Sunday, December 25, 2011

A Soldier's Christmas at Morristown in 1779*

The luckier Revolutionary soldiers were living in huts like the one reconstructed above, but many of their counterparts still were in tents when Christmas came to Morristown in 1779.

"HALF rations again! By Christmas we'll be on no rations at all!"

—And when we came to Morristown they told us the people were all in sympathy with the cause; very few Tories among them, and that this was a land of plenty.

"Yes, plenty of cold and snow Sam, if this cold continues there won't be one of us left to live in these damned log huts. Why did General Washington pick such a place for our winter encampment?"

—Washington knows what he's doing, Henry. We're safe from attack here at Morristown. The British can never get over the mountains east of here. I, for one, am willing to go any place Washington says; I'm willing to suffer along with the rest, but I've stood all any human being can stand. We've been for weeks on half rations; half-naked and not enough blankets to go around, and the coldest winter of the century. If we could only get more grog, that would keep out the cold.

"I haven't had a drink of grog for days. The only way we can keep warm is in building these huts. When do you think we'll be in our hut, Sam? This tent is as good as nothing at all."

—About 3 days more. Perhaps we can make it by Christmas, then we'll celebrate in our new log mansion. But Captain Ashmead won't be in his hut by Christmas. He says he'll see all the privates under cover first.
"I heard that General Greene is attempting to get most of the officers in private homes, but is meeting with great opposition. No one wants an officer in their home, I guess, because they're afraid the British will attack most any day and burn their place down. If the British do get through, we certainly can't offer much resistance."

—Sam, some of the other boys ate a good meal last night—even had a chicken. What do you say we do the same tonight? Down this road, not very far, lives a farmer by the name of Wick. His yard is full of chickens and his barn is overflowing with grain—more than he and his family can ever use.

"Wick's farm!1 That's where General St. Clair is staying. If he ever caught us there we'd be up for court-martial in the morning."

—I'd take a good lashing for a square meal. Anyway we deserve something to eat for Christmas, and we may not get caught.

"But haven't you heard General Washington's orders. No more of this pillaging, he says, and calls us a band of robbers rather than disciplined troops."

—That's easy for the General to say, but does he understand what we are going through out here?
"They say he is going to visit camp tomorrow. Let's watt. Perhaps he'll bring us some news—news that the French fleet is going to arrive, or that we can borrow some of the 5,000 barrels of flour collected for the French to use when they come. Then at least our bellies will be full on Christmas."

Reconstructed officers' hut at Morristown.

This imaginary conversation between two Continental soldiers encamped in Jockey Hollow, near Morristown, N. J., was probably typical of hundreds of others which took place during the memorable Christmas season of 1779. Both from a military and a political standpoint, the winter was an extremely critical period. Soldiers were compelled to live on half and sometimes quarter rations, which made it impossible for Washington to prevent pillaging and marauding. An attempt on his part to prevent ruthless stealing of supplies from the farmers in the vicinity caused a complete famine in camp, making it necessary to order regular foraging and marauding expeditions which went from house to house and took everything not absolutely essential to the inhabitants.2

Christmas of 1779 found the ragged, half-starved men of the Continental Army busily engaged in building crude log huts, which were to be their homes until the opening of the next year's campaign. Just before Christmas there began the extreme cold which was to characterize the winter of 1779-80, the worst of the century. Some of the men were under cover by Christmas, but others still were in the open two weeks later when a sudden blizzard brought a 5-foot snow blanket to most of New Jersey, and froze the Hudson and other rivers solid.

Most of the officers were even worse off than the ordinary privates, yet had to wait until all the men were under cover before beginning construction of their own quarters. Quartermaster General Greene attempted to obtain quarters for the officers in private homes, but found that the people offered determined resistance to the idea. Greene appealed to the civil magistrates for help, but their sympathies were with the populace. Exhausted in his patience in providing what he deemed absolute necessities for the officers, he finally appealed to Washington. Washington then threatened to obtain accommodations for his officers by the exercise of martial law, if necessary, but he never carried out his threat.

The following letter, written by Brigadier General Samuel H. Parsons, Connecticut Line, to General Greene, illustrates the difficulties encountered in housing even general officers:
DEAR Sir: I beg you to order me a large markee and a stove as the last resort I have to cover me; I cannot stay in this Trophet a day longer nor can I find a House without going four miles from camp into which I can put my Head. The Room I now have is not more than Eight feet square for six of us; and the family worse than the Devil; and the Justices threatening you and me if I continue to occupy this Hutt.
I beg you not to fail to send me the Markee and Stove to Day; or send me somebody to drive away the Evil Spirits who inhabit this House,
Your Obedt Servt
What did the Continental soldier eat for his Christmas dinner? While we have no record of any special food's being rationed for the day, the following general order illustrates the kind of food he must have had—perhaps only a half or even a quarter of the prescribed ration:
A pnd. of hard or soft bread & 19 Pound of Indn. Meal or a pound of flower, a pound of Beef or 14 oz. Pork to be daily Ration until further orders.3
Some of the officers, at least, were able to escape the hard times prevalent about the camp on Christmas Day. A letter written by Lieutenant Erkuries Beatty, of Hand's Brigade, illustrates a celebration in splendid style:
Camp near Morristown
Christmas Day
Dec.r 25th [17] 79.
. . . I am just done dinner about half Drunk, all dined together upon good roast & boiled, but in a Cold Tent, however grog enough will keep out cold . . . tomorrow we all dine at or with the Colonel, which will be another excellent dinner and I think you may call that fine living, but oh! I am afraid it won't last many Days—we hutt about four miles from Morristown . . . so about one week we will be in our hutt & a fine lay out it is . . .4
Even the Commander in Chief, living at the Ford Mansion in Morristown throughout this Christmas season of 1779,
could not have been very comfortable. The official family was much crowded even though most of the spacious mansion was placed at its disposal. As late as January 22, 1780, Washington wrote:
. . . I have been at my prest. quarters since the 1st day of Decr. and have not a Kitchen to cook a Dinner in, altho' the Logs have been put together some considerable time by my own Guard; nor is there a place at this moment in which a servant can lodge with the smallest degree of comfort. Eighteen belonging to my family and all Mrs. Fords, are crowded together in her Kitchen and scarce one of them able to speak for the colds they have caught . . .5

This primitive heating system was all that warmed soldier patients in the hospital hut during one of the severest winters of the century. The interior is one of the Morristown reconstructions.

