Last week, I covered the court martial of Benedict Arnold, which took place during the Continental Army’s winter encampment at Morristown, New Jersey. This week, I want to cover that winter encampment itself.
By the end of November 1779, the Continental Army had completed the fighting season for the year. For most of the year, Washington had remained near West Point in New York. This gave him the greatest flexibility to pivot into upstate New York if the Sullivan Campaign had run into trouble, to move into New England if British forces at Newport, Rhode Island went on the offensive, or the ability to move south into New Jersey if the main British force opted to move in that direction from New York city. As it turned out, the British did not do much of anything that year but protect what they had. In fact, in October, the British abandoned its long-held position in Newport and concentrated its forces in and around New York City. We’ll cover the reasons for that decision next week when we look at the British plans for 1780.
Moving to Morristown
The evacuation of Rhode Island greatly reduced the threat that the British might try something in New England beyond the nuisance coastal raids. It permitted Washington to focus the Continental Army on New York City. With that in mind, he moved the bulk of his army to the area around Morristown, New Jersey.
Washington kept his army in the mountains, so that they could keep a better eye on the British in New York City, and also so that they would have the high ground should the British try to attack. The winter camp at Morristown was about twenty miles north of the prior winter camp at Middlebrook. Part of the reason for this change was to put the army about one day’s march closer to West Point, should the British launch an attack there. Another likely reason for the change was that the army had wiped out the resources, including firewood, around Middletown, and needed an area that had the resources needed for the men.
The main encampment near Morristown came on a wooded property known as Jockey Hollow. It was owned by Henry Wick, a captain of cavalry in the local militia and a known patriot. Adjoining his land was that of Peter Kemble.
Kemble was an older man in his seventies, but was also a known loyalist. Kemble had been the head of the Provincial legislature when the war began, and left politics when the assembly was dissolved in 1776. His son, Lieutenant Colonel Steven Kemble, was the deputy adjutant general for the British army. Col. Kemble had also been the head of army intelligence, although he had recently ceded that position to Major John Andre. Another son, William, was a British naval captain. Another, Samuel, was the Collector of the Port of New York in British-occupied New York City. A fourth son, Robert, served as a commissary officer in the British army. One of Peter’s daughters, Margaret Kemble, was married to General Thomas Gage, the British commander of North America at the outset of the war.
With so much of the family fighting with the loyalists, you might ask why Kemble was not thrown in jail and his land seized outright. Peter had wisely signed over his lands to another son, Richard Kemble, who at least nominally supported the patriot cause. Peter also was friends with George Washington from before the war, a connection that may have helped shield him from attacks by patriots.
Israel Putnam’s Stroke
Although there were no major battles that winter, Washington lost his most senior general. Israel Putnam was one of the most active and inspiring officers when the Continental Army formed in 1775. He passed over several more senior Connecticut officers to become part of the founding class of Continental major generals, along with Artemas Ward, Charles Lee, and Philip Schuyler. By late 1779, Ward and Schuyler had resigned their commissions, and Lee had been suspended from service, and would resign before his suspension ended.
That left General Putnam as the senior major general in the Continental Army, ahead of Horatio Gates, William Heath, Nathaniel Greene, and Benedict Arnold. That said, over the course of the war, Putnam had not exactly proven his merit to General Washington. As a result, he had been given less critical independent commands where combat was not likely. In late 1779, Putnam was in command of the Maryland line, which was stationed about two miles south of West Point in New York. He was working with Washington and others to build up the defenses at West Point.
His last real combat was an inadvertent encounter while he was in Connecticut recruiting in early 1779. When General Tryon had led British forces against Connecticut coastal towns, Putnam rallied some militia to challenge them and ended up making his famous escape from capture by riding down a steep hill (see Episode 211).
When the army moved into winter quarters at Morristown, General Putnam returned home to Connecticut for a few days, before heading down to New Jersey. As he left his home in Connecticut for the ride to Morristown, the general suffered a numbness in his right arm and leg. He attempted to shake it off and keep going. However, it turned out to be a paralytic stroke that disabled him. With that, Putnam’s military career came to an end. He hoped he would recover and resume his command, but never regained full control of his body. He would live for another decade, but remained at home on his farm in Connecticut.
Log House City
After the army arrived in Morristown in late November and early December, the soldiers set about building cabins for the winter. By this time, the army had become experienced in building winter quarters. The cabins were built to exacting specifications, each one 14x16 feet and 6 ½ feet tall at the eaves.
Each regiment built three rows of eight houses each for its soldiers. Each cabin housed about a dozen men, and included straw bunks and a fireplace. Each regiment had a cleared area in front of the huts for assembly. Huts for regimental officers were built behind the other huts, and only after the huts for enlisted men were completed.
In total, over the course of about two months, the army built about one thousand cabins, housing about 12,000-13,000 men. The location was dubbed “Log House City” and immediately became the largest town in New Jersey, and probably the fourth or fifth largest in the United States.
Washington stayed in the home, along with five aides-de-camp and eighteen servants. After a few weeks, Martha joined her husband as well. The Ford family squeezed into two bedrooms on the first floor, while Washington and his retinue took over the rest of the house.
