Monday, May 9, 2016

Washington's Headquarters in Morristown, NJ - A Visit

My son has a school project relating to New Jersey history.  He had to pick a historical figure who played a prominent role in the history of the Garden State.

After some consideration, he chose Anthony Wayne.

While my ex-wife generally has him most of the time, and so helps him with his day to day homework and academic activities, these are the kinds of projects that I help him with. That, and anything to do with reading and/or writing. This particular school project was a bit more involved than most, however. It would require some visuals, as well as some manner of costume, as the kids have to dress up like the historical figure that they picked, while standing before everyone and reciting a 45-second or so speech that they have to memorize.

The research was relatively easy, as it often tends to be for things like this now. My generation did not grow up going to grade school during the age of the internet, and the internet was still quite new while I was going to college, so the benefits were not that great during my own academic days. But for my son, the internet is obviously a wonderful tool, and there was enough material after maybe twenty minutes of so for a decent presentation.

This presented a whole new challenge. How were we going to find enough material to make up a convincing costume? Memories of my own failed school project, when I went before a large assembled crowd (or what looked like it to me at the time) with my makeshift paper bag tall hat and famous Lincoln beard, where I was stopped midway through my presentation because it was far too detailed (I remember talking about how Lincoln had mentioned the food tasted like shoes before the teacher stopped me) came back. The one thing that I wanted to make sure of is that he did not have the disastrous kind of presentation that I did back then.

With the 45-second or so speech ready (it got a check-plus, the highest possible grade, presumably), all that remained was the outfit. But this is not September or October, when Halloween stores could easily have taken care of that kind of thing. I had to rake my mind to think of any place where I might get something like a colonial-era costume and visual props. Washington's headquarters in Morristown came to mind.

So,  we went to Washington's Headquarters in Morristown,  which I had long wanted to take him to visit,  anyway. Since a part of this project was to dress up as the historical figure, I had called to make sure that the shop there had the colonial style hats.

They did.

That gave us a good reason to finally visit.

Previously, I had only been there once myself, with my family back around 1989 or so, give or take a year or two. It was a very fun day, as I recall, and this had taken place during a time when the Revolutionary War-era of American history fascinated me. Who knows? Perhaps that particular trip triggered that fascination. All I know is that, following that trip, it had been on my mind to take a second trip there, although more than a quarter century has passed since then. So I was glad on many levels that circumstances allowed us to make good on that desire this past weekend.

It had been raining all week, including on Sunday morning, although it was supposed to clear up by afternoon. We got there around 2:30 in the afternoon or so, with plenty of time to spare before the 3:00pm tour. I purchased tickets (my ticket was $7, while my 10-year old son got in for free).

With some extra time on our hands to kill before the tour started, we got what we needed from the souvenir store. Of particular interest to my son was a musket rifle pen done in the colonial-era style. He really loved that thing, and carried it with him for the rest of the day, even well after our visit to Morristown. I had enough time to run back and drop the bag of purchases off in the car, and then return, and we visited what was on exhibit in the exterior hall across from the actual Ford's Mansion that served as Washington's actual headquarters during the apparently brutal winter of 1779-80. The Ford Mansion is the only actual structure still standing that existed during those days, as all the others have been added since.

This is perhaps what Ford's Mansion (better known now as Washington's Headquarters in Morristown) might have looked a bit like during that long and lonely winter of 1779-80, which we found out during the tour was the worst, most extreme winter on record. 
In that exhibit hall, which was not standing when this place served as Washington's headquarters, there were plenty of things of interest. These included some colonial-era artifacts, including paintings and other items, including a men's suit and women's dress, a walking stick, some musket rifles and cannons and cannon balls, a sword, some bowls and other utensils, and even a piano.

Finally, the guide came in. He had a sense of humor, which helped to keep my son entertained throughout the tour. He mentioned how the winter that Washington and his army spent in this are (the vast majority of the army, the regular soldiers, stayed roughly five miles further south, at Jockey Hollow) was a particularly brutal winter, even worse than any of the recent winters. There were snowdrifts between 4-6 feet, and remember that this was before the era of snow plows and paved roads. It was also very brutal in another sense, too, with record cold temperatures. New York City had a reading of -18 degrees Fahrenheit, which has never been experienced since. So, that winter was indeed an unusually bad one, even for an area known to have had some pretty bad winters in the past.

One thing that surprised me was just how crowded the house would have been back then. Washington had an entourage of five aide-de-camps, and they brought other people with them, which meant a regular attendance of somewhere between 20-30 people. Add the servants and the cooks, and the fact that the recently widowed Mrs. Ford stayed at the residence, and it would have been quite chaotic - particularly the kitchen area, where cooks for different parties competed with each other until a new cabin specifically built for the cooks was completed in February. The mansion served as Washington's headquarters for a full six months, because the roads were impassable for an army. That meant that this mansion was overcrowded for fully half of a year!

There was one 17-year old living there during that winter, and he did fight in the war, although his service lasted for one day only. About 15 miles away in Connecticut Farms (presently Union, New Jersey), the British were invading and threatening the entire area, so young men flocked there to fight for the colonial cause. This young man was shot in the leg, and then while busy trying to stop the bleeding, he was shot in that same leg. But he was brought back to Ford's Mansion, and then made a full recovery in roughly six weeks. He went on to college and had himself a decent career and, I'm assuming, a good life, even after his rough Revolutionary War experiences.

We were guided through the mansion, and he continually refers to just how cold and snowy that winter is, and it occurs to me that the hallway looks quite big, and hard to heat. When I ask, he responds that, indeed, there was no way to heat the hallways, and I wonder just how warm they managed to keep the regular rooms, for that matter. It must have been a very hard, trying winter indeed.

Long ago, during my first visit to Washington's Headquarters in Morristown, I remember hearing that the winter here was far colder than the one experienced at Valley Forge, which is far more famous (although I am not entirely sure why). And what our guide has mentioned about how the roads are not only impassable during the winter, for obvious enough reasons, but also for spring, because the roads remained muddy and basically just as impassable during the spring, and it occurs to me just how many challenges the Patriots faced in their cause for independence, against a much more established, wealthy, and powerful foe, to boot.

My son, meanwhile, is having a blast. He is enjoying his musket rifle tremendously, and his energy earns appreciative laughs from others in attendance, including one woman who tells me that he is cute. Later, when another child is running away from his parents and I overhear him pointing out my son and saying that he is also running from me (which he was), I hear the parents saying that this boy (my son) is well-behaved and listens to adults. "Not so much," I respond, to sympathetic laughter.

The important thing is that he had a lot of fun, and although he denied having learned anything, my suspicion is that he did indeed absorb some lessons, and get a bit more of a feel for this particular chapter in history. His school project served as the springboard for me to finally return to this national park, and it wound up being another pleasant afternoon, and another great activity together. The weather turned out perfectly, and when we do finally leave, I feel very good about everything, suddenly, glad to have taken this time for a visit!

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