Besides the dearth of personal comforts, this Christmas was one of the most disheartening of the entire 8 years of the war. Up until November, high hopes had been held that the powerful French fleet under Count D'Estaing, which was operating in the West Indies, could arrive on the coast in time to cooperate with the Continental Army in a siege of New York City. But D'Estaing failed to grasp the opportunity and chose instead to assist General Lincoln in an unsuccessful attack on Savannah, Ga. Thus, at Christmas time, Washington found it necessary to weaken his own force to give assistance to the defeated Lincoln. Besides this, Washington and his staff became alarmed at the indications of a possible attack by Sir Henry Clinton, the British commander at New York. Clinton had called in all his outlying detachments and had the entire army concentrated on Manhattan Island. Preparations were being made to embark a large fleet, which, Washington thought, may have been a feint for an attack on Morristown. Not to be caught unawares in such a situation, Washington gave orders to place all the troops in a position to defend themselves. A system of alarm signals was organized, each brigade being directed to its proper place in the line of battle, and Duportail, chief of the engineers, and General Greene were instructed to prepare a plan for a defense of the position. Such an attack, however, never occurred.

Four days before Christmas, Washington wrote to Governor Livingston of New Jersey concerning his apprehensions in regard to the plans of the British. He wrote that Clinton could not be ignorant of the small number of men left in the Continental Army, the distress of the military magazines, and the want of forage. "The loss of our huts at this inclement season," he pointed out, "would be a most serious calamity. This loss would be accompanied by that of a great part of our baggage, and a number of our men by desertions."6

George Washington's Christmas dinner of 1779 may have been cooked in this fireplace, preserved today in his headquarters mansion at Morristown.
The general orders on Christmas Day, 1779, make no mention of the festiveness of the occasion, only the prosaic grind of military routine. One order dated December 24, 1779, calls for a court martial on December 25 at 10 o'clock in the morning, for a trial of the noncommissioned officers and privates who were in confinement.7 Another announced that a small supply of shirts had arrived and would be delivered.8 Still another, dated December 25, is a reprimand for the "shameful waste of forrage" in camp.9

But what must have added most to this disheartening Christmas season, at least to Washington, was the court martial of Benedict Arnold, who was tried for permitting a Tory vessel to enter the port of Philadelphia without acquainting other officials of the fact, and other charges. The trial was held in the old Dickerson Tavern in Morristown and the occasion made it one of the most important gatherings ever held in America up to that time. Arnold was summoned December 1910, and further sessions were held at the same place at 11 o'clock on the mornings of December 24, 25, and 2611. Even on Christmas Day the trial continued! As evidence in his favor Arnold placed before the court complimentary letters from the Commander in Chief which bore out the fact that he was one of the bravest generals of the army. A sad Christmas, the first of many which Benedict Arnold was to have! Sadder still it must have been to Washington who had put implicit faith in Arnold.

So, it may be wondered, could there have been a Christmas at Morristown in 1779? These "times that tried men's souls" as Thomas Paine wrote, were never more in evidence than during that season.
Today, 160 years later, when the ageless Christmas message is said and sung again to the sound of bells and the twinkle of candles, when the firelight burns brightly on twentieth century hearths, Americans still may keep green the story of Morristown's Christmas in 1779. For that story, in the great realities of the present, well may remind us of an ancient sacrifice whereby we now are afforded, as Scrooge's nephew said, "a good time, a kind forgiving, charitable, pleasant, time."

Farmer Henry Wick, whose home (above) was the object of hungry soldiers' pilferings, provided quarters for General St. Clair.

1 The Wick House, as well as Washington's Headquarters (the Ford House) mentioned elsewhere in this article, are now units of Morristown National Historical Park.
2 Letter from the Chevalier de la Luzerne, the French Minister, to his government, New Materials for the History of the American Revolution (John Durand Henry Holt and Company, New York, 1889), pp. 217-218.
3 General Orders, January 18, 1780, Morristown Orderly Book, Morristown National Historical Park manuscript collection.
4 Written to his brother, Dr. Reading Beatty, "Letters of Four Beatty Brothers of the Continental Army, 1774-1794," The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. XLIV (1920), pp. 193-263, Historical Society of Pennsylvania.
5 John C. Fitzpatrick, Writings of Washington (United States Government Printing Office, Washington, May 1937), Vol. 17, p. 432.
6 Ibid., 292.
7 Ibid., 309.
8 Ibid., 310.
9 Ibid., 320.
10 Ibid., 286.
11 Ibid., 302, 312.

By Russell Baker, Junior Historical Technician, Morristown National Historical Park, N. J.

*Reprinted from The Regional Review (National Park Service, Region One, Richmond, Va.), Vol. III, No. 6, December 1939, pp. 3-7.

Wicks Home photo from National Parks Service by Kim Watts.

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