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History No. 1: Winter Encampments of the American Revolution
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Winter Encampments of the American Revolution*

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 situation—the 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.

reconstruction of Continental Army hospital
Reconstruction of Continental Army hospital hut built in the winter of 1779 in what is now Morristown National Historical Park, N.J. Fires on the earthen floor provided the only heat. Smoke esacaped through the wooden vents in the roof.

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:

It was cold and snowy, we had to march all day through the snow and at night take up our lodgings in some wood, where, after shovelling away the snow, we used to pitch three or four tents facing each other, and then join in making a fire in the centre. Sometimes we could procure an armful of buckwheat straw to lie upon, which was deemed a luxury. Provisions, as usual, took up but a small part of our time, though much of our thoughts.

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.

We have a very little time to do a very great work in, the arranging, providing for, and disciplining a hundred and odd Battalions, is not to be accomplished in a day; nor is it to be done at all with any degree of propriety, when we have once entered upon the active part of the campaign; these duties must be branched out; or they will be neglected and the Public Injured. [There was extreme need for men] for if our new Army are not ready to take the Field early in the Spring, we shall loose all the advantages, which I may say, we have providentially gained this winter.

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.

Washington spent the Christmas season of 1779 in this mansion which is preserved today in Morristown National Historical Park.

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 reconnoitering—to 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.

We visit them twice or three times a week by particular invitation—Ev'ry day frequently from Inclination. he is generally busy in the fore noon—but from dinner till night he is free for all company. His worthy Lady seems to he in perfect felicity while she is by the side of her Old Man as she calls him. We often make partys on Horse Back the Genl his lady; Miss Livingstone, & his aid de Camps . . . at which time General Washington throws off the Hero and takes on the chatty agreeable companion—he can be downright impudent sometimes—such impudence, Fanny, as you and I like . . .

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:

If you was just now to step into my Hutt . . . You'll find me sitting on a chest, in the Centre of six or eight taylors, with my Book, Pen & Ink on one side and the Buttons & thread on the other—the Taylor you'll find some a Cutting out others sewing, outside of the taylors you will see maybie half Dozen men naked as Lazarus, begging for cloathing, on the floor you'll find it about knee deep with snips of cloth & Dirt. If you stay any time you'll hear every Minute knock-knock at the door & I calling walk in, others going out, which makes a Continual Bussle—Presently I begin to Swear . . .

But to prove the eternal buoyancy of the human soul consider this soldier's account of how he spent his time:

During these operation, we were encamped at a place called the Shorthills. While lying here, I came near taking another final discharge from the army in consequence of my indiscretion and levity. I was one day upon a camp guard; we kept our guard in the fields, and to defend us from the night dew, we laid down under some trees which stood upon the brink of a very deep gully; the sides and tops of the banks of this gully were covered with walnut or hickory saplings, three, four, or five inches diameter at their butts, and many of them were fifty or sixty feet in height. In the morning before the guard was relieved, some of the men (and I among the rest, to be sure, I was never far away when such kind of business was going forward) took it into our heads to divert ourselves by climbing these trees as high as they would bear us, and then swinging off our feet, the weight would bring us by a gentle flight to the ground, when the tree would resume its former position. After exercising ourselves some time at this diversion, I thought I would have one capital swing; accordingly, I climbed one of the tallest trees that stood directly on the verge of the gully, and swung off over the gully; when the tree had bent to about an horizontal position it snapped off as short as a pipestem; I suppose I was nearly or quite forty feet from the ground, from which distance I came feet foremost to the ground at quick time; the ground was soft, being loamy and entirely free from stones, so that it did me but little hurt, but I held the part of the tree I had broken off firmly in my grasp, and when I struck the ground with my feet, I brought it with all the force of my weight and its own directly upon the top of my unthinking skull, which knocked me as stiff as a ringbolt. It was several minutes before I recovered recollection enough to know or remember what I had been about, but I weathered the point, although it gave me a severe headache for several days afterwards, as a memento to keep upon the ground, and not to attempt to act the part of a flying squirrel.

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.

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Last Modified: Sat, Oct 20 2001 10:00:00 am PDT