General George Washington’s army settles into a second season at Morristown, New Jersey, on this day, December 1st, in 1779. Washington’s personal circumstances improved dramatically as he moved into the Ford Mansion and was able to conduct his military business in the style of a proper 18th-century gentleman. However, the worst winter of the 1700s coupled with the collapse of the colonial economy ensured misery for Washington’s underfed, poorly clothed and unpaid troops as they struggled for the next two months to construct their 1,000-plus “log-house city” from 600 acres of New Jersey woodland.
Life was similarly bleak for the war-weary civilian population. With an economy weakened by war, household income declined 40 percent. Farmers faced raids from the British and their Indian allies. Merchants lost foreign trade. Even a great victory, such as the capture of British General John Burgoyne’s army in October 1777, led to 7,800 more mouths to feed. As in 1776, the troops were eager to go home and many did. Although enlistment papers showed 16,000 men in Washington’s ranks, only 3,600 men stood ready to accept his commands. Even those remaining were unable to sustain combat since they lacked sufficient horses to move their artillery. With their currency rendered worthless, the army relied upon requisitions from farmers to supply themselves. Military-civilian relations strained under demands on farmers and shopkeepers to sell at a loss and because of the now-professional army’s disdain for civilians. Without paper money, Congress could not pay the army. Without fair pay, farmers stopped planting. By spring, the Continental Army stood at risk of dissolution.
The British army faced a similar crisis. Civilians at home no longer shared British King George III’s determination to keep the colonies within the empire. They too suffered from lost trade and increased debt endemic to war. To fill the royal army, the crown had to tolerate Catholics, which engendered religious violence. The war of attrition was quickly becoming one of contrition for both sides.