Volume III - No. 6
By Russell Baker,
This imaginary conservation between two Continental soldiers encamped in Jockey Hollow, near Morristown, New Jersey, was probably typical of hundreds of others which took place during the memorable Christmas season of 1779. Both from a military and political standpoint, the winter was an extremely critical period. Soldiers were compelled to live on half and sometimes quarter rations, which made it impossible for Washington to prevent pillaging and marauding. An attempt on his part to prevent ruthless stealing of supplies from the farmers in the vicinity caused a complete famine in camp, making it necessary to order regular foraging and marauding expeditions which went from house to house and took everything not absolutely essential to the inhabitants.2
Christmas of 1779 found the ragged, half-starved men of the Continental Army busily engaged in building crude log huts, which were to be their homes until the opening of the next year's campaign. Just before Christmas there began the extreme cold which was to characterize the winter of 1779-80, the worst of the century. Some of the men were under cover by Christmas, but others still were in the open two weeks later when a sudden blizzard brought a five-foot snow blanket to most of New Jersey, and froze the Hudson and other rivers solid.
Most of the officers were even worse off then the ordinary privates, yet had to wait until all the men were under cover before beginning construction of their own quarters. Quartermaster General Greene attempted to obtain quarters for the officers in private homes, but found that the people offered determined resistance to the idea. Greene appealed to the civil magistrates for help, but their sympathies were with the populace. Greene, exhausted in his patience in providing what he deemed absolute necessities for the officers, finally appealed to Washington. Washington then threatened to obtain accommodations for his officers by the exercise of martial law, if necessary, but he never carried out his threat.
The following letter, written by Brigadier-General Samuel H. Parsons, Connecticut Line, to General Greene, illustrates the difficulties encountered in housing even general officers:
"Dear Sir: I beg you to order me a large markee and a stove as the last resort I have to cover me; I cannot stay in this Trophet a day longer nor can I find a House without going four miles from camp into which I can put my Head. The Room I now have is not more than Eight feet square for six of us; and the family worse than the Devil; and the Justices threatening you and me if I continue to occupy this Hutt.
"I beg you not to fail to send me the Markee and Stove to Day; or send me somebody to drive away the Evil Spirits who inhabit this House.
Your Obedt Servt
What did the Continental soldier eat for his Christmas dinner? While we have no record of any special food's being rationed for the day, the following general order illustrates the kind of food he must have had -- perhaps only a half or even a quarter of the prescribed ration:
Some of the officers, at least, were able to escape the hard times prevalent about the camp on Christmas Day. A letter written by Lieutenant Erkuries Beatty, of Hand's Brigade, illustrates a celebration in splendid style:
Even the Commander-in-Chief, living at the Ford Mansion in Morristown throughout this Christmas season of 1779, could not have been very comfortable. The official family was much crowded even though most of the spacious mansion was placed at its disposal. As late as January 22, 1780, Washington wrote:
Besides the dearth of personal comforts, this Christmas was one of the most disheartening of the entire eight years of the war. Up until November, high hopes had been held that the powerful French fleet under Count D'Estaing, which was operating in the West Indies, could arrive on the coast in time to cooperate with the Continental Army in a siege of New York City. But D'Estaing failed to grasp the opportunity and chose instead to assist General Lincoln in an unsuccessful attack on Savannah, Georgia. Thus, at Christmas time, Washington found it necessary to weaken his own force to give assistance to the defeated Lincoln. Besides this, Washington and his staff became alarmed at the indications of a possible attack by Sir Henry Clinton, the British Commander at New York. Clinton had called in all his outlying detachments and had the entire army concentrated on Manhattan Island. Preparations were being made to embark a large fleet, which, Washington thought, may have been a feint for an attack on Morristown. Not to be caught unawares in such a situation, Washington gave orders to place all the troops in a position to defend themselves. A system of alarm signals was organized, each brigade being directed to its proper place in the line of battle, and Duportail, chief of the engineers, and General Greene were instructed to prepare a plan for a defense of the position. Such an attack, however, never occurred.
Four days before Christmas, Washington wrote to Governor Livingston of New Jersey concerning his apprehensions in regard to the plans of the British. He wrote that Clinton could not be ignorant of the small number of men left in the Continental Army, the distress of the military magazines, and the want of forage. "The loss of our huts at this inclement season," he pointed out, "would be a most serious calamity. This loss would be accompanied by that of a great part of our baggage, and a number of our men by desertions6."
The general orders on Christmas Day, 1779, make no mention of the festiveness of the occasion, only the prosaic grind of military routine. One order dated December 24, 1779, calls for a court martial on December 25 at 10 o'clock in the morning, for a trial of the non-commissioned officers and privates who were in confinement7. Another announced a small supply of shirts had arrived and would be delivered8. Still another, dated December 25, is in the form of a reprimand for the "shameful waste of forrage" in camp9.
But what must have added most to this disheartening Christmas season, at least to Washington, was the court martial of Benedict Arnold, who was tried for permitting a Tory vessel to enter the port of Philadelphia without acquainting other officials of the fact, and other charges. The trial was held in the old Dickerson Tavern in Morristown and the occasion made it one of the most important gatherings ever held in America up to that time. Arnold was summoned December 1910, and further sessions were held at the same place at 11 o'clock on the morning of December 24, 25 and 2611. Even on Christmas Day the trial continued! As evidence in his favor Arnold placed before the court complimentary letters from the Commander-in-Chief which bore out the fact that he was one of the bravest generals of the army. A sad Christmas, the first of many which Benedict Arnold was to have! But sadder still it must have been to Washington who put implicit faith in Arnold.
So, it may be wondered, could there have been a Christmas at Morristown in 1779? These "times that tried men's souls," as Thomas Paine wrote, were never more in evidence than during that season.
Today, 160 years later, when the ageless Christmas message is said and sung again to the sound of bells and the twinkle of candles, when the firelight burns brightly on the hearths of 1939, Americans still may keep green the story of Morristown's Christmas in 1779. For that story, in the great realities of the present, well may remind us of an ancient sacrifice whereby we now are afforded, as Scrooge's nephew said, "a good time, a kind forgiving charitable, pleasant time."
(1) The Wick House, as well as Washington's Headquarters (the Ford House) mentioned elsewhere in this article, are now units of Morristown National Historical Park.
(2) Letter from the Chevalier de la Luzerne, the French Minister, to his government.
(3) General orders, January 18, 1870, Morristown Orderly Book.
(4) Written to his brother, Dr. Reading Beatty.
(5) John C. Fitzpatrick, Writings of Washington (United States Government Printing Office, Washington, May, 1937), Vol. 17, p. 432.
(6) Ibid., 292.
(7) Ibid., 309.
(8) Ibid., 310.
(9) Ibid., 320.
(10) Ibid., 286.
(11) Ibid., 302, 312.
This article was subsequently reprinted as part of NPS Popular Study Series #1.
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