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USA/Mid-Atlantic: Morristown, NJ

The Soldiers Camp

Overview

The Highlights: A Revolutionary War encampment, Gen. George Washington's headquarters, a stunning old forest with easy walking trails, numerous museums, a small theater that attracts national acts. 

Other Places Nearby: The 1911 home and country estate of a famous furniture designer who was a leader in the Arts and Crafts Movement.

Meetings & Event Options: The Bernards Inn and The Madison Hotel are unique lodgings for meetings and events, and many chain hotels provide other options.

Wick Farm from Waypoint 1

Few forests in the region compare in grandeur with Jockey Hollow, a part of the Morristown National Historical Park (see Getting Here and A Recommended Walk). Huge old trees have gradually shaded the underbrush to create a wide open forest floor, giving visitors a glimpse of what the virgin forest must have looked like to the Revolutionary War soldiers who set up camp here more than 200 years ago. If you want to experience this beautiful land as they did during this walking tour in north-central New Jersey, don’t come during spring or summer when the soaring tree boughs throw a dappled light over the bright green carpet of ground cover. Come in the dead of winter, when it’s icy cold and hues of brown, gray, and white better tell the story of the men who suffered here for the cause of revolution.

To appreciate the heroism of the soldiers who camped here, it’s important to know that these men did not have to fight. The shivering, often starving men who passed their winters in Valley Forge and Jockey Hollow could have left at almost any time by simply walking out of the camps and heading home, and many did. Conditions couldn’t have been much worse on the way home than in the crowded, poorly equipped and fed encampments. The penalty for desertion was severe, but the chances of getting caught were small.

The soldiers of the Revolutionary War fought a far different kind of war than anything familiar to people of this century. At Gen. George Washington’s insistence, the revolutionaries waged a modified version of classic 18th-Century warfare, which included lengthy lulls in fighting, an entourage of hangers-on and women, and a general unwillingness of generals to fight during the cold of winter. After the major campaigns of the war during spring, summer, and fall, the troops in the north retreated to winter encampments, notable Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, in the early part of the war and Jockey Hollow, near Morristown, NJ, later on. Washington wintered in Jockey Hollow with his wife and family in the Ford family’s home, which still stands and is open to the public.

Today, we may revel at the glory of the cause, but the issues surrounding the Revolutionary War were not so clear-cut to Americans back then. Loyalties were divided, especially in areas around New York City and to the south. Washington may, in part, have picked Morristown as a winter encampment because there was more sympathy for the cause there. It was not like the Civil War or World Wars, when Americans lined up to join the army. One of the Washington’s greatest challenges was to find enough men to fight the war; the other was to feed the men and find the money to pay for their food.

The few hundred residents of Morris Town, as it was known then, got their first taste of this army when several thousand soldiers set up camp in the winter of 1777. During the winters of 1779 and 1780, up to 10,000 men and an unknown number of women invaded the quiet valley village. Most camped on the farm of the Wick family in a 2,000-acre area know as Jockey Hollow, while the high-ranking officers lodged in the homes of townspeople. There are few accounts of what the common soldiers thought of their stay, but military records and officers’ correspondence tell some of the story, both good and bad.

Soldiers at Jockey Hollow did not encounter the devastating diseases that killed more that 3,000 people at Valley Forge but instead confronted historically harsh weather without the benefit of adequate clothing, food, or shelter. The first snows came in November when the soldiers began to arrive, followed by a string of bad storms in December and January. The arriving army immediately built log huts, but many had to endure the snowstorms in canvas tents until the huts were completed. Organized into nine major encampments, each representing a different brigade, the soldiers usually built the huts on small terraces hollowed out of hillsides, following a uniform size and design that slept a dozen men. The officers’ huts were built last and accommodated four men.

The soldiers often received few rations for weeks because of poor weather and the Continental army’s pitiable supply system. More than 1,000 deserted, and there were numerous arrests for consorting with the enemy, assaulting officers, and attempted mutiny. Local residents frequently had to contend with drunken soldiers, robberies, and the foraging parties designed by General Washington to obtain food for the men while controlling the amount taken from any single local resident. Unfortunately, several years of war had robbed the fledgling U.S. dollar of any appreciable value, making it difficult to appease farmers with promises of payment. Despite the difficulties, the officers, at least, managed to have some fun, according to some of their letters describing elaborate dinners and parties in the homes of Morristown residents.

Of all Washington’s fears, the greatest was the perpetual risk of mutiny. In May 1780, Washington had to subdue a rebellion by the Connecticut Brigade. The following New Year’s Day, in the Pennsylvania Line encampment (between Waypoints 2 and 3 on this walking tour), the soldiers had had enough. A number of them killed an officer, rallied additional troops, and stormed off down the Elizabeth-Mendham road, which you will follow on this walk. General Anthony Wayne and others were able to resolve the situation before any more harm was done.

During their encampment, the soldiers knocked down thousands of trees, virtually overrunning the farm and woodlands of the Wick family, which owned much of the land. After the war, the huts fell gradually into decay and were swallowed by forest. Locals farmed the land, hunted, or gathered wood, and tried to erect some waterworks in the 19th Century to improve the water supply in Morristown. Based in part on efforts by powerful local residents, the land of Jockey Hollow became a national park in 1933. Many of the soldiers’ sites were excavated as part of a public works program during the Depression. Otherwise, you will find their encampments much as nature has left them after 200 years — barely visible but for the subtle rows of terraces you see along the hillsides beneath the underbrush and the scattered piles of stones left over from their hearths and foundations.

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