By Elbert Cox
When Mr. Cox wrote the article which follows he was Superintendent of Morristown National Historical Park, N. J. He was transferred later to the Superintendency of Colonial National Historical Park, Va.
THE long periods of winter encampments have received little consideration in narrative histories of the American Revolution. Emphasis has been given to accounts of maneuvers and battles, with attention to the success or failure of the army and its officers in this phase of operations. Of the long months of forced inactivity in general military operations, only a sketchy story of the personal privations and sufferings of the soldiers has been written.
A thorough examination of contemporary accounts gives to the winter encampment a much greater significance in the complete history of the Revolution. In fact, the task of keeping the Continental Army together during a winter encampment may not have been less difficult than leading them through a summer campaign. Certainly an army has to live through the winter before it can fight in the summer. It may be suggestive of the point to cite a modern situationthe feeling of relief that a clear day brings to Civilian Conservation Corps commanding officers after inclement weather has held the boys idle for a week.
In two separate winters Washington brought the major portion of his army to Morristown, N. J., for cantonment. The first time, in 1777, sheer exhaustion after his surprising successes at Trenton and Morristown forced a halt to his activities. The second time, in 1779-1780, Morristown offered peculiar advantages in location which Washington was quick to see. Safe from attack because of the natural barrier furnished by the Watchung Mountains, he still could watch the British Army in New York. The chains of mountains stretching to the north toward West Point and south to Philadelphia also gave assurance that supplies of food, clothing, and military equipment were reasonably secure from attack and that lines of communication to the north and south could be kept open.
The severity of the winters and the hardships of the men at Morristown are fully recorded. Of the extreme cold in 1779 Washington wrote from Morristown on March 18: "The oldest people now living in this country do not remember so hard a winter as the one we are now emerging from." The scarcity of supplies became so acute as to threaten all efforts to keep the army together. The men were led, out of their own distress, to forage for themselves. In consideration of these depredations, Washington wrote to the magistrates of New Jersey that "For a fortnight past the troops, both officers and men, have been almost perishing for want. They have been alternately without bread or meat the whole time."
An account by one of the soldiers after his arrival in camp in 1779 is no less enlightening:
A log hut was a luxury after a few weeks of living under those conditions. Though serious, and keenly appreciated by Washington, the privations of the men were only one of many problems. There was ever the need for recruiting, outfitting, and drilling new enlistments to take the place of those whose terms were up or who left of their own accord. Washington's appraisal of this problem is given in his letter of January 22, 1777, to the President of Congress.
The business of running an army was no small undertaking even for the few thousand men that Washington had. The recruiting of additional regiments must be accompanied by the appointment of new officers, and the Continental Congress proved often to be more whimsical than wise in its actions. Washington wrote letter after letter patiently explaining why one candidate should not be advanced over another. Deserved recognition for his experienced officers gave him much concern as witness his letter of March 6, 1777, to Richard Henry Lee, inquiring into the cause for the nonpromotion of Benedict Arnold.
He recommended a "plan ... for the arrangement and future Regulation of the General Hospital" and finally won its approval by the Continental Congress. Smallpox became so prevalent during the winter of 1777 that inoculation was a necessity. Attention had to be given also to the problem of suitable clothing, arms, and ammunition for the troops. After much pleading by the Commander in Chief, the Continental Congress resolved to establish "Magazines, Laboratories and Foundries" in the State of Pennsylvania and in New England.
With all these details to manage, Washington still kept keen watch upon the British to anticipate their projected movements in the coming summer (he had guessed the general plan of their campaign for the summer of 1777 as early as February of that year). He lost no opportunity to harass and annoy them upon all occasions by removing out of their reach "all the horses, waggons and fat cattle" as the best mode "of distressing the Enemy and rendering their Situation still more disagreeable." Of similar intent was the plan to have Lord Stirling attack Staten Island by crossing on the ice from the Jersey shore.
He complained that more time to "the military parts of my duty" was not possible because of "the infinity of perplexing business," and the "multiplicity of letters and papers I have to read and consider ..." These ranged from an order respecting the "Colour of Horses"the white or gray ones were too conspicuous for reconnoiteringto letters of petitions for appointments, pensions, or pay.
Yet not every hour of the day was given to stern duty. Numerous balls were held at which the officers and their wives or sweethearts were in attendance. Washington and his Lady were frequently among the participants. A lighter side of the General's nature is revealed by Mrs. Martha Daingerfield Bland, wife of Colonel Theoderick Bland of Virginia, in a letter to his sister-in-law, Frances Bland Randolph, describing her visit in Morristown.
It is to be assumed that diversions could be found also by the men in the line. In reality their personal letters suggest that human nature, even of the soldier, has not changed from that day to this. Two examples, one to illustrate the "seamy" side, and another the comic, may be taken as typical. First, there is the case of the one who had been impressed into duty as regimental clothier. He described his predicament in a letter to his brother:
But to prove the eternal buoyancy of the human soul consider this soldier's account of how he spent his time:
The story of the winter encampment in the Revolution is the theme for the development of Morristown National Historical Park, a unit of the system of national parks, monuments, and historic sites which are preserved and maintained for the American people by the National Park Service of the United States Department of the Interior. The three separate areas which comprise the park contain historic objects and remains connected with each encampment. The preservation and restoration of historic buildings, the construction of sample log huts, and the use of modern museum methods are combined to supplement existing information and to stimulate the imagination of the visitor. Washington's Headquarters, reconstructed Fort Nonsense, and the many features in Jockey Hollow form a link with the past by which he can obtain a better understanding and appreciation for the story of the American Revolution.
*Reprinted from The Regional Review (National Park Service, Region One, Richmond, Va.), Vol. I, No. 2, August 1938, pp. 3-7.