Other officers occupied area homes. General Arthur St. Clair stayed with the Wicks. General William Smallwood moved in with the Kembles.
The Hard Winter
The winter at Morristown is widely regarded as the hardest winter of the war. The winters at Valley Forge and Middlebrook were quite mild by comparison. Freezing temperatures and numerous snow storms made life difficult. There was already snow on the ground in early December, when most of the army arrived. A series of storms in December, followed by a blizzard in early January, left more than four feet of snow on the ground. In addition to the cold and snow, brutal winds swept through the area, making life miserable for everyone. The soldiers, many without adequate clothing, had to build their cabins in the snow. Many were completed during or after the January blizzard, with some soldiers still living in tents and awaiting housing in February.
The Hudson River and New York Harbor froze solid. There are reports of British soldiers traveling from Manhattan to Staten Island on horse-drawn sleighs over the ice. Washington even considered launching a full-scale invasion of the city, having his men charge across the ice. But the lack of supplies made that plan impossible. Instead, his concerns turned to whether the British might use the ice to attack the Continentals.
Food and clothing shortages were nothing new for the Continental Army, but the brutal winter made things so much worse. The snow blocked the roads, making it nearly impossible to get food to the camp. When Martha Washington arrived in Philadelphia on December 21 in her coach, she found herself unable to continue because the snow had blocked all of the roads. Washington had to send a sleigh to bring her the remainder of the way to Morristown. She vowed that in future years, she would make sure to arrive earlier in the season to avoid the difficulties she had faced in reaching her husband.
On December 15, shortly after the army’s arrival, Washington wrote to the President of Congress, Samuel Huntington that the because of the lack of food “I find our prospects are infinitely worse than they have been at any period of the War, and that unless some expedient can be instantly adopted a dissolution of the army for want of subsistence is unavoidable.” The next day, he wrote a circular letter to state leaders which said: “The situation of the Army with respect to supplies is beyond description alarming, it has been five or six Weeks past on half allowance, and we have not three days Bread or a third allowance on hand nor anywhere within reach.” In January, Washington wrote Huntington again, reporting that his men had gone days without food.
Soldiers’ accounts from the winter recount the men trying to survive by eating tree bark, the soles of shoes, and some unfortunate pet dogs. Out of desperation, Washington ordered most of the army’s horses sent to Pennsylvania so that the men could eat the corn that had been provided as horse fodder. He also sent home early some soldiers whose enlistments would expire over the winter, in order to cut down on the number of mouths to feed.
Part of the frustration for the army was that there was no general food shortage in the area. Local farms in New Jersey had a pretty good harvest the prior fall. But because the Continental had no money, all they could provide were promissory notes that might eventually be paid in Continental currency, which was also plummeting in value every day. As I’ve said before, even patriotic farmers could not afford to give away their produce. They relied on the income from their farms to feed their families.
A great many farmers ended up selling to the British in New York. If they could get their crops or cattle to Sandy Point, New Jersey, they could get the food aboard ships to be taken to Manhattan. Getting cattle or crops through enemy lines, of course, was dangerous. Continental patrols could stop and seize wagons headed for the enemy. Many dealers became smugglers, buying from local farms for gold or silver, no questions asked, then taking the risk themselves to get the food to New York where they could sell at substantial profit. The result was plenty of food in the area, but very little getting to the Continental Army.
Washington was loath to permit the soldiers to plunder the locals. To avoid that Washington put requisition requirements on each local town to provide a certain amount of food. The army made clear that this was not voluntary. If the locals did not produce the required amount of food, then foraging units from the army would confiscate them, without any compensation.
The soldiers could not provide for themselves. Many men were unfit for duty because their pants had literally rotted away and fallen off their bodies. Many had no shoes and had to borrow shoes from their comrades when they needed to leave the cabin. By January, the army was even out of paper money for even nominal payment for food and clothing. The soldiers had not been paid in months, not that paying them would have done much good. Continental paper money was nearly worthless. A captain noted that he had paid the equivalent of an entire year’s salary for a pair of shoes.
Desperate soldiers defied the weather and standing orders against looting to find food held by area farmers. Washington noted that his army was “becoming a band of robbers.” In January, when there was virtually nothing to feed to soldiers, Washington was a little more understanding about men seeking to feed themselves by any means necessary. Once locals began responding to the military supply quota, the army cracked down on plundering. Public orders announced that any soldier found out of camp after dark would be lashed on the spot. Those found stealing from civilians could face even harsher penalties, including the possibility of hanging.
General de Kalb noted that “Those who have only been in Valley forge or Middlebrook during the last two winters, but have not tasted the cruelties of this one, know not what it is to suffer.” General Washington wrote to Lafayette, still in France “The oldest people now living in this country do not remember so hard a winter as the one we are now emerging from.”
By the spring of 1780, when the army began thinking about closing its winter encampment and beginning the new campaign season, the Continental army had been decimated. Nearly 10% of the 12,000 men who began the winter encampment at Morristown had deserted. Thousands more had left following the end of their enlistments, been redeployed, or died from disease or exposure. The result was a Continental Army of less than 8000 men facing the main British army still in New York, and less than 5000 of those were fit for duty.
