The Frigid and Horrible Christmas and New Year Season of 1779-1780

Around this time of year, we like to remember Washington’s Christmas attack on Trenton. Of course, this blog has already covered the fact that there were other actions around Christmas that deserve equal remembrance. However the winter of 1779-1780 was particularly terrible (weather wise), quite contrary to the rather mild Christmas season we’ve had in Eastern Pennsylvania so far, and the future of the war was still in doubt.

Washington, encamped at Morristown with his army, was facing the worst winter in memory. In his diary for the beginning of January, he wrote of the weather often:

“January [1780]

1st. Clear—cold & freezing with little wind.

2d. Very cold—about noon it began to Snow, & continued without intermission through the day, & night. The wind high & variable, but chiefly from the west & No. West.

3d. The same weather as yesterday—to wit cold & stormy—wind from the same point.

4th. Very cold with high winds from the west & No. West and intermitting Snow.

5th. Cloudy till the afternoon—when the Sun appeared.

6th. Snowing & Sunshine alternately—cold with the Wind and west & No. West & encreasing—Night very stormy. The Snow which in general is Eighteen Inches deep, is much drifted—roads almost impassable.

7th. Very boisterous, from the West & No. West & sometimes Snowing, which being very dry drifted exceedingly. Night intensely cold and freezing—Wind continuing fresh.”

Yeah, you read that correctly… 18 inches of snow fell at Morristown, New Jersey in a few days of storms! But that wasn’t even the worst of it. Remember, there were no paved roads–just paths through the wilderness. To traverse between camps must have been terrible enough, but one has to think about the poor fellows on sentry and picket duty! The Continental Army was also low on rations (many ate their shoes and leather accoutrements during this harsh season).

Joseph Plumb Martin recounted in his memoirs:

“Soon after this there came on several severe snowstorms. At one time it snowed the greater part of four days successively, and there fell nealy as many feet deep of snow, and here was the keystone of the arch of starvation. 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. I saw several men roast their old shoes and eat them, and I was afterward informed by one of the officer’s waiters, that some of the officers killed a favorite little dog that belonged to one of them.”

General John Kalb wrote in December of 1779:

“My division left West Point on the 26th of November. Our march lasted six days, and traversed a country almost entirely unpeopled; it proved fatal to many of the soldiers, in consequence of the cold, the bad weather, the horrid roads, the necessity of spending the night in the open air, and our want of protection against snow and rain. We are going into winter-quarters in the woods, as usual. Since the beginning of this month we have been busy putting up our shanties. But the severe frost greatly retards our work, and does not even permit us to complete our chimneys. Winter as set in fiercely ever since the end of November.”

And in February we learn a little about the roads from him as well:

“It is so cold that the ink freezes in my pen, while I am sitting close by the fire. The roads are piled with snow until, at some places they are elevated twelve feet above their ordinary level. The present winter is especially remarkable for its uninterrupted and unvarying cold. The ice in the rivers is six feet thick.”

Washington recounted a month later to Lafayette:

“As the enemys intentions of operating in the Southern States began to unfo[l]d I began to detach Troops to their aid accordingly in Novr the North Carolina Brigad[e] took up its March for Charles-town, and were followed abt the middle of Decr by the Troops of Virginia; but the extreme cold—the deep Snows—& other impediments have retarded the progress of their March very considerable—The oldest people now living in this Country do not remember so hard a Winter as the one we are now emerging from. In a word, the severity of the frost exceeded anything of the kind that had ever been experienced in this climate before.”

Incidentally, you might be wondering about Christmas on the front lines.  It may surprise readers that Christmas was not a very important holiday; not for Americans and, surprisingly, not in Spain either. John Adams, on December 25, 1779, wrote in his diary from Spain:

“Saturday 25th.

This is a great day with the Roman Catholics. “Fete de Nouailles” Christmas. However I find they dont mind it much. They dress up and go to mass but after that’s over all is. So if they call this religion I wonder what is not it; after Mass, almost all the Shops in town are open’d. But stop. I must not say any thing against their religion while I am in their country but must change the subject. This forenoon Madame Lagoanere sent us some sweetmeats: for my part I was much obliged to her for them, but I shall diminish them but little. We expect to go for Madrid to morrow.”

You can read more about the history of Christmas in the United States at the time here.

As we progress into the New Year, let’s also remember those who suffered through that harsh winter of 1779-1780. A memorial above a mass burial plot at Morristown marks those who died during the periods of encampment there.



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