More battles of the Revolution were fought in New Jersey than in any other colony/state. If you want to make Revolutionary War history come alive for yourself and your children, go to Morristown National Historic Park was America’s first national historic park and the site of George Washington’s Headquarters and where the Continental Army wintered in 1779 after its brilliant action against the British and Hessians in Trenton and Princeton. Opened March 2, 1933, it is situated on four different locations around Morristown, NJ. Click here We first saw the Revolutionary War Museum. (Open daily 9 – 5 with interpretive tours every hour, on the hour from 10 a.m.. Admission is four dollars.) Thomas Winslow, our fascinating guide, explained the “what- happened-when and why’s” of our nation’s history here. Click here
We were ushered into the eighteenth century by a “Continental soldier” in uniform, triangle hat, and buckled “Pilgrim” shoes. He explained how to load and fire the authentic old musket and shot it into the woods in front of the museum. The bright fire and loud explosion were impressive, but he explained that the gun’s aim was only fairly accurate at about thirty feet; hence the admonition, “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes.”
Within the Museum we saw an excellent collection of eighteenth century weaponry and George Washington’s own swords and spontoons used by officers. Washington strongly advocated using these weapons, which did not require gunpowder, a valuable commodity in the seventeen hundreds. Guns then were long and cumbersome and required time to reload. We saw a very rare breech-loaded Ferguson rifle, which loaded and fired much faster than muskets and was a great innovation in weaponry. Tourists interested in weaponry and military history will find this museum a rare treasure house. Also on display is a huge link from the famed “West Port Chain,” which was stretched across the Hudson River to prevent the British ships from entering. There is, in addition, a priceless collection of original pieces of furniture and clothing from daily domestic life of the period.
Three generations of Fords lived in the mansion here until the 1870’s when it was sold at public auction for $25,000. Farsighted philanthropists purchased it and created the Washington Association of New Jersey, to preserve the site for the state. Anyone wishing to join this organization may do so for $100 a share, a legacy which can be handed down to future generations. Today national parks are only possible because of partners in the private sector. Click here. The museum, still sponsored by the WANJ, has plans for a seven million dollar expansion to be completed by 2005 so that much more of its large collection can be displayed.
This impressive house was designed by John Russell Pope, the famous architect of the eighteenth century who also designed Mt. Vernon and buildings in Washington, DC, including the National Memorial and the National Gallery of Art. Joseph Ford, Jr., built the mansion with his wealth from iron, a grist mill, and his vast farm. He had been a loyal supporter of New Jersey against the British but collapsed on a horse in 1776 and died at the age of 39. Mrs. Ford continued to live here with her three young sons and a daughter and offered her large home for General Washington’s use. Click here
In the winter of 1777, the winter after Valley Forge, Washington and his officers had stayed at Arnold’s Tavern (formerly where Charles Schwabb Company stands today) in Morristown, which was a little village of 250 people. At that time thousands of soldiers had deserted, and the remaining men were low in morale as the war seemed impossible to win. Morristown was a place to rebuild his discouraged army of 2,000 – 3,000 men, who encamped in the surrounding area. By bitter experience General Washington and his officers had learned that germs and filth kill more solders than opposing armies.
Today the lovely little New England town of Morristown, NJ, is very picturesque, reminiscent of the eighteenth century, and some of the buildings on Morristown Green are preserved from that era. The village green is a beautiful park with statues commemorating Revolutionary and Civil War soldiers. The historical Presbyterian Church is on the site of the original building from the 1700’s, whose pastor was Mrs. Ford’s father. Take time to walk through the old cemetery, which has Revolutionary War graves as well as modern ones. The cemetery also has the grave of a Colonial days great grandmother of President Bush. Click here The old Methodist Church building is also beautiful. Historic Morris Visitors Center is downtown, or click here.
Unique shops offer tourists numerous finds which are not the same-old, same-old shopping experience of malls and cities. You will find many wonderful little cafes, bistros, bakeries, and restaurants to please any palate and any budget. Morristown is certainly a worthwhile tourist stop anytime, but especially in this historic year. December began the celebration which will last all year to commemorate the 225th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence and the Revolutionary War.
In Washington’s day, Morristown was selected by the General because of its strategic location between two mountain ranges and the Great Swamp, therefore it was easily fortified. The river afforded a way to bring in supplies. Iron and coal were also available in the area, and there was a gristmill, a sawmill, and a gunpowder mill. Good food supplies from surrounding farms and orchards meant they could get what they needed and be encamped as safely as possible.
The Continental Army returned to winter here in 1779 following a huge victory at Trenton. Their morale was high, and there were 10,000 troops wintering here this time, with the enormously multiplied needs for daily life and food. Washington had learned that discipline must be strict and the army well trained in skill and endurance. Mrs. Ford’s seventeen year old son volunteered for the army and soon took a musket ball in the thigh. He survived the wound, but the winter was terrible for everyone living in the crowded house. The temperatures and snows were fierce, and nearly everyone suffered from terrible colds. Because of the difficulties of daily life in those times, soldiers brought servants with them to prepare food and do laundry, etc.
The Mansion is furnished with some original pieces and many replicas to show the life of an officer of the times. The “army cots” are amazingly delicate pieces of beautifully finished walnut furniture with hand-turned spindle legs which make them appear like doll beds, with canvas canopies and curtains, which serve for warmth and mosquito protection. George Washington was over six feet and weighed more than 200 pounds, and many of his officers were large also. Everyone marvels that such big men could fit into these fragile-looking beds, which fold up for marching, just like a basic army cot today.
