In 1779-1780 Washington's main army spent the worst winter - not only of the war but of the entire 18th century - in the hills south of Morristown, New Jersey. Known as Jockey Hollow, the encampment ultimately housed more than 10,000 soldiers of the Continental Army in 1,200 log huts which they had to build for themselves by clearing more than 600 acres of trees while enduring severe cold and relentless snow storms.
It was a winter like none other ever recorded East of the Mississippi. New York Harbor froze to a depth of 18 feet, and Long Island Sound could be crossed in sleighs. Jockey Hollow was literally buried in snow as the men began to arrive and the storms continued to pound the encampment while the huts were under construction. Army Surgeon James Thatcher recorded;
"[We] endured one of the most tremendous snow-storms ever remembered; no man could endure its violence many minutes without danger of his life...the sufferings of the poor soldiers can scarcely be described, while on duty they are unavoidably exposed to all the inclemency of snows and severe cold; at night they now have a bed of straw, and a single blanket to each man; they are badly clad, and some are destitute of shoes...the soldiers are so enfeebled from cold, as to be almost unable to perform their military duty."
The men slept six to a tent until they were able to construct log huts for 12 men measuring 14' x 16'. The regimental officers had huts, located further up the hillsides from those of the men, accommodating 2-4 officers and had chimneys on either end, but these were not fully completed until February. The roads, such as they were, were impassable much of the time, which prevented essential supplies from reaching the troops. Connecticut private Joseph Plumb Martin later recalled;
"The deep snow was the keystone in the arch of starvation. We were absolutely, literally starved. For four days and as many nights I did not put a single morsel into my mouth except a little black birch bark I gnawed off a limb. Some boiled and ate their shoes. Some officers killed a pet dog for food. If this was not starving, I wonder what was."
Compared to these extreme privations, the weekend encampments I have participated in at Jockey Hollow this mild winter bear little resemblance to what those men survived in 1779-1780 (and extraordinarily, fewer of them succumbed to starvation and illness here than died at Valley Forge two years before). Nonetheless, there is something profoundly visceral about living and working in one of the five reconstructed huts on the very site where the Pennsylvania Line encamped at Jockey Hollow. Little things, like the way the doors are aligned to take advantage of maximum afternoon sunlight, or the effort it takes to keep a fire going all night long, make this kind of living history experience more instructive for those of us who undertake it than the battle recreations that are also part of our hobby. Using period tools and techniques to build a roof without nails, or cooking the kinds of rations that soldiers ate (when they had them), add greatly to the experience. The fact that none of us is at risk of starvation or freezing to death and can go home after a less than fully comfortable night or two in the huts only underscores our amazement and admiration at what the men we portray did under horrendous conditions for months on end.
For a number of years, members of the 2nd New Jersey Regiment and invited reenactor guests have enjoyed a special connection as volunteers at this site and an excellent partnership with the National Park Service. They are able to work on the huts, slowing bringing them closer to the way the originals were likely constructed based on ongoing historical research and archaeology. They interact with hundreds of park visitors at the huts, including many who are truly engaged and interested in what they are doing and what we have to share. I have been able to participate as one of these reenactors last December and earlier this month and look forward to doing so again in the future.