Did you know that St. Patrick’s Day was the ONLY day that General George Washington gave his soldiers as a day off during the 1779-1780 winter encampment? Not Christmas. Not New Years. No other day.. Why was that?
Revolutionary War Encampment
It was the winter of 1779-1780 and the Continental Army had its winter encampment at Jockey Hollow, near Morristown New Jersey. The location was chosen because of its close proximity to British-occupied New York City, only 30 miles away but behind a mountainous range. They found farms in the area and occupied them, cutting down the forrest to build shelters for the upcoming winter.
In Jockey Hollow alone, there were 10,000+ men, most living in 12×14 sized log huts, with as many as 12 men per hut. (Officers got a bit more space – only 6 to a hut, but still incredibly tight quarters.) After the debacle during the first winter encampment at Valley Forge, where hundreds died of the cold and diseases such as influenza, dysentery and typhoid because of poor planning, inadequate sanitation and terrible living conditions, Washington learned his lesson. His men had such stringent building requirements that if a wall was crooked, they had to tear down their hut and do it again!
The men built 1,200 huts at Jockey Hollow, with earthen floors and hand built bunks and furniture. Well prepared for the winter and in a good strategic location; but unfortunately, it was to be one of the coldest winters on record.
“The weather was cold enough to cut a man in two” said Private Joseph Plumb Martin, 8th Connecticut Regiment.
Snowstorms cut supply lines. Mid-winter – provisions were low; it was freezing cold; the Colonial economy was in ruins; and soldiers were hungry, cold and discouraged. They badly needed a morale boost, so General George Washington enlisted a popular holiday to the American cause.
A large proportion of Washington’s army were of Irish descent, so this was a natural fit. In addition, Ireland was in an uprising against Britain, hopefully providing a distraction for the colonies as they too were fighting against British rule.
St. Patrick’s Day Proclamation
In his St. Patrick’s Day proclamation on March 16, 1780, General George Washington gave his troops the following day off. Every one of them were to have a day of rest. Interestingly enough, there was no reported ruckus – he required that everyone stay in their quarters – but they were probably just happy to not have to go out in the cold. Most days they would have to be out cutting wood, digging latrines, cooking, pulling sentry duty, troop inspections, training …
It wasn’t the first time that March 17th had been celebrated in the Americas. Indeed, it was already a special day, but known as Evacuation Day. That was the day, when on March 17, 1776, the British troops and loyalists had withdrawn from the city of Boston.
We can’t be sure what place this St. Patrick’s Day off had in the eventual victory, but we can be sure that it was as well-appreciated as any act of kindness during the long drawn out Revolutionary War.
Morristown National Historical Park
Today Morristown National Historical Park commemorates the sites of General Washington and the Continental army’s winter encampment. It includes a visitor center at Jockey Hollow with replicas of the log cabins.
Walking through these cabins, you can really envision how these solders had to live; you can see how cold and drafty those huts must have been.
The Visitor Center is located next to the Wick House. During the Revolutionary War, Henry Wick owned Jockey Hollow. As a member of the military, he opened his home and offered his land to the soldiers at no charge. In fact, during the winter of 1779-1780, many of the officers shared his home.
This was not the first time the Wicks had shared their living quarters with the army; Alexander Hamilton stayed with them at least once before then. They would use one side of the house; the officers would use the other side; and they would share the kitchen and dining area. Today you can tour the house and envision just what close quarters these were!
While you are at Jockey Hollow be sure to get out and take a walk, at least up to the encampment site. There are over 27 miles of hiking, biking and horseback riding trails through this beautiful countryside. Take time to enjoy it!
Be sure to go into the town of Morristown. It has a cute downtown area – lots of little shops and restaurants, plus street fairs and fun activities in the park. When we were there, kids from the local “School of Rock” were performing and families were out in the park with lawn chairs enjoying the evening.
In the winter of 1779-1780, a local family opened their home (pictured above) to General Washington. Today know as “Fort Mansion“, it was built by Jacob Ford. His widow allowed the general to use her home as his headquarters. She and her four children moved into 2 rooms. General Washington and his wife Martha, plus 5 aides-de-camp, 18 servants plus visiting dignitaries and guards took up the rest. Good thing the Ford Mansion was big!!!
It is a pretty interesting place to visit. Bought and preserved by four local businessmen, the Washington Association donated the house to the National Park Service in 1933. Today it is furnished as it may have appeared during Washington’s stay. It is a great example of the wealth and architecture of the day.
Morristown National Historical Park also encompasses Fort Nonsense, another really cool place to visit. Rumors say that it was called Fort Nonsense because Washington had it built just as a way to keep his soldiers busy.
You will find that there are lots of National Park Units relating to the Revolutionary War; all rich in history and interesting in their own way! Morristown National Historical Park is just one…