780 to the Marquis de Lafayette, George Washington wrote “… the oldest people now living in the country do not remember so hard a winter as the one we are now emerging from. In a word the severity of the frost exceeded anything of the kind that had ever been experienced in this climate before.” Conditions, in fact, were much worse that Morristown winter than the better known Valley Forge encampment of 1777-78 in which nearly 3,000 soldier perished. Only 100 to 300 soliders died in Morristown, however, a survival rate credited to vaccinations against small pox, barracks that protected from the damp and cold, and soldiers more experienced than three years before.

When the Jockey Hollow encampment made Morristown one of the ten largest cities in the Colonies by the spring of 1780, it was only the apex of the tiny village’s eight year involvement in the conflict. By late 1779, the consistent military presence for munitions and supplies, constant procession of refugees, and a litany of Loyalist trials, jailings, and hangings gave the Patriot stronghold a war-weary atmosphere we might liken to modern day Bosnia. In fact, the army had wintered there three years before in 1777 following Washington’s Christmas Delaware crossing and victories at Trenton and Princeton. Although far fewer troops accompanied the General the first time, the impact on the citizenry was catastrophic as nearly one quarter of the population died from small pox or dysentery. Washington, headquarterd at Arnold’s Tavern on the town green, billeted three or four men in every house so that it would appear that troop presence was many times more than the few thousand actually there. Needless to say, the attitude was different the second time around, and citizens had by then acquired a lawful right to refuse quartering. A testament to the success of 1779-80 was that,this time, only twenty-five citizens perished from disease, although when it was over, the state of New Jersey read numerous petitions for grievances from Morristownians trespassed against.

After the last Patriot soldier left Morristown in 1782, it was almost one-hundred years until four men rescued the Ford Mansion from a dubious fate at auction. The decision to pool their funds and secure the building and grounds was the genesis of the Washington Association which became the principal caretaker of the property, only the third historic home to be preserved in the United States. Over the next fifty years the Association assembled a remarkable collection of period artifacts, books and manuscripts. To this day the Association plays a critical role in the care and access to one of our national shrines.

It’s only in modern times that we celebrate what the men endured at Valley Forge and Morristown. Noone celebrated either during the Revolution itself. The sorry plight of the poor men and teenage boys who comprised the Continental Army was a guarded secret, kept from the British, who must not know their vulnerability, and from the French, who might deny aid to a weak ally. Further, the failure of civilian governments to supply troops was just that—a failure, not to be publicized.

Throughout the war, American soldiers did not suffer in silence, as the Valley Forge myth suggests. They kept themselves fed and alive however they could, even when that meant speaking out. By remembering Morristown, we acknowledge the can-do, rambunctious spirit that characterized Revolutionary soldiers and helped them carry on. This to me is a better picture. The men were rebels, rebelling against nothing less than an empire…of course they are going to speak their minds.


Also published on Medium.

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