So, you think that this is a bad winter?

By Karen L. Hayden

Surviving winter was much more of a challenge for our Revolutionary War ancestors than it is for us. Winters in this country were certainly harsh enough without the ravages of war. Although the cold and snow this winter have increased our costs for staying warm, we have what we need available to be warm. Some of us even have two systems in our homes for heating. The colonial house had just the fireplace for warmth. J.F. Wasmus, a Hessian surgeon captured at Saratoga, wrote in his journal from Western Massachusetts in December 1777:

"In spite of the bright sunshine, the cold has been severe through the NW (wind) since the beginning of this month. If only I had the clothing I left behind in Canada, and an old, decrepit wood stove with Dutch tiles from Germany. Even in bed at night, one is shivering from cold. The mattresses are quite good but eiderdown covers are not known by the inhabitants here; instead they have woolen blankets."

2 weeks later, Wasmus reports:

"Snow, 3 feet deep, fell last night and with the continuous NW wind, it is mighty cold."

Wasmus had this to say on January 23, 1778:

"The stormy NW wind drove snow in my face at night while I lay in bed; the houses are so ingeniously built that the wind drives the snow through just about everywhere. On the level ground, the snow lies 3 feet deep."

Grace Gowden Galloway of Philadelphia had the misfortune of being married to Joseph Galloway, a Loyalist. Though she had inherited money and property through her father, legally, it now belonged to her husband, and thus, was confiscated. She became ill during the long winter of 1778-1779. December 23:

"The weather very cold and bleak. I fear my wood will not be got down. I am now quite overcome at being kept out of my estate, for I am like to want everything."

On December 25, she wrote:

"It snowed and was extrememly cold. This morning I has a flat load of wood come down: there was not another flat at the wharf, and in a few hours after, the river was fast. ... Spent a wretched Christmas indeed. Nothing diverting, and I am ill."

Being able to get some wood was a blessing. For many others, it was a dream. Author Elizabeth Evans writes:

"Newport (Rhode Island) in the winter of 1778 faced the bitterest weather its inhabitants had suffered through in many years. ... During the entire British occupation, several wharves and 480 homes, farms and commercial buildings were demolished for firewood. All of the island's trees, except for those bearing fruit, had been hacked down. The shipping trade was in shambles; and five thousand inhabitants had fled. ... Wood was so scarce that a cord of it sold for five times the cost of a bushel of corn and ten times that of a bushel of potatoes."

After five years of war, things did not improve. By the winter of 1779-1780, "all of Manhattan's trees had been hacked down for firewood; logs had to be brought over from Long Island and Staten Island," says Evans. The water froze over and allowed the British army to use horse-drawn sleighs to exchange food and clothing for wood. Anna Rawle Clifford describes staying warm in February, 1781:

"We have a fire here two or three times a week. The chimney is so little that the wood was forced to be cut small enough for a stove, which makes it last longer."

And what do you do if you have to build a hut? In her diary, Margaret Hill Morris of Burlington, New Jersey wrote on January 9, 1777:

"We hear that Washington has sent to buy up a number of stoves, from whence it is conjectured he is going into winter quarters. The weather is very cold; more snow falling has filled the river the ice, and we expect it will be strong enough to walk over in a day or two and give an opportunity to those inclined to escape, of crossing over, which for several days has been attended with some difficulty..."

Two days later, the Delaware River was frozen over. She said:

"I pity the poor soldiers now on their march, many of whom will probably lay out in the fields this cold night."

When I started writing this article, the days were getting warmer and the snow pack was melting. Alas, our friends in Connecticut, Western Massachusetts, and parts of New Hampshire and Vermont recently had to dig out from as much as 30 inches of snow. For us, the biggest problem is often getting around. Wasmus had a similar experience on January 20, 1780:

"I was stiff yesterday (from walking 15 miles on snowshoes) and neither could I nor did I want to go to Upton. ... But I assured him that I would gladly come along if I could go on horseback. But since that was not possible, seeing the snow was 3 to 4 feet deep, he hired a sleigh with beds on it as well as 4 strong men who had to pull me on that sleigh to Upton. The men went on snowshoes. Never did I see such a vehicle."

(Wouldn't this make an interesting winter project?)
Trying to move an army in these conditions was no less challenging. Doctor Thatcher of the Continental Army wrote in December 1779:

"Our only defence against the inclemency of the weather, consists of brushwood thrown together. Our lodging... was on the frozen ground. ... Having removed the snow, we wrapped ourselves in great-coats, spread our blankets on the ground, and lay down by the side of each other five or six together, with large fires at our feet, leaving orders with the waiters to keep it well supplied with fuel during the night."

Going back to Valley Forge in 1777-1778, author Holly Mayer reports that only in the severest weather did Washington suspend regular drill and other duties.

"Days began with brigade parades. Then details of men would split off to march out and relieve outposts and guards, or perform labor such as foraging, fortifying, and building. Some helped the artificers who repaired wagons and other equipment."

The economy in the colonies was a precarious situation at best. The war effort drained off men and goods from the civilian population. The British Blockade was having its effect. Paper money issued by the Continental Congress was essentially worthless. Abigail Adams described the situation in a letter to John:

"You shall have wool for flax and flax for wool, you shall have veal, Beaf, or pork for salt ... But money we will not take... I will work for you for Corn, for flax or wool, but if I work for money you must give a cart load of it be sure."

Throw winter into this mix and you know that many people struggled to eat, clothe themselves and stay warm. When you get a little chilly and huddle closer to the fire at an encampment this year, remember, you can go home where there is warm water in your shower and a warm furnace in your basement.

To those who went before us, Huzzah!

A Journal of a German Surgeon: J.F. Wasmus
Dearest Friend: A Life of Abigail Adams by Lynne Withey
Belonging to the Army by Holly Mayer
Weathering the Storm: Women of the American Revolution by Elizabeth Evans

Copyright © 2001 Karen L. Hayden. All rights reserved.