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The Story Of Fort Nonsense


Chapter 16
Page 163

During three years of the Revolution the American army, under General Washington, wintered in New Jersey. Of course, we understand, that, when an army goes into winter quarters, it does so because the weather prevents operations in the field; and although Washington did not in the least object to fighting in the cold weather if a good opportunity showed itself, as we know from the fact that he fought the battle of Trenton on Christmas Day, still the winters in New Jersey were for the most part periods of inactivity.

Histories give us full accounts of the important battles and marches which took place in New Jersey; but the life of the army in the long, cold months in which fighting and marching were almost impossible, is something with which we are not so well acquainted; and when we understand what the men of our army were obliged to suffer and to endure, and the responsibilities and anxieties which were so conscientiously borne by Washington and his officers, we are compelled to give as much credit to the soldiers of the Revolution for their heroism in their winter camps as for their courage upon the battlefield.

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This winter life in New Jersey, of men and officers from New England, the Middle States, Virginia, and the South, appears to us now as very interesting, and in many ways a curious life. Into a quiet country neighborhood there came an entirely novel element,-an army which had not come there to fight, but to live.

Washington's first winter in New Jersey was spent in Morristown in 1777. This place was chosen because it was a productive country, and well situated for sudden expeditions against the enemy in that part of the State. Although there was no fighting done in Morristown, so many small detachments of troops went out from the place, and so many sudden attacks were made upon the outposts of the enemy in the country round about, that by the end of the winter the British had no hold in New Jersey except at Perth Amboy and New Brunswick.

But, as has been said before, it is not with the military operations that we are concerned, but with the winter life of the army in the camp. The first thing that has to be done when an army arrives to settle and make itself a home in and about a country town, is to provide a good house for the commander in chief and officers, and a suitable camping place for the men. Washington went to Arnold's Tavern, a large house on the corner of the Green; and the army encamped in the valley of the Loantika, a beautiful place in summer, but not particularly attractive in cold weather. Here they built themselves huts of logs, and here they tried to keep themselves warm and to be satisfied with what they had; for the

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government was poor, and found it hard to keep an army. There was plenty to eat and drink in the surrounding country, but there was very little money with which to buy it.

It was a great thing for the Morristown people to see the tavern surrounded night and day by a guard of twenty-six soldiers, and to have their streets and roads made lively by soldiers on foot, clad in the various uniforms worn by the men from different States,-some with cocked hats, some with round hats with feathers stuck in them; some with green coats, some with blue; some with buckskin breeches, others with black,-while Washington, with the officers of his staff, galloped here and there, dressed in the regular Continental uniforms of blue and buff.

Among the most conspicuous uniforms of the American army was that of the Jersey Blues. This was a volunteer organization formed in Essex County; and the first uniforms of these soldiers were furnished by the patriotic women of that region. They were not able to afford anything handsome or costly: so each soldier was provided with a frock coat and trousers made of tow cloth, which was dyed a bright blue by the same women who made it into soldiers' clothes. These Jersey Blues, although they must have presented a very peculiar appearance in the field, became famous soldiers, and were known throughout the war, and occupied high positions in the Continental army. The Jersey Blues were never disorganized, and still remain prominent among the citizen soldiers of the State.

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It was Washington's habit during the war, as soon as he had settled himself in his winter quarters, to send for Mrs. Washington to join him; and accordingly she came to Morristown very soon after his first arrival there. Men and officers were always delighted when the wife of the commander in chief came down to live among them, and they welcomed the sight of the carriage drawn by four horses, with the postilions and grooms dressed in Washington's own livery of scarlet and white. On this occasion, Washington went some distance to meet his wife, and waited in a little village until she should arrive.

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When the lady at the house where he was stopping saw the grand carriage drive up, she was prepared to behold an illustrious personage alight from it, and she was somewhat surprised when she saw a very plainly dressed, quiet lady step down from the high coach. She thought there surely must be some mistake; but when she saw the courteous affection with which the grand gentleman in the fine uniform and cocked hat greeted this plainly dressed lady, she knew that she had made no mistake.

There was no ostentation or superciliousness about Mrs. Washington. She was hospitable and kind, and she put on no airs because she was a great lady from Virginia, and because she was the wife of the commander in chief of the army. The story is told, that, soon after her arrival, some ladies of the town went to pay their respects to her, and as they were going to visit the first lady of the land, they thought that they should dress themselves in their finest clothes. Arrayed in silks, satins, and ruffles, they were shown into the presence of Mrs. Washington, and were utterly amazed to find her wearing a striped homespun apron, and busily engaged in knitting stockings. She received them, however, with as much dignity and courtesy as if she had had a crown on her head and a scepter in her hand; and in the course of conversation she said that it was the duty of every one to try to do without the things which they were obliged to buy from foreign countries, and to make for themselves, as far as possible, what they needed; and that, while their husbands and brothers were fighting in the

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field, she thought that they should do what they could at home to help the great cause.

Mrs. Washington entertained the ladies with accounts of her life at home. She said that in her house there were always sixteen spinning wheels at work. She showed them two morning dresses which had been made in her house from ravelings of old satin chair covers. But Mrs. Washington was not at all averse to cheerfulness and good company, and in that year there were many dances and parties in Morristown, which kept the place quite gay.

Two years afterwards, Washington and his army wintered at Middlebrook, in Somerset County. Here the army had a comparatively comfortable time, for the weather was mild, without much snow or frost; and this, after the terrible sufferings which they had had at Valley Forge the winter before, was very well calculated to put men as well as officers in a cheerful state of mind. It is true that the difficulties of obtaining provisions were in some ways greater than they had been before; for the Continental money, with which all supplies were paid for, was depreciating so rapidly that now thirty or forty dollars of it were barely equal to one silver dollar, and the country people very much disliked to take it. But the army had just achieved some important victories, and there was a feeling in many circles that it would not be long before the war would end; and with this belief in the minds of many, and with the general satisfaction in the mild and pleasant weather, it is no wonder that there were some good times in the army during that winter at Middlebrook.

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General Washington always liked to have company at dinner, for he was very hospitable, and, besides this, he considered it his duty to become acquainted with his officers and with the people of the neighborhood; and sometimes as many as thirty persons sat down at the table. Even if the various articles of food were not of the finest quality, they were well cooked and well served. While in Middlebrook, Washington desired a dinner service of white queen's-ware, and he wrote to Philadelphia to obtain it. Among the articles he mentioned in his order were eight dozen shallow plates and three dozen soup plates, which gives an idea of the size of his dinner parties. But, although Philadelphia was searched from one end to the other, no queen's-ware of the kind could be found, and at last Washington was told that he could get what he wanted in New Brunswick, and there he bought his queen's-ware.

Among other things which he ordered at that time were "six tolerably genteel but not expensive candle-sticks;" and he also wrote for a new hat, stating, "I do not wish by any means to be in the extreme of fashion, either in the size or manner of cocking it."

At these dinners there was a good deal of state and ceremony, although the heads of the family were very courteous and attentive to their guests. As this was a military establishment, everything was done promptly and according to rule. Washington never waited longer than five minutes for any guest who was late. When such a person did arrive after the company had seated themselves at the table, he would

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always try to put him at his ease by some pleasant remark, sometimes saying that he had a cook "who never asks whether the company has come, but whether the hour has come."

During this winter a great entertainment was given by General Knox and some other officers, and it was said to be the finest thing of the kind ever seen in that part of the State. It may be thought, and probably there were people who thought it then, that at a time when money was so much needed, and provisions were so hard to get, a great and expensive festival like this was extravagant and out of place; but it is likely that the gayety of that great day had a good and encouraging effect upon the army as well as the people of the country. They knew why the day had been celebrated, and because of the general rejoicings they believed there was reason to rejoice; and when people believe that there is a good thing coming, they are much more ready to fight for it than if they had no such belief.

But it is not of these two winters that our story has to deal: it is with the second encampment at Morristown, during the cold, the snow, and the icy

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frosts of 1779-80. At this time, General and Mrs. Washington lived in the handsome house which is now known as "Washington's Headquarters," and has been preserved in the same condition as it was in those Revolutionary days. In this fine old mansion, General Washington and his wife kept up their hospitable customs; and at their table were seen such men as Alexander Hamilton, General Greene, Baron Steuben, Kosciusko, Pulaski, "Light Horse Harry" Lee, Israel Putnam, "Mad Anthony" Wayne, and Benedict Arnold. There also came to Morristown the minister from France (the Chevalier de la Luzerne) and an envoy from Spain (Don Juan de Mirailles). These two distinguished foreigners were received with great honor. An escort was sent out to meet them; there was a grand review of the troops, in which Washington and his generals, together with the Frenchman and the Spaniard, appeared on the field, splendidly mounted; while on the grand reviewing stand was the governor of the State and a great many citizens and distinguished people. After a salute of thirteen cannon, the parading army went through its evolutions, and in the evening there was a grand ball.

But one of the guests to whom these honors were given did not appear at the ball. The Spanish envoy was taken sick, and a few days afterwards died at the headquarters. He was buried with great pomp and ceremony. The funeral procession was a mile long, and attended by Washington and all his officers. Minute guns boomed as the procession passed from the headquarters to the graveyard at the back of the

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First Presbyterian Church, and people came from all parts of the surrounding country to view the great procession.

The funeral services were conducted by a Spanish priest with the impressive rites of the Catholic Church; and after a military salute had been fired over the grave, sentinels were placed to guard it, for the Spanish nobleman was buried in full regalia. A gold watch studded with diamonds was in his pocket; diamonds were on his fingers; and valuable seals were attached to his watchguard.

There was not so much fear at this time of an attack from the enemy as there had been during the previous winter, when Washington was at Morristown. Now, there were only four guards at the headquarters,-two at the front of the house, and two at the back. But the most careful preparations were made in case the enemy should show itself, and now and then a false alarm showed the perfection of the discipline which was maintained.

