What About Morristown?

Growing up in Morris County, New Jersey, I could not avoid at least one school field trip to Morristown National Historical Park. I have memories of riding a yellow school bus down route 287 to Morristown and spending the day touring George Washington’s headquarters at Ford Mansion before being let loose to explore the “log city” that the Continental Army built in the winter of 1779-80 at Jockey Hollow. (At the time, I had no idea that the log huts we ducked in and out of were replicas that had just been constructed by the National Park Service.) I am sure sometime throughout the day we were reminded about just how exciting it was to be living so close to such an important historical site and, though my memory has faded, I have no doubt that there were probably some remarks made about how New Jersey played an overlooked and underappreciated role in the American War for Independence.

Over at Historynet.com, Ray Raphael argues argues that it was the 1779-1780 winter in Morristown, and not the 1777-1778 Winter in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, that placed the greatest demand on George Washington’s troops. Here a few snippets:

The winter at Valley Forge two years earlier is a celebrated part of America’s Revolutionary mythology, while its sequel at Morristown is now largely forgotten. And therein lies a paradoxical tale. The climatic conditions the Continental Army faced at Valley Forge and a year later at Middlebrook, N.J., were mild compared to those they endured at Morristown during the harshest winter in American history.

So why do we remember Valley Forge and not Morristown? The answer, in a nutshell, is that Valley Forge better fits the triumphal story of the Revolution passed down from generation to generation, while Morristown is viewed as an embarrassment. At Valley Forge, the story goes, soldiers suffered quietly and patiently. They remained true to their leader. At Morristown, on the other hand, they threatened to mutiny.

Nobody celebrated either Valley Forge or Morristown during the Revolution itself. The sorry plight of the poor men and teenage boys who comprised the Continental Army was a guarded secret, kept from the British, who must not know their vulnerability, and from the French, who might deny aid to a weak ally. Further, the failure of civilian governments to supply troops was just that—a failure, not to be publicized.

By the early 19th century, however, writers who looked to the Revolutionary War to inspire a new wave of patriotism developed a storyline that transformed the troubled winter at Valley Forge into a source of pride. Soldiers had endured their sufferings without complaint, drilled obediently under the instructions of Baron Von Steuben, and emerged strong and ready to fight. “How strong must have been their love of liberty?” Salma Hale asked rhetorically in a romanticized history written in 1822 for schoolchildren as well as adults. If Valley Forge was the low point of the war, the story went, it was also the turning point. After that, things got better…