Winter of Our Discontent

by D.H.T. Shippey & Michael Burns

The French military force with Admiral D'Estaing had not arrived, and another fighting season was over in a war that had now stretched on for four years.

Food was in short supply, the civilian population had grown weary of conflict, the hungry soldiers were getting hard to control and winter was coming quickly in New Jersey, 1779.

   The month of December found the Patriot Army in ragged clothes, hungry and attempting to quickly build their shelters. The crude wooden huts that would serve as their quarters until next year’s campaign were only half completed at Christmastime.

In the weeks before Christmas the weather had turned cold--faster and colder than expected. They had no idea at the time, but it was going to be the most extreme winter of the century. A blizzard would cover the camp in a five-foot blanket of snow; the Hudson River would freeze solid. In this environment soldiers were still expected to drill and stand guard, sometimes in only partial uniforms.

   We always hear that, “rank has it’s privileges” and it is true that Washington and his “family” of military aides and assistants were sharing the Ford “mansion” with the owners of the house and all of their respective cooks and servants.

If not warm or comfortably quartered, they were at least sheltered. Certainly they were warmer than the men still in tents. Most of the officers were actually the worst off--they were required to wait until all the private soldiers were housed before beginning construction of their personal quarters. Many were using marquee tents with portable stoves which (as anyone who has experienced winter in New Jersey can attest) would not be a match for the biting weather. At the time, Quartermaster Nathaniel Green made attempts to gain temporary lodging for officers in nearby homes of private citizens, but the people refused. When Green requested local judges intervene, they instead supported the citizens. Apparently their patriotic sentiments had run dry with the failure to secure independence after so much fighting. As the winter grew colder and darker so did the mood of the country and the army.





      Food was at a severe low. Half rations were the norm when the army moved into the camp, and now with supply lines failing or freezing up altogether those rations sometimes became non existent. Foraging could only be carried out to small extents. Hunting was not practical with a soldier’s musket, and pillaging the already surly citizens was both illegal and dangerous, yet both these occurred from time to time. A full ration of food would have been similar to this General Order from January 1780:

       A pound. of hard or soft bread & 19 Pound of Indian (corn) Meal or a pound of flower, a pound of Beef or 14 oz. Pork to be daily Ration until further orders.

      But documents and records show that a quarter of that would have been far more likely when there was any food at all.

     If things were not dreary enough for Washington and his troops, add to this the court martial trial of a Patriot hero. Washington’s friend and favored, General Benedict Arnold, was summoned to arrive the 19th of December even though his Court Martial had officially begun in June. Arnold was to be tried for permitting a Tory vessel to enter the port of Philadelphia without acquainting other officials of the fact, as well as 12 other counts of misbehavior, including misusing government wagons and illegally buying and selling goods. The court martial convened at the old Dickerson Tavern in Morristown. In his defense, Arnold presented letters from Washington which praised his bravery and victories in the cause of Liberty. The trial continued without pause through Christmas Day and on into January. In the end, Arnold was exonerated of most of the charges and only had a letter of reprimand added to his record. Arnold’s reputation, which was all important to the vain and insecure Arnold, had been sullied by the affair and the seed of his anger already taken root. Since June, Arnold had been transmitting military intelligence to the British. Now, in the coldest winter, anger had blossomed into full treason.

     The army would emerge from the winter of 1779-1780 smaller and perhaps weaker than at any other point in the war. Washington would remember it as the worst of times. Three more years of battles, victories, defeats and betrayals lay ahead. What the Army did in that, the longest hardest winter, was survive, and because it survived the idea of America did as well.

     You can still visit the camp at Jockey’s hollow where the patriots starved and froze. Some cabins have been reconstructed as they were at the time, and the Ford house that served as Washington’s headquarters still stands as a museum today. Interestingly though you rarely hear of people going to visit it in the winter.

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