Valley Forge certainly has a better PR department than Morristown, N.J. People flock to Valley Forge to see an American Revolutionary War winter encampment, but a much more convenient place to see an even better show is Morristown.
No battles were fought in either location. Troops spent the winter of 1777 at Valley Forge, but the much more brutal winter of 1779 was spent at Morristown. It was there that George Washington settled in for what is recorded as the worst American winter ever. After this encampment, Washington began the decisive push south and eventual Yorktown victory that ended the war two years later in 1781.
It was in Morristown that wealthy widow Theodosia Ford graciously lent her mansion to George Washington for his temporary headquarters. The mansion was reputed to be the biggest in the U.S. at the time, so it offers a glimpse into high-class living at the end of the 18th century. Much of the furniture there is original.
Morristown is now the site of a National Park. There is a visitor center at the campgrounds where soldiers lived, and a small museum at the headquarters. Because the National Park Service recently announced that it would increase the price of its senior passes from $10 to $80, many New Yorkers come to Morristown to buy passes. On the day I visited, the park service was out of passes. So, all visitors who did not already have a pass had to pay the $7 entrance fee to the museum. Other parts of the park are free, but you can only gain entrance to the Ford Mansion on a tour that leaves from the museum. The tour is included in the museum entrance fee.
Don’t miss the museum’s illuminating historical film. Two galleries display remnants of Washington’s time at the mansion, including a Gilbert Stuart portrait of Washington said to be the most valuable item in the Park Service’s entire inventory. The exhibit displays how wealthy families — like the Ford’s — lived in the 18th century and also includes exhibits of military weaponry, rare books and manuscripts, and clothing from the period.
The Morristown National Park contains 27 miles of hiking paths through Jockey Hollow, where 10,000 troops built their winter cabins. The trails range from easy to strenuous. Once built out by the soldiers, Morristown became the fifth largest city in the U.S. at the time. Morristown was chosen by Washington for his winter camp because of its high ground and natural defenses. The area is heavily wooded, protected by the Watchung Mountains to the east, and would have been nearly impossible to attack by surprise.
No Revolutionary War battles were fought during the winter, either at Valley Forge or Morristown, but Morristown’s natural defenses prevented the British from attempting it.
During the winter months, Martha Washington joined George at the encampment. At the Ford Mansion, you can almost feel her presence. You see the bedrooms and beds where Washington actually slept, as well as the working spaces where he made strategic plans for the war. He travelled with servants and military aids who also stayed in the mansion. Their living conditions were multiple times better than those of the soldiers, many of whom died from the hard conditions during the “hard winter” of 1779.
You can get to Morristown by New Jersey Transit from Penn Station in New York in about one hour if you don’t have a car. You’ll need to get a taxi from the train station to the park. If you drive, parking at the site is free.
Although Morristown hasn’t got the reputation of the much better publicized Valley Forge, it is every bit as interesting, even more so — a “must see.”