July 3, 2014 at 6:00 PM
The winter of 2013-14 was a hard one; snowstorms piled up one after another and frigid temperatures numbed fingers and toes. That was the reality for the Continental Army in the winter of 1779-80, one of the worst the East Coast had ever known. Twenty-four snowstorms and bitter cold made it likely the bedraggled army would dissolve, leaving America without an effective fighting force in the Northeast. Yet the army survived under the leadership of George Washington and marched out of Jockey Hollow that spring as a more cohesive and disciplined unit, one that would go on to corner and defeat General Cornwallis at Yorktown in the decisive battle of the war.
As New Jersey celebrates the 350th anniversary of its charter, Morristown National Historical Park is a focal point for understanding the state's role in American history. The park consists of several segments, including the Ford Mansion in Morristown where Washington had his headquarters, Jockey Hollow and Fort Nonsense. During the warm days of summer, it may difficult to imagine a soldier's life in the terrible winter of 1779-80. But July 4 events will help to suggest the revolutionary fervor that existed in the Morristown area at that time. They are part of Revolutionary Times, sponsored by the Morris County Tourism Bureau and Morristown National Historical Park and designated a Liberty Event by the New Jersey Historical Commission.
Park ranger Tom Winslow will read the Declaration of Independence on the Green in Morristown at 12:30 p.m., a performance he's been delivering for 23 years. "I think many of them that have approached me at the event are just glad to have something during the day that helps people appreciate the true significance of Independence Day," said Winslow, who dons a period costume for the event. "I find that they like to bring their children out so that they can have an appreciation of the history and that Independence Day is more than just picnics."
Another park ranger, Eric Olsen, warms up the crowd by telling tales of the time, some of which may have had the truth stretched more than a little. He always encourages visitors to be responsive when the Declaration is read, to shout "Huzzah" at appropriate times or to hiss when England is mentioned. "We wanted people to picture what it must have been like to be there at the first reading," Winslow said. "It was more than entertainment. They would realize that this was a document that was going to change everything, change their lives."Morristown National Historical Park is open year round. Because of budget cutbacks, it is closed some days, so visitors should check nps.gov/morr for operating hours.
The best starting point for a trip to the park is the Visitor Center at Jockey Hollow. The center shows "Morristown: Where America Survived," a 30-minute documentary describing the army's travails during the winter of 1779-80. The visitor center also has a replica of a completely equipped soldier's hut as well as rangers to answer questions about the park. Just yards from the center is the Wick House, a restored 18th-century structure built in 1752. The Washington's Headquarters Museum in Morristown helps visitors get a sense of the times with galleries on domestic topics and military life. Adjacent to the museum is the Ford Mansion where Washington and his staff had their headquarters. It is open for hourly tours.
New Jersey's 350th anniversary has not gone unnoticed by the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey. Beginning July 2 it will be presenting George Bernard Shaw's play "The Devil's Disciple," set in America at the time of the Revolution. "It's funny, it's quite dramatic," said Bonnie Monte, artistic director for the Shakespeare Theatre, which is on the sylvan campus of Drew University in Madison. "It tells a very compelling story. It has real-life historical figures in it. It has very unlikely heroes. They're kind of anti-heroes who both end up doing acts of pure personal sacrifice in the hope that a nation can be formed in the right way." The Devil's Disciple is the only one of Shaw's plays set in America and was his first to garner a strong box office. Although it debuted in 1897, the play has relevance for the 21st century, according to Monte. "It is filled with characters that we all recognize in our own families still to this day," Monte said. "It's got romance, it's got all kinds of wonderful things and yet it's extremely thought provoking."
Visit the Morris County Tourism Bureau for more information about events around the county through the Independence Day weekend and NJ's 350th anniversary.