Morristown National Historical Park
The Great Story
To understand why it's a great story, walk to the top of the hill in Jockey Hollow that held 200 soldier huts for the Pennsylvania Brigade in early 1780. Walk up one day in January and imagine staying there until it gets warm enough sometime in April to take off your down jacket. Imagine standing there without your shoes on, without even one of the huts on top of the hill for retreat from the incessant cold. Try to conceive of something important enough to keep you on that hill for the rest of the winter. When you get home, imagine what it would be like if 13,000 ragged, homeless men with guns marched into your town. How would you feel if someone in your family caught small pox from the men and died? Would you have sympathy for the soldiers as they foraged in your barnyard, or for the General who headquartered on the other side of the village at Ford's Mansion?
Ask most people what happened in Morristown during the American Revolution and they'll undoubtedly mention Washington's Headquarters. But the untold stories of thousands of Continental soldiers and a few hundred townspeople magnify the American legend at Morristown. Perhaps it is because there were no great battles at Morristown that historical texts often gloss over the events here and focus on more catastrophic circumstances such as those at Valley Forge. The Jockey Hollow encampment of 1779-80 endured a winter more severe, including seven blizzards in December alone, than that at Valley Forge, where thousands died. Yet only about a hundred soldiers at Morristown did not see the spring of 1780.
Wick House at Jockey Hollow
Nine hundred acres of Jockey Hollow timber, notched together and chinked with clay, made the army's winter quarters-- 12 soldiers in each of 1,000 14 x 16 huts-- where the men made do with a trickle of rations and beds of loose straw. A thousand soldiers deserted; most remained. Although there was no great turning point, had the battle waged here to keep the Continental Army intact failed, then Yorktown, the battle where the Continental Army gained final advantage in the War, would have a far different meaning in our lives.
When the Jockey Hollow encampment made Morristown one of the ten largest cities in the Colonies by the spring of 1780, it was only the apex of the tiny village's eight year involvement in the conflict. By late 1779, the consistent military presence for munitions and supplies, constant procession of refugees, and a litany of Loyalist trials, jailings, and hangings gave the Patriot stronghold a war-weary atmosphere we might liken to modern day Bosnia. In fact, the army had wintered there 3 years before in 1777 following Washington's Christmas Delaware crossing and victories at Trenton and Princeton. Although far fewer troops accompanied the General the first time, the impact on the citizenry was catastrophic as nearly one quarter of the population died from small pox or dysentery. Washington, headquarterd at Arnold's Tavern on the town green, billeted 3 or 4 men in every house so that it would appear that troop presence was many times more than the few thousand actually there. Needless to say, the attitude was different the second time around, and citizens had by then acquired a lawful right to refuse quartering. A testament to the success of 1779-80 was that,this time, only 25 citizens perished from disease, although when it was over, the state of New Jersey read numerous petitions for grievances from Morristownians trespassed against.
After the last Patriot soldier left Morristown in 1782, it was almost 100 years until four men rescued the Ford Mansion from a dubious fate at auction. The decision to pool their funds and secure the building and grounds was the genesis of the Washington Association which became the principal caretaker of the property, only the third historic home to be preserved in the United States. Over the next 50 years the Association assembled a remarkable collection of period artifacts, books and manuscripts. To this day the Association plays a critical role in the care and access to one of our national shrines.
Reenactors at Jockey Hollow
On March 2, 1933, Morristown became the third historic park added to Park Service, the first titled a National Historical Park, incorporating Ford's Mansion, Jockey Hollow and the site of Fort Nonsense. Extensive archeological work followed to ascertain specific troop locations and locate huts and outbuildings. The Park served as example for interpretation, training ground that got the Park Service into the history arena. Only one map of the encampment exists, and of 13,000 soldiers there, diaries were written by probably very few. One enlisted man, who later became a sergeant, wrote a memoir when he was in his 70's which mentions Jockey Hollow. Arnold's Tavern is long gone, as are most of the other 18th Century village houses, leaving only gravestones in church cemeteries.
Archeology and historical interpretation follow trends. The tendency to contemplate great men and events gives way to deliberating social fabric and common lifestyles. Eric Olsen, Park Ranger/Historian at Morristown for over 10 years is of the latter school. "Archeology is like reading a page in a book, ripping it out and throwing it away. New techniques come along that can make sense of things that meant nothing before. To investigate lifestyle, we're interested not only in artifacts, but mounds of stone, mold lines from rotted wood, packed down soil, bones of animals in garbage heaps." You find only the big stuff notated in documents and diaries. Would you note the nature of toilet paper in your life story? "They used mussel shells, corn cobs, old paper... one guy returned a correspondence while sitting in the privy and wrote 'I have your letter before me. Soon it will be behind me.'" The American Revolution: sanitation for 13,000 on a couple of frozen hills in New Jersey. As Washington wrote, the Revolution was a war of posts. Strategy of the day was defensive, to put nothing at risk and to avoid combat "unless compelled by a necessity, into which we ought never to be drawn." The most prescient battles were waged in hearts and minds. Withstanding misery at Jockey Hollow was a crucial battle for American Independence.
Nearly a century passed until four men rescued the Ford Mansion from a dubious fate at auction for $25,000. The decision to pool their funds and secure the building and grounds was the genesis of the Washington Association, which became the principal caretaker of the property, only the third historic home to be preserved in the United States. Arnold's Tavern is long gone, as are most of the other 18th Century village houses, leaving only gravestones in church cemeteries. Over the next 50 years the Association assembled a remarkable collection of period artifacts, books and manuscripts. By statute, to this day the Association plays a critical role in the care and access to one of our national shrines. In1933, Morristown became the third historic park added to the National Park Service, the first titled a National Historical Park, incorporating Ford's Mansion, Jockey Hollow and the site of Fort Nonsense.
John Russell Pope, the architect who designed the National Archives Building, the National Gallery of Art, and the Thomas Jefferson Memorial in Washington D.C., also designed the museum at the Ford Mansion site. The original idea was to visit Ford's Mansion and come back to the museum, a wonderful little pastiche of Mt. Vernon, cupolas, and curved walkways. A more modern and fuller realization of that idea has filled out the design and made it more symmetrical.
Recent improvements have more than tripled the public space in the museum for both exhibitions and research. One of the most thorough collections in the nation, the museum houses over 200,000 linear feet of archived material, 33,155 archeological items, and 15,194 historical objects.
The idea for establishing a national heritage trail along the New Jersey Crossroads of the Revolution is even more comprehensive, making the Morristown National Historical Park one of many components along the corridor.
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