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Stories of New Jersey
The Story Of Fort Nonsense
(Period, 1776-80.)

By Frank R. Stockton

Originally published in 1896
This Web version, edited by GET NJ, COPYRIGHT 2003

There was no ostentation or superciliousness about Mrs. Washington. She was hospitable and kind, and she put on no airs because she was a great lady from Virginia, and because she was the wife of the commander in chief of the army. The story is told, that, soon after her arrival, some ladies of the town went to pay their respects to her, and as they were going to visit the first lady of the land, they thought that they should dress themselves in their finest clothes. Arrayed in silks, satins, and ruffles, they were shown into the presence of Mrs. Washington, and were utterly amazed to find her wearing a striped homespun apron, and busily engaged in knitting stockings. She received them, however, with as much dignity and courtesy as if she had had a crown on her head and a scepter in her hand ; and in the course of conversation she said that it was the duty of every one to try to do without the things which they were obliged to buy from foreign countries, and to make for themselves, as far as possible, what they needed ; and that, while their husbands and brothers were fighting in the field, she thought that they should do what they could at home to help the great cause.

Mrs. Washington entertained the ladies with accounts of her life at home. She said that in her house there were always sixteen spinning wheels at work. She showed them two morning dresses which had been made in her house from ravelings of old satin chair covers. But Mrs. Washington was not at all averse to cheerfulness and good company, and in that year there were many dances and parties in Morristown, which kept the place quite gay.

Two years afterwards, Washington and his army wintered at Middlebrook, in Somerset County. Here the army had a comparatively comfortable time, for the weather was mild, without much snow or frost; and this, after the terrible sufferings which they had had at Valley Forge the winter before, was very well calculated to put men as well as officers in a cheerful state of mind. It is true that the difficulties of obtaining provisions were in some ways greater than they had been before; for the Continental money, with which all supplies were paid for, was depreciating so rapidly that now thirty or forty dollars of it were barely equal to one silver dollar, and the country people very much disliked to take it. But the army had just achieved some important victories, and there was a feeling in many circles that it would not be long before the war would end; and with this belief in the minds of many, and with the general satisfaction in the mild and pleasant weather, it is no wonder that there were some good times in the army during that winter at Middlebrook.

General Washington always liked to have company at dinner, for he was very hospitable, and, besides this, he considered it his duty to become acquainted with his officers and with the people of the neighborhood; and sometimes as many as thirty persons sat down at the table. Even if the various articles of food were not of the finest quality, they were well cooked and well served. While in Middlebrook, Washington desired a dinner service of white queen's-ware, and he wrote to Philadelphia to obtain it. Among the articles he mentioned in his order were eight dozen shallow plates and three dozen soup plates, which gives an idea of the size of his dinner parties. But, although Philadelphia was searched from one end to the other, no queen's-ware of the kind could be found, and at last Washington was told that he could get what he wanted in New Brunswick, and there he bought his queen's-ware.

Among other things which he ordered at that time were "six tolerably genteel but not expensive candlesticks;" and he also wrote for a new hat, stating, "I do not wish by any means to be in the extreme of fashion, either in the size or manner of cocking it."

At these dinners there was a good deal of state and ceremony, although the heads of the family were very courteous and attentive to their guests. As this was a military establishment, everything was done promptly and according to rule. Washington never waited longer than five minutes for any guest who was late. When such a person did arrive after the company had seated themselves at the table, he would always try to put him at his ease by some pleasant remark, sometimes saying that he had a cook "who never asks whether the company has come, but whether the hour has come."

During this winter a great entertainment was given by General Knox and some other officers, and it was said to be the finest thing of the kind ever seen in that part of the State. It may be thought, and probably there were people who thought it then, that at a time when money was so much needed, and provisions were so hard to get, a great and expensive festival like this was extravagant and out of place; but it is likely that the gayety of that great day had a good and encouraging effect upon the army as well as the people of the country. They knew why the day had been celebrated, and because of the general rejoicings they believed there was reason to rejoice; and when people believe that there is a good thing coming, they are much more ready to fight for it than if they had no such belief.

But it is not of these two winters that our story has to deal: it is with the second encampment at Morristown, during the cold, the snow, and the icy frosts of 1779-80. At this time, General and Mrs. Washington lived in the handsome house which is now known as "Washington's Headquarters," and has been preserved in the same condition as it was in those Revolutionary days. In this fine old mansion, General Washington and his wife kept up their hospitable customs; and at their table were seen such men as Alexander Hamilton, General Greene, Baron Steuben, Kosciusko, Pulaski, "Light Horse Harry" Lee, Israel Putnam, "Mad Anthony" Wayne, and Benedict Arnold. There also came to Morristown the minister from France (the Chevalier de la Luzerne) and an envoy from Spain (Don Juan de Mirailles). These two distinguished foreigners were received with great honor. An escort was sent out to meet them; there was a grand review of the troops, in which Washington and his generals, together with the Frenchman and the Spaniard, appeared on the field, splendidly mounted; while on the grand reviewing stand was the governor of the State and a great many citizens and distinguished people. After a salute of thirteen cannon, the parading army went through its evolutions, and in the evening there was a grand ball.


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