The story of the Continental Army’s winter cantonment at Morristown is a story of patriotism and sacrifice in the face of nearly insurmountable odds. For me, it is also a very personal story of a place that is crucial for understanding New Jersey’s history.
The winter of 1779-1780 was the worst that anyone could remember. Between December and April, 28 major snowstorms buffeted the hills of Morris County. For the Continental soldiers encamped at Jockey Hollow, the situation was dire. Food and supplies were hard to come by, clothing was scarce, and the Continental currency they were sporadically paid in was nearly worthless. Their homes were a city of log huts, hastily erected at Jockey Hollow. Officers lived in finer homes: Washington in the Ford Mansion and Major General Arthur St. Clair in the farmhouse of Henry Wick. The suffering of the soldiers, some “naked as Lazarus begging for clothing,” was beyond comprehension. Yet they endured.
Some, led by Major General William Alexander, more commonly called Lord Stirling, participated in a daring raid on the British troops encamped on Staten Island. They used sleighs to carry off their attack! The winter also saw young Alexander Hamilton’s courtship of Betsy Schuyler, a union that would result in eight children.
In May of 1780, as the encampment wore down, there was cause for jubilation, particularly when the Marquis de Lafayette returned to America bringing news that France was sending more troops to help the Patriot cause. There was also reason for despair, especially when the First Connecticut Brigade, unpaid for five months and on starvation rations, mutinied. Quick-thinking officers quelled the rebellion and Washington pleaded with Congress for pay and supplies for the troops.
Later, in the 1920s, Morristown became the nation’s first National Historical Park, a fitting tribute to the momentous events that occurred there. During the 1930s, unemployed local men were put to work by the Civilian Conservation Corps conducting pioneering archaeological excavations of the hut sites where their forebears had suffered mightily in the cause of Revolution.
My memories of Morristown and particularly Jockey Hollow go back to the Bicentennial when, like many schoolchildren of the time, I was taken on a family trip to see the reconstructed huts and hear the powerful stories of the Revolution. Today, as a college professor, I share some of those stories with my own students. However, for me there is a more recent story that sums up why Morristown and particularly Jockey Hollow remain so important. It is the story of Chris Cosgrove, a Monmouth University history major, who in 2004 completed an internship with the National Park Service at Jockey Hollow. While there, Chris worked with park personnel to rebuild a hut using the techniques the Continental soldiers employed over two centuries before. Chris was justifiably proud of his work and asked me to visit him at the site and see what he had accomplished. He would go on to graduate from Monmouth and enlist in the United States Marine Corp. Commissioned a Lance Corporal, he later gave his life in the fighting in Al Anbar Province, Iraq. A young patriot, he like so many of his colonial forebears, sacrificed everything in the defense of his country. When I think of Morristown and the brutal winter of 1779-1780, I think not only of the young men who fought for freedom during the American Revolution, but also the ongoing efforts to commemorate their sacrifice, and how those efforts touched the life of a young man who was both a budding historian and a soldier. A life that was snuffed out too soon.
By Richard Veit
Richard Veit is a Professor of Anthropology and Chair of the Department of History and Anthropology at Monmouth University. His research focuses on the archaeology of early American life.