Revolutionary War Historical Article

The American Revolution Month-by-Month December 1779

By Compatriot Andrew "Andy" Stough

Editor's Note: This article was reprinted by Permission of the Gold Country Chapter No. 7 of the CSSAR and was slightly edited by the Sons of Liberty Chapter of the CSSAR

General George Washington’s army moved into winter quarters at Morristown in an area called “Jockey Hollow” (another author describes the camp as being at Morristown Heights). By whatever name it was known, it was located a few miles southwest of Morristown at a location surrounded by natural defenses. Morristown represented another winter of unplanned accommodations for the Continental Army. Washington preferred to be on the offensive in order to determine the time and place of events. He was constrained by lack of resources, therefore with the weaker force and even weaker finances and supply, he was generally forced into a defensive position; unable to choose when and where he will fight or even to preplan and ready a place to spend the winter. The lack of such a capability results in the hardships of Valley Forge being repeated, only this time the ordeal is much more severe.

The previous winter of 1778-79 had found Patriot forces spread out in a crescent around New York City allowing for a simpler problem of housing, supply and maintenance. Additionally, there had been more financial resources at the time. Admittedly the Continental dollar was on its last legs but it was not yet moribund. The pinch had always existed where supply was concerned but it was rapidly worsening. In 1778-79 the army was scattered, the main army wintered at Middlebrook, near Morristown and even during an unusually mild winter there was great suffering by the soldiers who slept under canvas until cabins could be built from hardwoods which abounded in the area. There were also shortages of clothing, and rations for the men, and forage for the horses. Plagued by shortages and unable to make purchases locally due to the decline in value of the dollar, Washington complained to Congress in April of ’79, as follows : " . . . a wagon full of money will scarcely purchase a wagon load of provisions." With the dollar worth about a penny in English money there was few who were willing to sell anything if it was to be paid for with Congress’s paper money. By using English hard cash British General Clinton had plenty of supplies from nearby areas.

With no ability to purchase supplies, hard times had already taken the army into its grasp even before arriving at Jockey Hollow. By mid-November the camp went on half rations, by the end of the year the encampment had been on half rations for six weeks. The daytime work of building cabins, from hardwoods, would be taxing enough for a well fed, well dressed army. Under conditions of barely enough food to survive, ragged clothing and a shortage of blankets and some soldiers without even a tent for shelter it took forever to build cabins. So short was the supply of clothes, blankets and even tents many men resorted to hastily contrived brush lean-tos facing a fire. For blankets they used more brush to cover themselves during the long winter nights. Commenting on the deprivations at Jockey Hollow and previous winter camps, Private Joe Plumb wrote in a letter, "The Revolutionary War not only tried men’s souls, but their bodies too . . ."

Not only were conditions bad at Jockey Hollow but even reaching that winter camp verged on the impossible. Baron DeKalb [who arrived from France with Lafayette] marched 2,000 men for six days to reach Morristown. Freezing rain and muddy roads at the outset were only the beginning of troubles for the marching soldiers. The rain turned to sleet, then to snow. Frozen wagon ruts and unevenness caused by previous marchers and horses hooves caused the men to stumble and fall in the snow as they moved to an encampment that was worse than the one they had just left. By the time DeKalb arrived at Morristown a large number of men were sick from the weather and a lack of everything from rations to clothing, even to shoes and hats. The bad road and weather conditions coupled with the lack of anything to shed the rain or snow and nothing to sleep on at night but the frozen ground, led to men dying from cold and fatigue before they could get to Morristown. Winter conditions were disabling and killing more soldiers than summertime engagements with Clinton’s army.

Winter desertions followed what had become a pattern. Some soldiers left never to return. Some left to return home to care for their families. After spring planting and preparing their families for the coming summer they returned to duty, loyal as ever. It is noted, that during all winters, desertions in the North were common due mostly to the harsh conditions in the camps. Some soldiers not only left to escape the rigors of winter but to accept the King’s coin, and the promise of land for enlisting in a British regiment. It is also noted that few American born soldiers deserted for the King’s pay. Most of those who deserted to the British army were of foreign origin.

The war had been going on for more than four years. Soldiers and population alike were tired and weary of a war that seemed never to end. Everyone needed some ray of hope to carry them through the winter. As bleak and discouraging as was the plight of the Continental Army in December of 1779, there still remained a ray of hope. It was the fond belief that the victorious Paul Jones would escape in Alliance to again become the nemesis of the Royal Navy.

John Paul Jones' idyllic existence in Amsterdam came to an end when France traded some of his prisoners for French prisoners instead of American. He was also ticked off that France had taken Serapis and any prize ships for their own enrichment. He was so despondent that on December 5th he wrote to Robert Morris that barring orders from Congress or Doctor Franklin that he would sail for the United States. To add insult to injury, Commodore Gillon of the South Carolina Navy was in Paris proposing to buy L’Indien and combine it with the ships under Jones command, with him as fleet commander.

It is unfortunate that Jones did not sail for the United States. Once back in North America he could have rid himself of Captain Landais crew as well as never meeting with Arthur Lee and his machinations. I find no more entries until December 21sr, when Alliance careened, her bottom cleaned, then re-rigged for an ocean voyage.

Stormy weather drove the British squadron off station, but the Netherlands fleet anchored around Alliance continued their watch. The Netherlands admiral continued to question Jones about his departure. Jones continued to ignore the admiral but began provisioning Alliance for a long voyage. The Netherlands fleet and its commander Vice Admiral Reynst’s menacing attitude and continuing threats against Alliance made Jones wonder if there was a conspiracy with Britain for Reynst to run alliance away from Texel and into the arms of the British squadron.

On December 27th a wind came that allowed Jones to depart Texel. Rigging an anchor he allowed his sails to fill as much as possible. With sails bulging to the maximum, Alliance strained at the anchor like a race horse anxious to leave the gate. Jones hoisted the Stars and Stripes, slipped the anchor and raced through the Netherlands fleet before it could respond. At 11:00 a.m. the pilot was dropped and Alliance headed south toward the English Channel; it was the more dangerous route but it was the closest and shortest route instead of the longer but safer voyage around Scotland and Ireland.

After departure from Texel, the wind rose to gale force requiring Jones to reduce sail and speed. Even so the storm split the "fore topsail." Finally the winds diminished and full sail set. After sunset the riding lights of an English fleet was spotted at Dover, but Alliance was not observed as she passed down the channel. By noon of the 30th when the channel islands of Jersey and Guernsey were left behind, Jones began the chase of two ships. When overtaken and hailed, each turned out to be neutral and were allowed to proceed on their way. When sixteen bells announced the arrival of the year 1780, Alliance was clear of the channel and headed for Lorient; at least the crew thought so.

Jones would not return to Lorient until February 19th, 1780. The return to Lorient by Alliance would usher in a time of trial beyond anything that Jones had ever dreamed.


References: Encyclopedia Britannica "The Revolutionary Years"; Christopher Ward’s "The War of the American Revolution"; Samuel Elliott Morison’s "John Paul Jones"; Arthur Meier Schlesinger’s "The Almanac of American History"; James Thomas Flexner’s "Washington, the Indispensable Man" ; Bruce Lancaster’s "The American Revolution"; A. J. Langguth’s "Patriots Who Started The American Revolution"; Don Higginbotham’s "The War Of American Independence."


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