On December 1, 1779, the Continental Army, under the command of General George Washington, established winter headquarters at Morristown, New Jersey. The army stayed there until June 1780. It was one of the worst winters ever endured and is known as the Hard Winter.
Washington and the army had stayed in Morristown before, from January 1777 to May 1777, so they were familiar with the area, which was only about 30 miles from New York City where the British forces were located.
Washington Stays at the Ford Mansion
Washington in the Ford Mansion, the home of widow Theodosia Ford and her children. Theosodia’s husband, Colonel Jacob Ford, Jr. had died from pneumonia after the Battle of Princeton. Martha Washington joined him at the Ford Mansion in the spring.
During his stay at the mansion, Washington was visited by key military leaders from the Continental Army, including:
Statue of George Washington at Morristown.
Continental Army Makes Camp at Jockey Hollow
The Continental Army made its camp in a forested area known as Jockey Hollow, which was close to the Ford Mansion. Roughly 10,000 troops from Canada, Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, and Pennsylvania cleared 2,000 acres of trees and built 1,200 small log houses
Hard Winter of 1779–1780
When Washington and his men arrived at Morristown, there was already a foot of snow on the ground. Over the next few months, New Jersey would have more than 20 snowstorms. It was a harsh winter throughout the colonies, and bitterly cold.
Provisions were difficult to procure for the soldiers. Some of them were so hungry they ate their shoes or chewed on bark. Some even resorted to killing and eating dogs.
Washington described the winter and said “The oldest people now living in this Country do not remember so hard a winter as the one we are now emerging from. In a word the severity of the frost exceeded anything of the kind that had ever been experienced in this climate before.”
It was so cold that all harbors and inlets were frozen over in the northeast, as far south as North Carolina. During the month of January, the temperature in Philadelphia only rose above freezing one time.
Threat of Mutiny
The difficult winter had many of the soldiers questioning why they were putting themselves through such extreme hardship. In December 1779, Washington sent a circular letter to the states and informed them the situation was dire and he was concerned the army would simply disband because they had “never experienced a like extremity at any period of the War.”
Joseph Plumb Martin was a soldier from western Massachusetts. He published his memoirs of his time in the Continental Army after the war. He said the soldiers were “venting our spleen at our country and government, then at our officers, and then at ourselves for our imbecility in staying there and starving in detail for an ungrateful people who did not care what became of us, so they could enjoy themselves while we were keeping a cruel enemy from them.”
On January 5, 1780, General Nathanael Green wrote “The Army is upon the eve of disbanding for want of Provisions.”
The winter was so harsh that not much came of the threats, but as the spring of 1780 approached, the situation was still dire in the Continental Army camp, and the men badly needed food. Green wrote, “A Country, once overflowing with plenty, are now suffering an Army employed for the defense of every thing that is dear and valuable, to perish for want of food.”
Illustration of the brief mutiny that occurred at the Morristown camp in 1779.
During the evening of May 25, an argument broke out between an officer and some soldiers. The soldiers responded by calling on their regiment to form their ranks and march through the camp. A second regiment heard the beat of their drums and joined in with them. It was a sign of disrespect and mutiny toward the officers.
Two days later, a shipment of supplies arrived at Morristown. It included food and meat in the form of pork and 30 head of cattle.
Court-Martial of Benedict Arnold
On December 23, 1779, Benedict Arnold was court-martialed at Norris’s Tavern in Morristown. He had been accused of using his position as an officer to make a personal profit. The accusations came from General Joseph Reed and Timothy Matlack.
Despite his heroic efforts on the battlefield, Arnold had a long history of disputes with his fellow soldiers, going back to Ethan Allen and the Capture of Fort Ticonderoga. He was found guilty on two charges, but they were minor and he received a reprimand from Washington.
He was upset over the outcome of the court-martial but was still respected enough to be named Commander of West Point in 1780. However, it did not appease him, and when he was presented with the opportunity for the British to pay him to let them overtake West Point he took it and betrayed his country.
Lafayette Brings Good News
On May 10, 1780, Marquis de Lafayette arrived at Morristown. He met with Washington and informed him the French had decided to send roughly 6,000 men, under the command of Count de Rochambeau, to aid the Continental Army.
Significance of the Hard Winter at Morristown
Despite the brutal conditions and discontent among the soldiers, the Continental Army persevered. In October, Nathanael Greene marched south and replaced General Horatio Gates. Greene implemented a defensive strategy that slowly wore down the British forces under command of General George Cornwallis. Within a year, the Americans and French reinforcements had Cornwallis pinned in at Yorktown. Cornwallis surrendered on October 19, 1781.
Morristown National Historical Park
Morristown National Historical Park is located in Morristown, New Jersey. It commemorates the site where Washington and the Continental Army spent two winters, including the terrible Hard Winter of 1779–1780.