Winter at Morristown

After the battles of Trenton and Princeton, the American troops made winter headquarters at Morristown, New Jersey on January 6.[1] Traditionally, wars were not fought during the wintertime, but the American Revolution was not a conventional European war. The winter did not bring any large engagements, but an army of citizen-farmers was uniquely suited to fight through the winter, and the American troops, particularly the New Jersey militia, kept pressure on the British with smaller skirmishes.

Morristown was a small town with a church, tavern, and about fifty houses. It was situated in a strategically advantageous spot, on top of a triangular plateau with steep slopes on two sides and a mountain ridge guarding the third side. The town was defendable, and its location also allowed the Americans to watch Howe’s movements. If the British marched towards the Hudson or to Philadelphia, Washington would get word of it and be able to respond.[2]

The handful of soldiers left from the Maryland Line were joined by reinforcements that January. Among the troops that marched into camp in early 1777 were men from Frederick and Hagerstown, who had begun their march north in a December blizzard before Washington had crossed the Delaware.[3] The fresh troops sustained the skeletal Continental Army, which had lost numbers to expiring enlistments and desertion. By mid-March, there were only 2,500 men in the Continental Army. [4] Although the victories at Trenton and Princeton had bolstered enlistments, it took time for the states to raise the regiments that they had promised Washington. However, the numbers in New Jersey were fortified by the New Jersey militias, who spent the winter industriously, waging a devastating Forage War against the British.

An extract from Joseph Nourse's account of camp life.

An extract from Joseph Nourse’s account of camp life.

Joseph Nourse was a twenty-one-year old officer when he began his journal in February of 1777. During the months of February and March Nourse wrote of the day to day life in the camp. He described his daily routine with the officers with whom he shared a house: “we get up early in the morning, go the round of washing and combing and then go to the headquarters, which is a mile, to parade. Return to cook and eat breakfast after which we cut our wood, or if not wanted, read a book, take dinner– a rather lazy life.” Earlier in the month he wrote that “parade twice a day and mount guard is all we now have to do.”[5] He even had time to read Homer’s Odyssey; Lord Stirling had lent him his copy.

While Nourse spent his cold afternoons reading, the Americans were advancing piecemeal in New Jersey.  The winter campaign was an ideal training ground for the Americans, who had little to lose by the engagements and much to gain. The Continental troops were sent out with the New Jersey militia to scout and harass the British in New Jersey. From January to March the Americans engaged in dozens of skirmishes, chipping away at the numbers, supplies, and morale of the British army. The campaign brought nearly all of northern New Jersey under American control, and the loyalists in the region began to reconsider whether the British could or would protect them as the political landscape of New Jersey changed.

The Americans reclaimed control of the war in the first months of 1777, and after months spent defending, they were finally able to begin attacking. The momentum that the victories at Trenton and Princeton had created were sustained by the Forage War. The winter hobbled the British, but by the time spring came the Americans would be prepared for the renewed assault, and the handful of men who remained from Smallwood’s original regiment would make up part of the experienced core of the American army; a force unrecognizable from that at the Battle of Brooklyn.


[2]  Mark Andrew Tacyn, “‘To the End:’ The First Maryland Regiment and the American Revolution,” PhD diss. (University of Maryland, College Park, 1999), 131.

[3] “Council to Maryland Deputies,”Journal and Correspondence of the Maryland Council of Safety, vol. 12 p. 530, Archives of Maryland Online. 

[4] David Hackett Fisher, Washington’s Crossing, (Oxford University Press, 2004), 348.

[5] Miller Collection of Nourse Family Papers, Joseph Nourse, “Diary of Joseph Nourse” MSA SC 1394-1-7.

-Emily

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