Revolutionary War Historical Article

Winter of 1779-80 In New Jersey

by Donald N. Moran

Editor's Note: Reprinted by permission from the SAR Magazine, Fall 2004

After his successful operations in 1776-1777 and the defeat of the British at Trenton and Princeton, General George Washington chose Morristown, New Jersey for his winter encampment. For strategic reasons it was ideal. He was 31 miles from New York City, hence would have adequate time to defend against a British move against either the Hudson Highlands, or against Philadelphia. At the same time he was protected from an attack by the Watchung Mountains and swamplands to the east, and the Ramapo Hills which ran north to join the Hudson Highlands. During.the Revolutionary War period there were very few roads and the country­side was densely wooded, making the few existing passes very defensible.

The Winter of 1777-1778 was spent at Valley Forge after a successful British invasion from New York.

After the defeat at Saratoga and the promise of French intervention, the British decided they could not defend both New York City and recently captured Philadelphia. They evacuated Philadelphia, were intercepted at Monmouth Court House where they suffered heavy losses. Monmouth ended that year's major operations for both the Americans and British.

After Princeton the American army went into winter quarters in New Jersey. This Barber Woodcut depicts the scene there.


Washington again decided upon Morristown for his winter encampment and on November 30th, informed General Nathanael Greene of his decision. The various units marched to Morristown arriving between the first week of December and the end of the month. An area southwest of Morristown, called Jockey Hollow, was selected. It is estimated that 600 acres of forest were cut down to build more than 1,000 1og huts. It became known as "log-house city". Each hut was built to specifications required by General Washington measuring about 14 by 15 feet. The height at the eaves was 6 feet 6 inches. They were built of notched logs, with clay used as chink to seal the huts from the cold, and with a door at one end and a fireplace at the other.

Unlike previous encampments, which were placed helter-skelter, Jockey Hollow was precisely layed out. The enlisted huts were laid out in rows of eight, three or four rows deep. Each hut held 12 men. The officers' huts were somewhat larger, with one to four officers, depending on rank to occupy each.

Because fodder for the animals was a serious problem, Washington therefore disbursed draft animals, including General Henry Knox's artillery horses, about the countryside where feed would be available. Many were sent as far west as Pennsylvania. The Cavalry was sent to Connecticut to help patrol the coast line there from raid­ing parties from British-held New York City. Other units were sent south. This drastic action would hamper the Continental Army's ability to deploy rapidly, but if it was done, come Spring, few if any of the draft animals would have survived the winter.

General Washington set up Headquarters at the Ford Mansion, some five miles from Jockey Hollow. Across what is now Morris Street, some 75 yards from Ford Mansion, the Commander-in-Chief's Guards constructed twelve huts of the same design as the main army and one officer's hut for Major Caleb Gibbs and Captain William Colfax. Gibbs, in personal correspondence, referred to his hut as "Gibb's Manor".


 By 1780, the Continental Army had been at war six long years. It was in deplorable condition. Congress had exhausted all their resources, including the promised assistance from France. The Continental paper dollar had depreciated to 3,000 to 1! Even those supporting independence would not accept "Continentals", hence what money available to the army was worthless. The expression "Not worth a Continental" originated at this time.

George Washington wrote the Marquis de Lafayette on March 18th, 1780 from the Ford Mansion. "... 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. "

When the Army arrived at Jockey Hollow, there was already a foot of snow on the ground. Doctor James Thacher, whose journal is one of the best sources of first person descriptions of events during the war, wrote: "The weather for several days has been remarkably cold and stormy. On the 3rd instance, we experienced one of the most tremendous snowstorms ever remembered; no man could endure its violence many minutes without danger to his life. ... When the storm subsided, the snow was from four to six feet deep, obscuring the very traces of the roads by covering fences that lined them. " In March he wrote: " immense body of snow on the ground ­ there had been four snowfalls in February and March brought six more. " Another entry in his journal read: "For the last ten days we have received but two pounds of meat a man, and we are frequently for six or eight days entirely without bread. The consequences is that the soldiers are so enfeebled from hunger and cold, as to be almost unable to perform their military duty or labor in constructing their huts. "

General Johann de Kalb wrote: " cold that the ink freezes on my pen, while I am sitting close to the fire. The roads are piled with snow until, at some places they are elevated twelve feet above their ordinary level."

Private Joseph Plumb Martin's memoirs, writing in the rollicking style of a soldier, reported: "We are absolutely, literally starved. I do solemnly declare that I did not put a single morsel of victuals into my mouth for four days and as many nights, except for a little black birch bark which I gnawed off a stick of wood. I saw several men roast their old shoes and eat them, and I was afterward informed by one of the officer's waiters, that some of the officers killed a favorite little dog that belonged to one of them." He then wrote that he wore "what laughingly could be called a uniform, and possessed a blanket thin enough to have straws shoot through it without discom­moding the threads. "

Major Gibbs, of the Guard, noted that he could not change the Guard at Headquarters for 72 hours, as the men could not wade through the snow drifts between their huts and the Mansion. (75 yards!) Since an attack on Headquarters was deemed impossible, security was not a consideration. The guards at the Ford Mansion had been brought inside, and were fed from the dwindling supplies kept for General Washington, his family (staff) and the Ford Family. But Gibbs was very concerned that the Guard being five miles from the Commissary would quickly run out of rations.