On such occasions a shot would be heard from one of the most distant outposts, then a sentinel near

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the town would fire, and so on until a report would be heard by the sentinels at the headquarters, who would fire their guns; then there were the guns in Morristown, and so on out to the camp, and very soon a detachment would hurry into the town at a quickstep. But before they reached the place, the life guard encamped near the headquarters would rush to the house, enter the lower story, and barricade the doors; and five men at each window, with muskets loaded and ready to fire, would await the approach of the enemy.

But although no British soldiers ever reached Morristown, there was good reason for all the precautions taken. Besides the frequent attempts which were made by large bodies of the Redcoats to penetrate to the region occupied by Washington's army, there were small expeditions even more dangerous. One of these consisted of a party of picked British cavalrymen, who started from their camp near New York, by way of Elizabethtown, for the express purpose of capturing General Washington. They advanced in the direction of Morristown until they reached Chatham, about six miles distant, and there-being overtaken by a terrible storm, and finding so many difficulties ahead of them-they gave up their project.

Outside of Morristown, on a high hill which stretches away to the southwest, the American army was encamped during this winter. Among these men we can scarcely believe there were many festivities or merrymakings. In fact, the sufferings and privations of the common soldiers at this time were very great, and even the table of the commander in chief was

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sometimes furnished with the plainest of food. In a letter written by Washington at this time, he says,-

"We have had the virtue and patience of the army put to the severest trial. Sometimes it has been five or six days together without bread; at other times as many days without meat; and once or twice, two or three days without either. I hardly thought it possible, at one period, that we should be able to keep it together, nor could it have been done, but for the exertions of the magistrates in the several counties of this state [Jersey], on whom I was obliged to call, expose our situation to them, and in plain terms declare that we were reduced to the alternative of disbanding or catering for ourselves, unless the inhabitants would afford us their aid. I allotted to each county a certain proportion of flour or grain, and a certain number of cattle, to be delivered on certain days; and for the honor of the magistrates, and the good disposition of the people, I must add that my requisitions were punctually complied with, and in many counties exceeded. Nothing but this great exertion could have saved the army from dissolution or starving, as we were bereft of every hope from the commissaries. At one time the soldiers ate every kind of horse food but hay. Buckwheat, common wheat, rye, and Indian corn composed the meal which made their bread. As an army, they bore it with the most heroic patience; but sufferings like these, accompanied by the want of clothes, blankets, etc., will produce frequent desertions in all armies; and so it happened with us, though it did not excite a single mutiny."

At this time, various circulars and printed bills were sent to the American army from the British, urging the men to fly from all their hardships and miseries, and join the English force, where they would be received, and furnished with every comfort. In this condition of things it was very important to keep the American soldiers, cold, hungry, and idle, from thinking too much of their troubles. Washington could not give them balls, nor invite them to dine; but he wisely considered that the best thing he could give them

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was occupation,-a most wonderful medicine for discontent. He therefore determined to build a fort upon the summit of the hill where the camp was situated.

His engineers therefore planned a large fortification made up of earthworks; and on this the men were put to work, as if it had been expected that the enemy would soon arrive, and take the place. The desire to put their camp in a condition of defense, and the animation of steady labor, were of as much advantage to the spirits of the soldiers as bread and meat would be to their bodies; and, from sitting in idle groups about their camp fires and huts, they worked on the new intrenchments, ramparts, and redoubts with cheerful energy.

Everything was done exactly as if the new fort were soon to be called upon to protect the town, which stretched itself beneath the hill; and the engineers and officers were as careful in making plans and giving directions as if they had been building a fort at the entrance of New York Bay.

It was never expected that the fort would be attacked, and it was never supposed, that, if the British should come this way, the battle would be fought in or about the town; but the building of the fort was honestly intended for the defense and protection of the troops, not against muskets, cannon, and bayonets, but against discontent and despair,-enemies far more formidable to the suffering army of that day than British troops and Hessians.

The result was a good one: Washington's army at Morristown stood by him as long as he staid there;

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and when they marched away, they left upon the top of that hill a monument to the wisdom, the kindness, and the knowledge of human nature, displayed by their great commander in chief in those hazardous days.

We do not know what this earthwork was first called; but in time it came to be known as Fort Nonsense, simply because it appeared to the ordinary man as a great piece of work undertaken without any good purpose. But never was a name more inapplicable. If it had been called Fort Good Sense, it would have been much more suitable.

The remains of this fort are still to be seen on the hill beyond Morristown; and a monumental stone has been set up there to mark its site, and explain its nature and purpose. Most of its ramparts and redoubts have been washed away by the storms of more than a century, and we can still perceive many of its outlines; but those skilled in the art of military fortification know that it was a good fortress, while students of human nature and of the influence of great minds upon the welfare of their fellow-beings, know that it acted an important part in the defense of our liberties and the establishment of our government.

It may be remarked that in this story we have said a good deal about other things, and very little about Fort Nonsense. But there is very little of Fort Nonsense, and not much to say about it; and what has been told was the story of the camp life of Washington and his army in New Jersey, the most permanent and suggestive point of which is the earthwork called Fort Nonsense.

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