The Darkest Winter of the Revolutionary War and the Plot to Kidnap George Washington
Lyons Press, Lanham, Maryland, 2021, 272 pages
Book Review published on: August 26, 2022
In Morristown: The Darkest Winter of the Revolutionary War and the Plot to Kidnap George Washington, William Hazelgrove tells the little-known story of how soldiers of George Washington’s army suffered through one of the most brutal winters ever recorded and how the American Revolution was almost lost.
Washington led a ragtag army to winter in Morristown, New Jersey, in 1779–1780. The hills surrounding the camp offered Washington a perfect vantage point from which to keep an eye on the British army, which was headquartered across the Hudson River in New York City. Morristown’s position also allowed Washington to protect the roads leading from the British strongholds in New Jersey to New England and the roads leading to Philadelphia. Washington established his headquarters in the poorly heated mansion of widow Theodosia Ford. His army built thousands of log homes for themselves, some miles from the mansion. Despite these favorable conditions, the severe winter of 1779–1780 negated them all.
Originally, an estimated ten thousand to twelve thousand American soldiers camped at Morristown. Desertions, expired enlistments, and deaths reduced the army to about eight thousand. Washington wrote Congress requesting food, clothing, and artillery, but they could provide none. About one third of the remaining eight thousand men were deemed unfit for duty. The winter conditions exasperated the situation by isolating Washington in Morristown. Twenty-eight separate storms occurred that winter. The subzero temperatures crippled morale and pushed the American army to their limits.
The revolution was in its fifth year and the British were frustrated. Due to recent American success, the French entered the war on the side of the Americans. The British had to achieve a decisive victory before the French arrived. The harsh winter of 1779–1780 provided what the British leadership believed was just that opportunity. The British planned to take advantage of the deep freeze and easier access to Washington’s winter encampment by way of a now frozen Hudson River to launch a mission to kidnap Washington at Morristown. They thought they could defeat the Americans with one quick blow. However, when the frozen snow, layered in thick ice, cut the fetlocks of the horses and froze the men, the troops were forced to turn back just miles from where Washington was sleeping.
The British planned a second knockout blow using Benedict Arnold to commit high treason and surrender the fort of West Point. However, Arnold’s plans were discovered, and he was forced to flee to the British lines prior to the fort’s surrender. A spring offensive into Morristown was also attempted. The British hoped to force the surrender of Washington’s army but failed due to a combination of poor decision making by the British and effective employment of Washington’s militia.
The winter encampment at Morristown became an important symbol of patriotism and persistence in the American Revolution. In the severest of conditions, Patriot forces held together, and Washington never lost his resolve or cowered. In the winter of 1779–1780, the Army’s perseverance and determination overcame the challenges they faced and enabled them to march forward and secure American independence.
I highly recommend this book to anyone who enjoys studying Washington and the American Revolution. The author describes the events of the time in graphic detail. Readers can almost feel the pain and suffering endured by the soldiers. However, I wish the author had included a map with graphics depicting the many operations discussed.
Book Review written by: Lt. Col. Robert B. Haines, U.S. Army, Retired, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas