The nicest house in Morristown, New Jersey in 1779 was a Georgian mansion owned by the widow of Jacob Ford, Jr., an iron mine owner and gun powder manufacturer. And it was in Ford Mansion that George Washington made his headquarters during the Continental Army’s winter encampment of 1779-1780.
For various reasons — lack of supplies being the major among them — there (generally) was no fighting in the winter (yes, yes, I know — the Battle of Trenton — fodder for another day) during the American Revolution. Both the British and the Continental armies hunkered down until summer, at locations strategically chosen to keep an eye on each other.
Between December 1779 and June 1780, the British were in New York and the Continental army was in Morristown. And despite the press that Valley Forge gets, that winter in Morristown was the harshest endured by the Continental soldiers. The weather was the worst in memory and Private Joseph Plumb Martin wrote in his memoirs, “We are absolutely, literally starved. I do solemnly declare that I did not put a single morsel of victuals into my mouth for four days and as many nights, except for a little black birch bark which I gnawed off a stick of wood.” He reports seeing others roast and eat an old shoe, and officers kill and eat “a favorite little dog that belonged to one of them.”
Washington wasn’t in such dire straits, however. Martha and her two children were with him at the Ford Mansion. Martha spent every winter encampment with George, through the entire war. She went no matter what the weather. “Through wind, rain and snow,” said the guide at the Ford Mansion. “She could have worked for the postal service.”
Mrs. Ford and her four children lived in the servants’ wing, while the Washingtons and five of the General’s aides occupied the main part of the house. And then there were the slaves. “Eighteen belong to my family, & all Mrs. Fords are crowded together in her Kitchen…,” Washington wrote to his Quartermaster General, Nathanael Greene. Washington ended up adding rooms to the house, as well as building log cabins nearby, to accommodate everyone.
The house is now part of the Morristown National Historical Park. It is furnished with period pieces, with a few having belonged to the Fords. Also part of the park is the small but substantive Washington Headquarters Museum behind the house, and the 1500 acre Jockey Hollow, five miles south. Jockey Hollow is where the troops were camped, and it now has a visitor center, reconstructed soldiers’ cabins and miles of walking trails.