It seems like we’ve been bombarded with bad weather this winter, all the snow and ice making things so astonishingly inconvenient. I was googling the worst winter in this country and read that the winter of 1780 was the most devastating winter in recorded American history. This winter stuck in the heart of the Revoltion and thousands of men suffered unimaginable deprivation as a result.
It was known as the Hard Winter. Snow started to fall in November 1779 and didn’t stop until March of the following year, piling up four to six feet deep at times , and that’s not the drifts. Wagons and sleds were totally mired and every pond, estuary, river in the North East was frozen, especially with a low of 16 minus zero in January of 1780. All the bays from Charleston through Maine froze;ground animals and birds died on the spot. Washington reported that the oldest people in the Colonies couldn’t remember a winter like what they were experiencing. Two years prior, Washington wintered his men at Valley Forge ,where the Continental Army suffered through disease, unsanitary conditions and extreme cold and snow and still managed to pull off a victory at the Battle of Trenton. Most historians agree that the winter of Valley Forge was unduly harsh and would have been enough to discourage even the most intrepid of soldiers. This one was so much worse. Up to 13,000 men total (before the inevitable desertion) suffered it out in Morristown, NJ, at a place called Jockey Hollow. In the fall of 1779, Washington recieved so much heavy clothing from the French to give to his men that he had to warehouse it. The problem was now he couldn’t get to it because of the snows. Most enlistees were poor or destitute and many showed up barefoot and exposed. Their tents (if they had any) were covered with snow, and they were “buried like sheep in the snow” according to James Thacker, camp Surgeon. Officers’ marquees collapsed or blew down around their heads and the officers, too, were at the mercy of the elements. This was the second time in four years that Washington decided to winter in Mid-Jersey, far enough from the British to stay out of direct harm but close enough to harry and keep an eye on the British stationed in NY, twenty three miles away. Even though the militia tried to offer help and provisions as they could, the locals were not as forthcoming with aid as they were two years prior, and the men got tools and food where ever and how ever they could. Washington ordered the army to build a more permanent shelter, in part for their protection and also to keep a kind of military discipline. Throughout the winter, the men cut down 600 acres of wood to build the largest encampment in the Thirteen Colonies, but until the men were able to cut down and hew enough wood to build over 1000 rudimentary huts, they were at the total mercy of the elements. The huts, 14 x 16, housing 12 men in each, were built in perfect formation and all of the same size. They formed one of the largest cities on the East Coast that winter. Enlisted men moved in somewhere around Christmas. The officers who had their huts built next, didn’t get to move into theirs until sometime in February. Even after, with no food for days at a time, clothes that were rotting off their backs, it’s a miracle that they survived at all. This winter in hell made Valley Forge, even with endemic dysentery and smallpox that plagued the Continental Army,seem like a summer picnic. When things got really bad, men were eating the bark from the trees, boiling or roasting what was left of their boots ( if they even had any) ; officers were killing their dogs for meat (Joseph Plum Martin journal) . Washington frantically wrote Congress for money to buy provisions but even if the Congress was inclined to give him any, it was unlikely that wagons could pass through the unpassable white wall.
Washington, an inveterate diary-keeper, has this entry for Jan. 6, 1780: “The snow which in general is 18 inches deep is much drifted — roads impassable.” He was apparently referring to the new snowfall from a major storm on that date, since other records indicate there was already close to four feet of snow on the ground. He continued to say that ” In the woods it lay at least four feet upon a level. It was with the utmost difficulty that the farmers got their wood . . . ”
Washington and wife, Martha, and sixteen aides stayed in the home of the widow Theodosis Ford and her four children. In spite of it being a rather large home in the village, it must have been rather cramped with all those people. Washington got rather testy at times as shown when he wrote after two months there
“I have been at my present quarters since the first of December and have not a kitchen to cook a dinner in, although the logs have been put together some considerable time by my own guard,” Washington complained. “Nor is there a place at this moment in which a servant can lodge with the smallest degree of comfort. Eighteen belonging to my family, and all of Mrs. Ford’s, are crowded together in her kitchen, and scarce one of them able to speak from the colds they have caught.”
In spite of the miserable conditions, many of the troops stayed on and battled the British who got wind of the conditions the men were facing and the weakened condition they were in. The Continentals continually patrolled the perimeters, barefoot, in rags, in snow sometimes six foot deep. Scouts kept an eye on the British and huge flares were lit all over mid NJ when the troops started to move from New York toward Elizabethtown, NJ. It was a continual worry for Washington that he was losing so many troops, the army having shrunk form its original number to 3,500 by the spring. They were not lost to exposure, disease or the famine that plagued them but to desertion. Further, he had little confidence in the militia, but the militia sped to their aid and helped to repel the Brits in two separate attacks at Springfield.
It is a credit to General Arthur St. Clair on the ground and Washington above him that they was able to keep the men from total mutiny. With the spring thaw, the men were at the breaking point but from journals like J. P. Martin’s cited above that were kept at the time, it is clear that in the end it was the cause that kept them together and the commitment to each other that kept them loyal. It was also at that time that Washington got the news from Lafayette that the French were arriving to offer further aid and assistance to his troops. Later that June, when 6000 British and Hessian troops led by Lieutenant General Wilhelm von Knyphausen under Lt. General Sir Henry Clinton tried to deliver a final knock out punch to Washington’s troops near Jockey Hollow in Springfield, they were defeated by Major General Nathaniel Greene. The Battle of Springfield was the last major battle of the war to be fought in the North and British losses numbered 307 killed, wounded, and captured. American casualties were approximately 15 killed and 40-61 wounded. The campaign was the last time the British attempted an invasion of New Jersey. At Springfield, Greene used the same defense in depth approach that later served him well in the South at Guilford Courthouse.