On this day in 1779, George Washington’s troops move into winter quarters near Morristown, New Jersey. Their long, difficult stay at Jockey Hollow has been called “the other Valley Forge.”
Valley Forge makes our history books, yet Jockey Hollow doesn’t. Nevertheless, many soldiers thought Jockey Hollow was the more miserable of the two.
“Those who have only been in Valley Forge and Middlebrook during the last two winters,” Major General Johann Kalb wrote, “but have not tasted the cruelties of this one, know not what it is to suffer.”
The stay in Jockey Hollow coincided with perhaps the coldest winter on record.
“During one winter only in recorded American meteorological history,” historian David Ludlum writes, “have all the salt-water inlets, harbors, and sounds of the Atlantic coastal plain, from North Carolina northeastward, frozen over and remained closed to navigation for the period of a full month and more. This occurred during what has ever since been called, ‘The Hard Winter of 1780.’”
Unfortunately, the cold winter coincided with a financial crisis. “The money depreciates so fast no body will trust the [Continental dollar] One day,” an officer wrote Quartermaster-General Nathanael Greene. “A hat costs four hundred dollars,” Kalb wrote in disbelief.
Obviously, the financial situation complicated the purchase of food and supplies—and the weather was getting colder and colder. By January, Col. Timothy Matlack was able to write that the “ink now freezes in my pen within five feet of the fire in my parlour, at 4 o‘clock in the afternoon.”
The men built log cabins from trees in the area, but food was becoming harder and harder to find. “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 a little black birch bark which I gnawed off a stick of wood, if that can be called victuals,” Soldier Joseph Plumb Martin wrote. “I saw several of the men roast their old shoes and eat them, and I was afterwards informed by one of the officers’ waiters, that some of the officers killed and ate a favourite little dog that belonged to one of them.”
By January, the soldiers had begun raiding nearby farms. Washington was unhappy, but he didn’t seem to have the heart to put a complete end to it, either.
“They have been some times without Bread, some times without meat, at no time with much of either, and often without both,” Washington wrote Jonathan Trumbull. “They have borne their distress . . . but they have been at last brought to such a dreadful extremity, that no authority or influence of the officers no virtue or patience in the men themselves could any longer restrain them from obeying the dictates of their sufferings.”
Washington sometimes obtained temporary relief from local magistrates, but the food never lasted long. Instead, the months dragged on and on, with the snow continuing even into April. By May, a brigade of Connecticut soldiers threatened mutiny. Fortunately, a brigade of loyal Pennsylvania troops convinced the potential mutineers to return to their huts. Food arrived soon afterwards, and disaster was averted.
Washington pardoned the ringleaders of the near-mutiny. He surely knew how taxing the winter had been. “[T]here are certain bounds beyond which it is impossible for human nature to go,” Washington concluded to Trumbull.
The army finally emerged from its winter quarters in June. Amazingly, Washington had held his men together through these long, difficult months.
Yet another untold story of how our Founders sacrificed that we might have freedom.
Benjamin L. Huggins, General Washington Records the Weather (Mount Vernon website; April 14, 2016)
David Ludlum, The Weather Factor (1984)
David R. Petriello, Tide of War: The Impact of Weather on Warfare (2018)
Edward G. Lengel, General George Washington: A Military Life (2005)
Friedrich Kapp, The Life of John Kalb (1884) (modern version available HERE)
James S. Bailey, Two Winters of Discontent: A Comparative Look at the Continental Army's Encampments at Valley Forge and Jockey Hollow, in Pennsylvania's Revolution (William Pencak ed. 2010)
Letter from Colonel Thomas Chase to General Nathanael Greene (Dec. 1, 1779) (reprinted HERE)
Letter from George Washington to Jonathan Trumbull, Sr. (Jan. 8, 1780)
Letter from George Washington to Jonathan Trumbull (May 25, 1780) (reprinted HERE)
Ordinary Courage: The Revolutionary War Adventures of Joseph Plumb Martin (modern version available HERE)