Elaine Marie Cooper
The most infamous winter of the Revolutionary War was not the frequently mentioned winter of 1777 to ‘78 at Valley Forge in Pennsylvania. While it was considered moderately cold, it was the lack of clothing, sufficient food, and poor housing that brought the image of bloodied footprints in the snow when the troops marched into camp. While that was a painful image to imagine, the winter that year was moderate compared to another winter just two years later: The encampment at Morristown, New Jersey.
The weather conditions during the winters of the American Revolution were described this way:
The winter of 1779-80 will be featured in Book 2 of my Dawn of America series, to be released in 2022. Book 2 is called “Winter’s Ravage.” (Book 1 is “Love’s Kindling”)
Somehow the title seems appropriate when one considers there were 28 snowstorms that year as well as deadly illnesses, plunging temperatures, and serious lack of food for the troops. It got so bad that Washington wrote to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia and pleaded with them to send help.
The present situation of the army with respect to provisions is the most distressing of any we have experienced since the beginning of the war. For a fortnight past the troops, both officers and men, have been almost perishing for want. They have been alternately without bread or meat; the whole time with a very scanty allowance of either, and frequently destitute of both. They have borne their sufferings with a patience that merits the approbation, and ought to excite the sympathy of their countrymen. But they are now reduced to an extremity no longer to be supported. The distress has in some instances prompted ⟨the⟩ men to commit depr⟨eda⟩tions on the property of the inhabitants, whi⟨ch⟩ at any other period would be punished with exemplary severity…. The distress we feel is chiefly owing to the early commencement and uncommon rigor of the winter, which have greatly obstructed the transportation of ⟨our⟩ supplies. (https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-24-02-0039)
Private Joseph Plumb Martin, who wrote his memoirs of the war late in his life, penned that his constant companions in Morristown were “Fatigue, Hunger, and Cold.” He described eating “a little black birch bark which I gnawed off a stick of wood, if that can be called victuals.”
The Congress, who believed conditions could not possibly be as bad as that which were described, sent delegates to see firsthand. What the delegates found were conditions even worse than described by General Washington.
“Extreme cold proved to be one of the army’s greatest trials during the winter at Morristown. Though Valley Forge is remembered for its harsh conditions, that winter in Morristown, Washington’s troops faced even bitterer cold than they had witnessed in Pennsylvania a few years before. Known as “the hard winter,” the season bridging the end of 1779 and early 1780 proved to be one of the coldest on record. Morristown received twenty-eight snowfalls during the Continental Army’s residence there, adding to the miserable conditions the troops faced in the wake of the shortages of food and
Supplies (https://www.battlefields.org/learn/articles/washingtons-encampment-morristown-new-jersey-and-hard-winter-1779-1780) “According to some sources, soldiers were so desperate for food that they ate tree bark, leather from old shoes, or even dogs, a situation made worse by the fact that Morristown was located amidst numerous local farms.”
In the most severe winter encampment of the war, weather-wise at least, Patriot forces held together, despite all the conditions that threatened to tear the army apart. In the winter of 1779-1780, the Continental Army’s perseverance and determination to overcome the challenges they faced prepared them for the campaigns that would eventually secure American Independence.
Valley Forge Morristown
# of soldiers: 11,000 # of soldiers: 10-12,000
Deaths from illness: 2,000 Deaths from illness: 2,000
Elaine Marie Cooper’s novel, "Love’s Kindling" is the second-place winner in Historical Romance for the 2020 Selah Award contest. Like many of Cooper’s books, it focuses on the era of the American Revolution. She has authored several historical novels, a non-fiction memoir, and has been published in numerous anthologies and magazines. Although not a current resident of New England, Cooper’s heart for history was birthed there and continues to thrive.