Back in Philadelphia, the delegates received Washington’s increasingly desperate letters about the army falling apart. The elected leaders recognized there were shortages everywhere, but that the real problem must be waste, fraud, and abuse within the army. Its response was to send a committee to figure out how the army could clean up its act and become functional again.
The committee, made up of Philip Schuyler of New York, John Mathews of South Carolina, and Nathaniel Peabody of New Hampshire. Schuyler initially tried to beg off, saying that as a former officer, he would have a bias in favor of the army, but his fellow delegates convinced him to go. Congress gave the committee its instructions:
You are to abolish unnecessary posts, to erect others, to discharge useless officers, to stop rations improperly issues,; and are hereby further authorized to exercise every power which may be necessary to effect a reformation of abuses and the general arrangement of those departments which are in any wise connected with the matters committed to your charge.
The Committee arrived in late April. On May 10, after about two weeks in camp, they wrote back to Congress, saying that General Washington’s letters informing Congress of the suffering, deprivation, and morale of the soldiers were an understatement. “Their starving condition, their want of pay, and the variety of hardships that they have been driven to sustain, has soured their tempers and produced a spirit of discontent which begins to display itself under a complexion of the most alarming hue.”
In short, the conditions imposed on the army had put it on the verge of mutiny. If Congress did not act to change things, the army could dissolve, or turn against its own leaders.
Dances and Dating
While conditions at Morristown were some of the worst of the war, the officers did make efforts to keep up their own morale at least. The officers pooled their money, in an initiative led by Martha Washington, to hold a series of dances and socials over the winter. It provided some measure of relief to the suffering and tedium of the winter. Officers put up $400 each of their own money (in inflated Continental dollars of course) to help pay for the costs of these parties.
It was also a time for new romance. Over the winter, twenty-two year old Betsy Schuyler, daughter of General Phillip Schuyler, came to Morristown that winter to stay with her aunt. Betsy and Martha Washington began a long lasting friendship that winter. But it was not the most significant relationship she would make.
Colonel Hamilton came to pay a visit at the home of Betsy’s Aunt. The two had met about two years earlier when Hamilton had stayed at her father’s home for a brief visit. They did not seem to connect on that first visit.
On this meeting, however, Hamilton became love-struck immediately. According to one story, Hamilton was so stricken by his first visit in Morristown with Betsy, that he forgot the password to reenter camp when returning home. The two quickly became inseparable. When Hamilton had to leave camp required by his military duties, the couple wrote letters to one another.
Betsy’s father, General Phillip Schuyler, was, by this time, a member of Congress. As I mentioned, he visited the camp that spring as part of the investigatory committee. After receiving his blessing, the couple got engaged in April. Betsy would remain with the army as a camp follower after the winter camp broke up. The following December, Hamilton and Schuyler would get married.
The Morristown encampment would remain active until June, 1780. I will cover a few other events from the camp in some future episodes, but for most soldiers it would be remembered as the most brutal winter of the war for its cold and deprivation.
Next week: Across the River in New York General Clinton makes plans for the British army in the coming year.
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Morristown Winter Encampment: https://www.battlefields.org/learn/articles/morristown-winter-encampment
The Great Story: https://njskylands.com/hsmtnhp
“To George Washington from Major General Nathanael Greene, 14 November 1779,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-23-02-0234
“General Orders, 3 December 1779,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-23-02-0382
From George Washington to Samuel Huntington, 15 December 1779,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-23-02-0467
“From George Washington to Samuel Huntington, 18 January 1780,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-24-02-0147
“From George Washington to Philip Schuyler, 30 January 1780,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-24-02-0258
(from archive.org unless noted)
Halsey, Edmund Drake History of Morris County, New Jersey, New York : W.W. Munsell & co. 1882.
Tarbox, Increase N. Life of Israel Putnam ("Old Put"), Major-General in the Continental Army, Boston Lockwood, Brooks & Co. 1876.
Tuttle, Joseph F. “Washington at Morristown during the winters of 1776-77 & 1779-80” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, New York: 1859.
Weig, Melvin Morristown: A Military Capital of the American Revolution, Washington, DC: National Park Service, 1950.
Books Worth Buying
(links to Amazon.com unless otherwise noted)*
Chadwick, Bruce The General and Mrs. Washington: The Untold Story of a Marriage and a Revolution, Sourcebooks, 2006.
Cunningham, John T. The Uncertain Revolution: Washington and the Continental Army at Morristown, Down the Shore Publishing, 2007.
Hazelgrove, William Morristown: The Darkest Winter of the Revolutionary War and the Plot to Kidnap George Washington, Lyons Press 2021.
Laurerman, Rosalie Jockey Hollow: Where a Forgotten Army Persevered to Win America's Freedom, (self-published) 2015.
Rae, John W. Morristown: A Military Headquarters of the American Revolution, Arcadia Publishing, 2002.
* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.