The dining room was the strategic command center and displays old maps. We were reminded that General Washington could not trust just any map, as a mis-drawn one could have been a trick of an enemy. He had his own cartographers in residence.
Martha Washington arrived by sled in the winter of 1779, which was the worst winter in recorded history. New York Harbor froze to a depth of eighteen feet! Three-ton cannons were rolled across the Hudson River without even cracking the ice. Battles had to cease because of the bitter cold, but amazingly only 1,000 of the 10,000 soldiers deserted and only 130 died during this horrible winter. The previous winter at Valley Forge had nearly wiped out the army with typhus, camp disease, and pneumonia. By now, with General Washington’s strict discipline, these men had become hardened soldiers. He had learned the vital importance of hygiene, strict training, and careful planning of the camp quarters, which the men had to construct for themselves from any logs they could find. Trees could hide the enemy, so they did not hesitate to clear cut for what they needed to build and to fuel fireplaces, their only means of cooking or heating. The War was postponed until spring thaw.
The four Morristown Historical sites present fascinating interpretation of things which we take so for granted in modern life, but which caused unbelievable difficulties during the Revolutionary soldiers’ daily survival. The guides helped us understand what the soldiers here felt during the Revolutionary times…a great educational experience for any age.
Continuing our tour of the Morristown Historic sites we drove to the highest point in the area, Kennedy’s Hill, where Washington built fortifications to protect his supplies should the town ever be attacked. Officially called the “Upper Redoubt,” it was given the sneering name of “Fort Nonsense” because some people believed (because the British never came here to attack) that Washington had just been trying to keep his soldiers busy. Today it has an interpretive trail, and a shady park with a beautiful view, which was not obscured by trees in Washington’s day. The hours are dawn ‘til sunset.
From here we took Western Avenue for a beautiful scenic drive directly to the final historic area of the National Park at “Jockey Hollow Encampment Area.” Today this heavily wooded natural area has many trails for jogging, hiking, and horseback riding. Dense hardwood forests offer cool shade in the summer, incredible leaf color in fall, cross-country skiing and snow-shoeing in winter, and beautiful blooms in spring. The narrow three-mile highway forms a loop accessible by all vehicles, even RV’s. Some parking is available inside the park center, even parking for horse trailers. Eric Olson is the experienced park ranger here and offers historical tours combined with nature studies of the Revolutionary period. It’s fascinating to learn that different kinds of trees were used for fences, or houses, or firewood.
Follow Tempe Wicke Rd into the lovely forest of Jockey Hollow, to the Wicke farmhouse and visitor center. Here the Interpretive Center commemorates the enlisted men from the terrible winter of 1779-80. This was the main army camp, clear-cut with only bitter cold and snow, as shown on the large mural painted by Matternes. Visitors will be amazed to view the inside of the tiny log cabins, 14 x 30 feet in which 12 enlisted soldiers lived. The men had to fell the trees and make their own huts, according to Washington’s specifications, and if they were not exact, they had to be torn down and re-built. The huts were in very specific rows so that the men could fall out of their cabin and be in perfect marching formation for battle. In summer Washington’s tent camps were laid out in the same orderly way. Hard to imagine life in this small area with only wood fireplace to sit and hang clothes to dry, straw beds tripple bunk high and no extra space. Card playing not allowed by Washington because it caused fighting among men, but some hid and did it anyway.
The center is open 9 – 5 daily and provides an outdoor entrance to the restrooms which are always open for hikers. Groups touring here should call ahead for appointment. Pets must be on a leash and owners must clean up after them, but the park provides a special watering place for them.
The farmhouse nearby is restored to demonstrate farm life of the times. An impressive garden is planted each year by volunteers in the way it would have been done in the eighteenth century: no pesticides, natural fertilizer, companion plantings which are worth studying. Any gardener would love visiting here in this Garden State.
When ice finally thawed battles resumed. The army left here June 7, 1780, with word of attack in Elizabeth, NJ.
When you are in the Jockey Hollow area of the National Monument you are near Basking Ridge where you will find several really good restaurants to meet your need for a refreshing break. In keeping with the history you are learning you can stop on Highway 202 at the Minute Man Restaurant where the burgers are yummy and are named for Revolutionary War figures. For a more elegant atmosphere and exquisite cuisine in daytime or night, go to The Grain House Restaurant, where grain was stored for Washington’s troops. The food and service are incomparable. Click here.
Next to the environmental center at Basking Ridge is a Raptor Trust. Click here. Visit to learn about endangered species and birds of prey, which are taken in here if they are injured. If you are planning your trip for June include watching the Peapack Trials for the US Equestrian Team and the Festival of Champions here for two week-ends. Gladstone Antique Show is here in the fall, along with many area pumpkin patch festivities and fall festivals complete with fresh apple cider, hayrides, and glorious riot of autumn colored leaves. Other places of Revolutionary historic importance in this “Crossroads of the Revolution” state of New Jersey are having special features, enactments, and celebrations during this 225 anniversary year, and are in any year places to learn first-hand our history. When planning a family vacation for summer or holidays be sure to include the Washington Crossing State Park, and Princeton Battlefield State Park, and Monmouth Battlefield State Park, and Old Trenton Barracks, all in the central part of the state.