Although the 1777–78 winter encampment at Valley Forge, Pa., is firmly fixed in Americans’ collective memory, the situation at Morristown two years later was far bleaker. The Army’s inexperience with winter encampments, hut construction and sanitation certainly resulted in a higher death toll at Valley Forge (1,859 men vs. 86 at Morristown), the nadir of winter soldiering for many. But extreme cold, snow and a dire lack of provisions at Morristown brought many Patriot troops to the limits of human endurance.
General George Washington was deliberate in his selection of Morristown as a site for his winter headquarters. With the British occupying Manhattan, the American commander needed an encampment safe from enemy probes but within striking distance of the city, 15 miles to the east. Between the opposing forces stood the Watchung Mountains, a 40-mile chain of ridges with easily defensible passes, while west of the Watchungs was a network of roads that connected New England and the Mid-Atlantic, providing avenues for men and materiel in what had become a protracted fight.
The winter of 1779–80 was the coldest on record in the 18th century. “Twenty-eight separate snowstorms [hit] Morristown from November 1779 to April 1780,” writes author John T. Cunningham. “[It] was the only time in history that the Hudson River froze so solidly that sleighs could be driven between Paulus Hook (Jersey City) and New York.” Most officers at Morristown lodged in private homes, but the enlisted men had to endure canvas tents until they could build log huts. Straw bedding provided little insulation from the snow. Only a lucky few had blankets.
Desperation soon gripped the camp. Shoeless soldiers wandered the countryside, feet covered in rags, leaving bloody trails in the snow as they searched for food and supplies. At first citizens were glad enough to help, but plundering increased, with men, writes Cunningham, “making their visits in the dark of night to escort a few hens or a lonely cow back to camp.” Quartermaster General Nathanael Greene correctly predicted of the dearth of provisions, “Surrounding inhabitants will experience the first melancholy effects of such a raging evil.”
Private Joseph Plumb Martin of Connecticut lamented: “ 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 a little black birch bark which I gnawed off a stick of wood.…I saw several men roast their old shoes and eat them, [and] some of the officers killed and ate a favorite little dog that belonged to one of them.”
Washington, the ever-vigilant commander in chief, foresaw the pending disaster. “Our magazines are absolutely empty everywhere, and our commissaries entirely destitute of money or credit to replenish them.…Unless some extraordinary and immediate exertions are made by the states from which we draw our supplies, there is every appearance that the Army will infallibly disband in a fortnight.”
The snowdrifts continued to mount, making resupply ever more perilous. Army surgeon Dr. James Thacher recalled a particularly bad storm on Jan. 3, 1780: “No man could endure its violence many minutes without danger of his life.…The snow is now from 4 to 6 feet deep, which so obstructs the roads as to prevent our receiving a supply of provisions. For the last 10 days we have received but 2 pounds of meat a man, and we are frequently for six or eight days entirely destitute of meat, and then as long without bread. The consequence is, the soldiers are so enfeebled from hunger and cold as to be almost unable to perform their military duty or labor in constructing their huts.”
What was it that held men together through such hard times? Perhaps Martin summed it up best: “I know how I felt at the time, and I know how I feel at the recollection of it; but there was no remedy. We must go through it, and we did go through it.” Thacher had a similar observation: “It may seem extraordinary that those who have experienced such accumulated distress and privations should voluntarily engage in the same service.…There is to be found, however, in the bosom of our soldiers the purest principles of patriotism—they glory in the noble cause of their country.”
Today Morristown National Historical Park [www.nps.gov/morr] recalls that harsh winter of revolution. Morristown proper holds the Washington Headquarters unit, where rangers lead tours of the 1774 Ford Mansion. Adjacent is the park museum, presenting exhibits and a film. Several miles south of town off Western Avenue is the Jockey Hollow unit, which holds the park visitor center and replica soldiers’ huts at the Pennsylvania brigade encampment site. The Patriots’ Path hiking trail meanders south to the New Jersey Brigade encampment site, where stone hearths are all that remain of the original wooden huts.
The image of starving, half-naked, shoeless soldiers clinging to life in these crude huts during one of the coldest winters on record, yet still moving on to fight another day, underscores their almost unimaginable depth of commitment to the Patriot cause.
Originally published in the May 2011 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.