By Keith Seminerio
In history books, Valley Forge is almost always the location depicted as being where George Washington and his Continental Army faced the harshest, toughest winter of the American Revolution in 1777-78.
However, Valley Forge is only portrayed as having this dubious honor because it eventually became a place where the Continental Army turned itself around in terms of becoming a better, well-trained army.
As years went by, it was romanticized as the turning point in the Revolution – a time when America was at rock-bottom, but pulled itself up by the bootstraps, and that’s why it is prominent in the annals of history. In reality, the winter at Valley Forge was nothing out of the ordinary, weather-wise.
But two years later, beginning in December 1779, the Continental Army’s winter encampment would go down in history as “America’s Worst Winter Ever.”
This abject pain, suffering and misery occurred in what is now known as Jockey Hollow in Morristown, and it made Valley Forge look like the Caribbean in comparison. Most aspects of war are not pretty, but what the Continental soldiers faced here was the stuff of nightmares – without a shot even being fired.
For the first and only time in recorded history, saltwater harbors and inlets along the Northeastern coast froze solid from the ridiculously frigid temperatures. The Hudson River, a giant block of ice, allowed people to guide horses and wagons across it from modern-day Jersey City to New York.
Ice in the Passaic and Raritan Rivers was six feet thick. It was so cold that one soldier wrote that the ink “now freezes in my pen.” During that entire January, the temperature rose above freezing only once, and from Jan. 2-4, Washington’s 10,000 troops were pounded by one of the most vicious blizzards anyone had ever remembered – with two feet of snow ALREADY on the ground.
To make matters worse, Dr. James Thacher, a Massachusetts surgeon-turned-soldier, documented: “The soldiers are destitute of both tents and blankets, and some of them are actually barefooted and nearly naked.” Washington wrote that his men were, “perishing for want.”
The weather, overall, was so freakishly abnormal during those winter months that there were 28 separate snowstorms with drifts as high as 15 feet being the norm. To this day, it is thought to be the coldest winter in North America in modern times.
It was in the midst of this arctic hell that the soldiers had to build their huts and fortifications. With a lack of funds and a scarcity of food and provisions at Jockey Hollow, many soldiers resorted to roasting and eating their own shoes. (Probably why they were barefooted!)
Many ate whatever horse food was remaining. Birch bark also was on the menu. One private wrote that some of the officers killed and ate one of their pet dogs out of desperation.
Maj. Gen. Johann de Kalb declared of his time in Morristown: “Those who have only been in Valley Forge or Middlebrook (NJ) during the last two winters, but have not tasted the cruelties of this one, know not what it is to suffer.”
Before too long, dozens of soldiers began dying from starvation, exposure, and a smallpox epidemic that ripped through camp. Private Joseph Martin lamented in his memoirs: “If this was no ‘suffering’ I request to be informed what can pass under that name. If ‘suffering’ like this did not ‘try men’s souls’ I confess that I do not know what could.”
Conditions were so deplorable that hundreds of soldiers deserted. With the comforts of spring on the horizon, Mother Nature seemed to mock the army when 10 inches of snow fell on April Fools’ Day, and it continued to fall as late as May.
Toward the end of that month, Washington was prepared to execute eight soldiers by hanging for insubordination. In dramatic fashion, he reprieved seven of them but hanged one to serve as an example and warning.
Washington, who wasn’t an advocate of capital punishment, felt a need to do this in order to quell an ever-increasing talks of mutiny.
All in all, it probably was Washington’s most trying time as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army, even though he hadn’t seen one Redcoat the entire time.
STRANGE VISIONS, PERTURBED POOCH
Of course, an area such as this may be ripe for some paranormal activity, since those who suffered such despair may not want to be forgotten. Today, Jockey Hollow is part of the Morristown National Historical Park, America’s first such park.
It’s a woodsy, sprawling, hilly land with numerous trails and historic markers. Except for the Visitors’ Center and paved road, it’s pristine and looks pretty much like it would have in Revolutionary times.
Throughout the years, many hikers and visitors have reported seeing strange visions there. A common one is a group of colonial soldiers marching lockstep through the dense trees.
In one instance, there was a group of eight Revolutionary War re-enactors who had permission to stay overnight in one of the replica soldier huts to get a feel for what it was like to live and sleep in them.
One of them walked to a porta-potty that was down the hill from the huts. On the way back, fife and drum music, seemingly emanating from directly next to her, filled her ears. As fast as it began, it ceased.
This was not part of a re-enactment, there were no other people in the immediate area, and none of the other seven had a fife or drum on hand.
Other re-enactors swear they have seen shadowy outlines of people darting around the soldier huts that are clearly not flesh-and-blood humans. Many of them believe these spirits may be more apt to make themselves known to them because they have a deep respect for the Revolutionary War and the soldiers who fought in it.
More than a few people also have noted there’s a cemetery right at the base of the hill in which over 100 soldiers are buried. There are no grave markers, only a plaque mounted on a small boulder that marks the site. Generally, I don’t find cemeteries to be spooky. But knowing a multitude of bodies are buried there with no tombstones indicating their final resting places makes this one particularly eerie.
It’s also believed that a hospital once stood near the site of the huts, after an archaeological dig in the 1930s unearthed a bullet extractor and a bitten bullet believed to be used as “anesthesia.”
The hill, officially named Sugar Loaf Hill, has gained the nickname “Haunted Hill” over the years. With all of the grim history that has occurred within these couple of acres of the park, is it any wonder there have been so many mysterious sightings?
Perhaps the most well-known spirit, purportedly witnessed multiple times along the labyrinthine trails, is a translucent apparition of a woman wearing a long, white, colonial-style dress and carrying a lantern. It’s believed she appears more frequently during the quieter winter months of the park.
Another resident (whom I have personally corresponded with) has owned a house on the fringe of the park for years. He is certain it is haunted. He recounts that he and guests have seen a brown dog that chases his cats around the house and then vanishes. He doesn’t own a dog.
Is it perhaps the same dog that met an untimely demise at the hands of the officers? There also are frequent loud noises that can’t be explained, echoing throughout the very old home.
A couple of years ago, on a day off from work, I decided to drive up to Jockey Hollow with my dog (just a few minutes’ drive from my house) and walk her on the trails. I hadn’t been there in a while and thought it would be nice to visit again.
I parked in a small lot and began walking on one of the adjacent trails. I hadn’t made it three minutes in before my dog started growling and barking while looking directly down the trail in front of her.
Now, my dog will not hesitate to bark at other people coming her way, but when I peered ahead to see what had perturbed her, I saw nothing — no person, no animal. She continued to bark while staring at an exact, specific spot ahead and the hair on her back actually was standing up.
When she gets excited and barks she always does this little shuffle and hop with her feet, but this time her paws were cemented to the ground. I don’t scare easily, but when she refused to move any farther after trying to pull her along on the leash I felt very uneasy and decided to turn around.
As we trotted back towards the mouth of the trail she had her ears pinned back against her head, a sure sign of fear or discomfort. I’m not saying there was anything supernatural in our presence that day, but I’ve never seen my dog act that strangely before, especially since walking through the woods is one of her favorite activities.
In spite of all the anguish that has occurred at this site, it is a beautiful location. One can drink from a natural spring that is documented as being a source of water for Washington’s troops, or experience the aforementioned replicas of the log soldier huts exactly as they would have been constructed over 230 years ago to build the “Log City,” as it was known.
It’s an interesting sight, as they sit perched upon their hill, overlooking the cemetery and grounds, appearing as if they’re futilely waiting for their occupants to return. Peaceful green fields mark the spots where certain brigades performed military drills, and pastoral trails twist their way around them.
However, underneath the beauty lies a chapter in our country’s infancy that was agonizing and uncertain, and should not be forgotten.
So if you’re visiting Jockey Hollow, be certain to appreciate what our soldiers struggled and fought through for America’s cause. And if you happen to run into one or two of them while you’re there, tell them “thanks,” because without their resolve and sacrifices at Morristown, the Revolution may very well have ended differently.
Keith Seminerio lives in Morristown with his wife and three children. He enjoys history, the outdoors, and exploring anything offbeat or unusual. He is a teacher in Chatham. He first published this piece in Weird NJ. His story of a cruel winter is a reminder of the cost of freedom — fitting for a steamy Independence Day.