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INTRODUCTION: A MIGHTY FORTRESS
Victory in the American Revolution was insured more by a series of fiery, volcanic eruptions 150 million years ago than by the military genius of George Washington or the valor of his often uncertain soldiers. The eruptions sent several waves of molten lava streaming across barren land to form what are now New Jersey's Watchung Mountains, the American Revolution's most formidable natural bulwark.
The two outer Watchung ridges, like the outer walls of a tremendous fortress, rise as high as 879 feet above sea level, just north of what is now Paterson. Elsewhere along the top of the basaltic formation the ridges are between 450 and 600 feet high. Considering that sea level is less than eight miles from the outer ridge, the rise of the formation is precipitous, and in places, clifflike.
Geological time also saw an ancient ancestor of today's Passaic River carve out a deep gap in the ridges, midway on a straight line between Morristown and the lower tip of New York. The location of the gap is uncanny, considering the role it was destined to play in American history.
There were lesser gaps to the south, but none offered an easy or convenient passage through the ridges. The major gap, usually known as the Springfield Gap, could be defended easily by sharpshooters or light artillery posted on the top of either side of the opening. The British made only two anemic efforts to pass through the opening, in the autumn of 1777 and at the end of the Battle of Springfield on June 23, 1780. Both were quickly repulsed.
Immediately behind the gap were widespread, irregular marshlands, forming what might be considered an "insidemoat." The most important fen, known even in colonial days as the Great Swamp, was fearsome to anyone on foot. (Today this is part of the Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge.)
It should be evident that the emerging United States could only be conquered by whichever side controlled or neutralized New York and Philadelphia. The corridor and roads linking the cities ran for a considerable distance within easy view of the Watchungs. The countryside as far away as Sandy Hook could be monitored from heights in the southern part of the mountains.
The Watchung ridges were a perfect refuge and vantage point as long as the British command maintained its headquarters in New York. The British left only once during the war, in 1777, when General William Howe took his army to Philadelphia for the winter. Washington immediately broke camp to follow the enemy south, eventually wintering at Valley Forge.
Historians disagree on why Washington took his army north after the electrifying triumphs at Trenton and Princeton at the end of 1776 and the beginning of 1777. It is true that he had little other recourse, but his many civilian years as a surveyor and his reliance on map makers surely made him aware of the strategic value of the Watchung Mountains. He did not command by whim.
The mountain ridges offered the safety and security Washington needed for winter quarters, which he established within or close to the formation. He set up winter camps twice in Morristown and a third time on one of the Watchung's southern slopes, about fifteen miles due south of Morristown.
Then, for the winter of 178081, while he spent the winter in New Windsor, New York, Washington sent 2,500 men, a substantial force - about half his main army - back to Morristown for yet another winter. No other area of the infant United States, from Savannah to Boston, came close to the Watchungs in constant military importance.
Washington's obvious strategy throughout the war was to avoid extended direct open field conflict with the enemy. Even the Battles of Trenton and Princeton, for all their brilliance, were "hit and run" affairs. The cautious tactics shielded the precious troops and earned Washington the unseemly sobriquet of "the master of defeat and retreat."
The commander's armies were at least elusive and often evanescent, particularly in winter when many men drifted away from camp The three major winter camps behind the Watchungs were replete with suffering, despair, desertion, thievery, indifference and open mutiny.
Soldiers at Middlebrook faced an indifferent public; farmers sold produce mainly to those offering the highest profits - and if that meant the British, so be it. The American troops were starving, freezing, barefoot, and angry.
The winter of 177980 at Morristown tested the army in nearly every conceivable way. The fifth snow of the season was falling on December 1, when the first soldiers reached Morristown and marched south about three miles to begin building log huts for themselves in Jockey Hollow.