By Benjamin L. Huggins, Associate Editor
April 14, 2016
In the years before he became commander in chief of the Continental Army in the Revolution, Washington kept diaries of, in his words, “Where & how my time is Spent.” Many of these journals have survived, and they have been printed in volumes I, II, and III of the Diaries.1 But during the war, Washington kept a diary only during two periods.
From May to November of 1781, he maintained a daily journal of significant events and occurrences during the campaign that culminated in the decisive Battle of Yorktown. Scholars have made extensive use of this diary. But the general also kept another, lesser-known diary during the war: a diary of the weather at his headquarters at Morristown, New Jersey, from January to June 1780.
Though one would not recognize it by Washington’s matter-of-fact entries, the winter of 1780 was the harshest winter experienced by the Continental army, even worse than that at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. (1777-1778). The winter of 1780 was so severe that the waters around New York City completely froze and closed down navigation for several weeks (the only time in recorded American history that this has occurred).
Although this weather diary has been largely overlooked, it gives those who take the time to peruse it some interesting insights about Washington and his perspective on the weather occurrences of this historic winter. In his entries of January 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7, he recorded the conditions and effects of one of the worst blizzards on record in that area. For instance, on January 2, he recorded the temperature as “Very cold” and that it began to snow at noon “& continued without intermission through the day, & night” with high winds from the west. And on January 6, he recorded: “The Snow which in general is Eighteen Inches deep, is much drifted—roads almost impassable.”
Being a general, Washington interspersed the diary with observations on the weather’s impact on ground and road conditions—both critical for transport of the provisions needed to sustain his army. He made one such entry on February 16 during a brief thaw:
Clear & quite warm in the forenoon. Snow yielding fast to the Sun. Much Water in the roads & brooks and the thick beds of Snow over which good sleighing had been were now too soft to bear and too difficult & dangerous to Horses to pass.
Showing the severity of the winter, he recorded that the ground was frozen as late as April 13 and 14.
Washington’s interest in science comes through in two entries. On March 3, he recorded: “The Northern lights or aurora Borealis was seen last evening but not in a very conspicuous degree.” And on May 18, he wrote:
Heavy & uncommon kind of Clouds—dark & at the same time a bright and reddish kind of light intermixed with them—brightning & darkning alternately. This continued till afternoon when the sun began to appear.
Finally, Washington the farmer also appears in the diary. A weather diary is something the general had been in the habit of keeping before the war, so the entire diary is evidence of Washington’s planter’s mindset. But one entry—that of May 31—stands out as written by a man with a farmer’s eye: “Raining more or less all day. The showers were moderate & exceedingly refreshing as the Earth imbibed the moisture as it fell & the Earth became well penetrated.”
This unique diary—kept by a general with far more on his mind than the weather—should not be overlooked when trying to understand Washington. Though brief and strictly about the weather, it nevertheless gives us insights into several facets of Washington: as general, farmer, and scientific observer. The headquarters weather diary appears in Volume III of the Diaries.
1. Donald Jackson and Dorothy Twohig, eds. The Diaries of George Washington. 6 vols. Charlottesville, Va., 1976–79.