All roads were impassable and would stay that way until the snow melted. Not a single cart or wagon load of supplies could move. The Army would soon starve!


Ensuring that the Army would survive the harsh circumstances was Washington's primary concern. But another major weather-related problem soon surfaced. New York harbor was solidly frozen over, one report indicating the ice was eight feet thick! The British were resupplying Staten Island by ox sleighs. The British were also observed moving heavy artillery across the Hudson River to Paulius Hook, New Jersey by sleigh. All the rivers, and their tributaries were also frozen.

Sir Henry Clinton had sailed from New York on December 26th, to invade Charlestown, South Carolina. He left Hessian General Wilhelm Knyphausen in command of New York. Knyphausen was not as cautious as Sir Henry, and believed in strong offensive operations. Washington's fear was that Knyphausen could move by sleigh up the Hudson River and attack West Point. He could neither stop the movement nor support that all important position.

Washington, ever the tactician, devised a plan to insure that Knyphausen would remain on the defensive. He ordered General William Alexander, Lord Stirling, to mount a substantial raid on Staten Island. In spite of freezing temperatures, on the night of January 14th-15th, Lord Stirling led 3,000 men on 500 sleighs across the ice from Elizabethtown Point to Staten Island.

Unfortunately, a loyalist warned the British who immediately manned their defensive positions. The raid was a dismal failure as far as the physical objectives were concerned. A very limited amount of stores and prisoners were carried off. According to Doctor Thatcher, 500 men were "slightly frozen" and six were killed in the skirmishing. But, it apparently had the phycological effect that Washington wanted. Knyphausen stayed put in New York City, mustering only enough courage to launch a few minor raids.

Communications was also a serious problem. The dispatch riders could not transit the snow-covered roads, hence all communications had to be carried by men on snow shoes, much slower than horseback. This lack of information and intelligence must have given Washington great concerns.


In spite of all the difficulties facing the officers of the Continental Army, they still needed social diversion. Since many of their wives "wintered" with their husbands, including Martha Washington, it was decided to hold "an Assembly" (dance). Thirty-four officers, including General Washington, subscribed 400 dollars apiece for the Assembly. This money was used to rent Arnold's Tavern and to pay a dancing master. It should be noted that the $13,600 paid by the officers was in Continental currency, and was worth $300 in silver coin.

General de Kalb noted in March, 1780, that an ordinary horse was valued at $20,000 in Continental money.

In spite of the unbelievable hardships suffered by the Continental Army at Jockey Hollow/Morristown, there was only one minor mutiny. The Connecticut Continental Line consisting of two Regiments, had had enough. They had not been paid in five months, and they knew the money was worthless. They were half starved having been on half rations for several weeks. Colonel Return Meigs, acting Brigade Commander, brought in a Regiment of the Pennsylvania Line and with their assistance restored order. The majority of the men returned to their huts. A few were arrested, but the entire affair was over and afterwards disregarded.

In David Ludlam's book "Early American Winters, 1604 to 1820", he points out that 28 separate snow storms hit Morristown during the 1779-1780 winter.

One can understand a soldier throwing up his hands at the weather, starvation, lack of clothes, and simply going home. The records from Jockey Hollow show a total of 1,072 deserted. At the time, the same records declare that only 305 men died there. I use the word "only" in comparison with the 2,000-plus that died at Valley Forge, in a less severe winter. Bruce Stewart, in his book "Crucible of Revolution ", stated that he believes the death number is low, because many men listed as "deserters" or "absent without leave" had become ill, and were hospitalized at other locations, where they died. Others, probably too sick to continue to serve, went home and died there.

What manner of men would endure those hardships? It may have been a belief in attaining freedom. But more likely, it was simply the same emotions that, influence all soldiers - they become a "band-of-brothers" and their loyalty is to one another. We can thank God that they did, as the following Spring, they were on active duty again. In June they fought the decisive battles at Connecticut Farms and Springfield, New Jersey. These victories did much to win our independence from Great Britain.

The End


Consider A Visit To The Morristown Area

Morristown was not the scene of a battle, hence it has been ignored in our history books.

During the Great Depression in 1933, a group of Morristown residents, calling themselves The Washington Association saved the Ford Mansion, and one member, Lloyd Smith, purchased Jockey Hollow and presented it to the National Park Service.

Today, Morristown is a very worth­while place to visit. It is a sleepy little town, and extremely well kept.

The Ford Mansion is well preserved and on the grounds is a very nice museum, as well as a research library. The Ford Mansion, located in Morristown National Historic Park, served as home for General and Mrs. George Washington from December 1779 to June 1780. The structure has been restored and contains numerous original furnishings. A museum on the grounds displays many of the Patriot's letters and possessions, as well as a collection of varied Revolutionary War artifacts. Jockey Hollow is some three miles southwest of Morristown.

Jockey Hollow Encampment area, with its reconstructed huts, is a must see. Near by is The Wicks House, General St. Clair's modest Headquarters, a typical New Jersey farm house of the period. The much acclaimed Morris Museum, the third largest in New Jersey offers something for everyone.

The Wick House served as General Arthur St. Clair's Headquarters.


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