In late 1776, the British pushed George Washington’s rapidly diminishing army out of New York City, through northern New Jersey towards Philadelphia. As the clashing armies neared the Delaware River, the home and family of the widow Margaret Hill Morris (1737-1816) in Burlington, New Jersey, became embroiled in the conflict. A practicing Quaker and a medical practitioner, Morris attempted to stay out of the rebellious fight. While she may have had a preference for British rule, she first and foremost sought to avoid the war’s deprivations.
In a captivating account, she recorded her exertions to stay safe as the brutal and dangerous conflict swept to her doorstep in a contemporaneous diary. The diary starts with her first contact with warring armies on December 6, 1776, and concludes six months later when relative peace and security returned.
The diary is known for describing the dangers and vicissitudes of living among combatants. Believing British soldiers were in the area, river-borne Patriot (Rebel) galleys bombarded her town. Fortunately, no cannonballs pierced her house, and her family remained physically safe for the moment. Over the next several days, advancing and retreating soldiers from both armies came into town. Each side quartered soldiers in her home. The soldiers expected to be fed and provided with ample drink. Besides taking sustenance, these uninvited guests stole household items such as a spyglass and threatened her son with death for serving as a lookout for the other side. Both armies demanded that she take care of the sick and wounded. In this capacity, Morris worried that disease from the troops would spread to her family and the townspeople.
Amidst the raging conflict, Morris demonstrated steadfast courage, remarkable compassion, and provided a clear demonstration of her loyalties. She hid a Tory (Loyalist) on her property from the roving Rebel patrols. If discovered, Morris knew the Rebels would burn her house, becoming destitute in the harsh winter. Despite this act of support for the British, she actively attempted to get both parties to regard Burlington as a neutral town.
Further, her journal demonstrates the “fog of war.” Word of mouth and rumors provided unreliable information on the movements and activities of both armies. For example, she repeats the oft-told tale that the Hessians were drunk celebrating Christmas Day when George Washington crossed the Delaware River and surprised them at Trenton. Five days later, Morris recounts Rebel casualty counts from Trenton’s second battle far above those incurred. Unbelievable to modern ears, she falsely noted that George Washington received a mortal wound at Trenton. Rebel soldiers freed General Charles Lee and re-captured Long Island. Further adding to spurious information, Morris received contradictory reports, making it difficult to understand the volatile situation.
Margaret Morris’ diary is an excellent source for understanding what it was like to be a non-combatant in a Revolutionary War conflict zone. Readers come away with a sense of grit but also uncontrollable danger. The diary connotes the hard choices of loyalty and the risks of attempting to be neutral.
Philadelphian John Jay Smith first printed Morris’ diary in 1836 with an introduction that “No apology is offered for her political feelings.” Readers can access this original publication through the HathiTrust website. An annotated version is available via the America in Class website.
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Unverified likeness of Margaret Hill Morris from Find A Grave.