Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Washington's Winter Headquarters in Morristown: 1779-1780

Washington's Winter Headquarters in Morristown: 1779-1780
Written by NJ Historian

In early December 1779, one of Morristown’s finest homes became a center of the American Revolution. Mrs. Jacob Ford Jr., a widow with four young children, offered her home to General and Mrs. Washington, their servants, slaves, guards, and aides. It was in Morristown that General Washington attempted to solve the many problems facing the American army. The assistance and support of both the Continental Congress and state governments was needed to clothe and feed the army. Their support had been waning as the war dragged on. Military strategy in the northern and southern theaters had to be worked out with the French, who had arrived not too long before to assist. It was during this fateful winter that Washington had to decide his next moves to save the Revolution, as his troops were struggling to survive the harsh winter at nearby Jockey Hollow.

The Ford Mansion was originally owned by Colonel Jacob Ford, Jr. Ford was given the deed to two hundred acres of land by his father in 1762, which was the same year he married Theodosia Johnes. Before serving in the war, Jacob Jr. and his father owned an iron forge in Whippany, New Jersey. Ford built the house between 1772 and 1774, just south of the Whippany River, making it easier to travel to work. Jacob was a commander of the Morris County Militia. Due to exposures and rigors of service while on parade with his troops at Morristown, Colonel Ford was seized "with a delirium in his head and was borne off by a couple of soldiers, after which he never rose from his bed." Ford died from pneumonia on January 11, 1777 in the mansion house, witnessed by thirty-five troops from Delaware. Ford was buried with honors of war by the orders of General Washington. Before his death, Ford and his soldiers captured a bronze, six pounder field cannon from the British Army on January 3, 1777 at the victory in Princeton.

After Ford’s death, his wife gained ownership of the mansion. Mrs. Ford held her family together and kept the farm and family businesses a profitable endeavor after her husband’s death. Prior to Washington’s arrival, the house was considered a "great human tragedy for the Ford family" because in 1777, the house was rented to an overabundance of Continental Army troops that developed smallpox. When Washington arrived in Morristown, he asked permission from the widow if he could stay in the mansion and paid her for rent. General Washington, Martha Washington, five aides-de-camp, and eighteen servants stayed in the mansion. Theodosia Ford occupied two of the four upstairs bedrooms and reserved the kitchen for her own personal use. Her daughter, Elizabeth Ford, who was twelve, stayed in her mother’s room. Theodosia’s boys, Jacob who was eight, Gabriel who was fifteen, and Timothy who was seventeen, stayed in another room downstairs.
George Washington's sleeping quarters.
Washington favored the Ford Mansion because of its location. The capital of the United States at that time was located in Philadelphia and the British Army occupied Manhattan. From the hills of Morristown, Washington could keep a close eye on the British and all the roads leading to the area, in addition to being able to send correspondence to Philadelphia in a timely manner. The house itself was built in the Georgian style, with evidence of Dutch influence in its framing and kitchen wing. The boards on the front of the house were laid flush with each other and scored, to mimic masonry with quoins at the corners. The cornice is of a high style and the Palladian window above the front entrance demonstrates the wealth of the Ford family. The Ford family’s wealth came from a myriad of business interests. They owned iron mines, iron forges, a gristmill, a hemp-mill, and a gunpowder mill that were all stationed near the house and were vital in aiding the army with supplies. In keeping with Georgian style, the main section of the house was laid out symmetrically, with a wide center hall and two rooms deep on each side. A servant’s section was built on the east side of the mansion, which is where the kitchen, pantries, prep areas and servant’s bedrooms were located. Because of the crowded conditions in the house, a log kitchen at the east end of the house was erected and another log cabin was built for general office use.

The service wing of the Ford Mansion.
The Palladian window.
Washington wrote many letters to congress explaining the poor predicament that his troops were in during his stay at the Ford Mansion. He did most of his work from the private study, which was located on the first floor of the house. Washington’s aides-de-camp worked in the parlor, which became the military office. His aides included Alexander Hamilton, Robert H. Harrison, Tench Tilghman, Richard Meade and James McHenry. The only record of Washington’s stay at the mansion was a letter from Richard Meade to Mrs. Ford dated July 26, 1780. The letter has been transcribed and reads:

Madam: I have received your favour by Captain Tomas Pry. I communicated its contents to His Excellency and am directed to transmit you the inclosed certificate. I have the honour and I certify that the commander in Chief took up his quarters at Mrs. Fords at Morris Town the first day of December 1779, that he left them the 23d of June 1780, and that he occupied two rooms below; all the upper floor, Kitchen, Cellar and Stable. The Stable was built and the two Rooms above Stairs finished at the public expence, and a well, which was intirely useless and filled up before, put in thorough repair by walling & c. Head Quarters near Passaick July 26th. 1780.

George Washington's private study at the Ford Mansion.

Lafayette, Livingston, Lord Stirling, Koschiusko, Schuyler, Light Horse Harry Lee, Putnam, Wayne, Stark, Knox, Maxwell, and Benedict Arnold were visitors at the headquarters. Washington also entertained the new minister from France, Chevalier de la Lucerne, Baron von Steuben, and Don Juan de Hirailles, who officially represented Spain. De Hirallles died while visiting and was buried from the mansion with military honors.

In 1874 a group of citizens in Morristown formed the Washington Association of New Jersey and purchased the Ford Mansion. It was used as a museum until March 2, 1933, when it was made a part of the Morristown National Historical Park. 

Additional photos of my trip to the Ford Mansion on Pinterest

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Very interesting article. It is an amazing house and so much history occurred in Morristown...thanks for the article.

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