It’s December of 1779 when George Washington’s army arrives in Morristown, NJ. There is already a foot of snow on the ground.
Washington has chosen Morristown to host his winter encampment for strategic reasons: being only 31 miles from New York City, he has adequate time to defend both it and nearby Philadelphia from British attacks. At the same time, the mountainous terrain and densely wooded countryside made the few existing passes easily defensible.
In southwest Morristown, an area called Jockey Hollow, the Continental army soldiers begin to clear over 600 acres of forest and construct 1,000 log huts to house themselves for the winter. Upon completion, it is dubbed the “log-house city.”
Unlike previous makeshift camps of the war thus far, Jockey Hollow is precisely laid out. The huts are aligned in rows of eight, three to four rows deep. The huts themselves are built to Washington’s strict specifications of 14 x 15 feet with a door on one end and a fireplace to the opposite. Each hut houses up to 12 men, depending on rank. Washington himself established his Headquarters five miles away on the Ford Mansion property, with the Commander-in-Chief’s Guards setting up twelve huts in the same style as the rest of the army.
Already exhausted from almost five years of fighting, the army is unknowingly about to face the worst winter in recorded history. From November to April, Morristown is hit by 28 separate snowstorms. This winter is also the only time in recorded history that the Hudson River freezes so solidly that sleighs could be driven between Paulus Hook (now Jersey City) and New York; British are even observed moving heavy artillery by ox sleigh across the frozen river.
With respect to food provisions, it was the most distressed the army had faced since the beginning of the war. After a particularly harsh January blizzard, Washington wrote to the New Jersey legislature for support (since each state was supposed to bear the brunt of feeding the army fighting for their independence), declaring that “for a fortnight past the troops, both officers and men, have been almost perishing for want.” Men resorted to eat whatever they had to supplement their limited food rations, ranging from gnawing on wooden sticks to roasting their old shoes. Some of the officers even killed and ate a favorite little dog that belonged to one of them.
As might be expected, the cautious New Jersey Legislature fails to fulfill the the request. Being weary of pleading with politicians, Washington orders armed detachments of soldiers to visit leading officials in each county, asking them to send in bread and wheat. If the officials show any reluctance, the men are instructed to take the provisions “with as much tenderness as possible,” but at gunpoint if necessary.
Though the sourcing of food is a struggle, the army still had plenty of one critical asset: beer.
Among Washington’s least recognized, but most valuable skills, is locating encampments within a reach of a supply of beer. Although against the sale of whiskey to soldiers, fearing that drunkenness would disrupt troop discipline, Washington is a firm believer in the importance of beer as a staple for his troops. Even the Continental Congress decrees that “beer fuels the flames of freedom burning within its armies,” and resolves on November 4th, 1775 that each soldier be provided with a Quart of beer per day.
Despite the horrid conditions, there is a relative “band-of-brothers” optimism among the soldiers of the “log-house city;” but as the weather grew worse, the real tumult was found among the officers now isolated at the Headquarters, whose beer supply is running low.
By February, the constant snow storms makes resupply of the Headquarters nearly impossible, with the only communication possible through men on snowshoes. At one point, the guard at Headquarters can not be changed for 72 hours, as the men simply can not wade through the snow drifts (up to 12 feet high) between their huts and the Ford Mansion, a mere 75 yards away.
Finally, on February 18, the supply of beer for the Headquarters runs dry; a problem met with profound discontent. The commissary, which is co-located with the main army a few miles away, can’t resupply Headquarters with their daily Quart ration of beer. Major Gibbs, commander of the Commander-in-Chief’s Guard, desperately pleads with the commissary to send a large quantity of beer as soon as possible to quell men who are on the brink of outright rebellion. Fortunately, the weather dissipates enough that the officers’ thirsts are sated in time, restoring an air of calm determination to see the rest of the struggle through.
Stories of overcoming adversity, while inspirational, often forget to mention the small details that often give strength to the human spirit; whether it’s a good conversation when you’re lonely, a warm embrace when you’re sad, or a cold beer when the challenges ahead seem endless. For the men who founded America, a daily Quart of beer seemed to be one of those underappreciated details that meant everything in the moment. So, whether it’s a job well done, or far from done, we’d like to extend to you your Quart of beer. Well deserved.