Two-hundred-and-thirty-eight years ago tonight, there was some serious partying going on in the Continental Army’s winter encampment.
Shielded by the Watchung Mountains and a rich agricultural community, the little New Jersey village of Morristown seemed a perfect, safe place for General Washington to settle his Army for the winter of 1780. He hadn’t counted on it turning into the hardest winter ever recorded in American history. Over twenty snowstorms would ravage the region from November until April 1st. Temperatures stayed so cold New York harbor froze solid enough for the British to pull heavy cannon across it. In Morristown, snowdrifts reached four to six feet high. Roads became impassible, supplies could not get through, and wild game the soldiers might have hunted to feed themselves all but disappeared, frozen to death. Washington’s officers and soldiers often starved with nothing to eat for days at a time.
His officers were in need of some pleasant diversion.
So Washington and 35 officers each pledged $400 to host three subscription balls—the first would be held on February 23rd. For days leading up to it, officers practiced the complicated “country” line-dances with local ladies. (There are reports of some fairly wild sleigh parties, too, on those evenings, “a pretty clever kick-up,” as one officer described an overturned sleigh of giggling, shrieking young women. “We had a noble sleighing. The other day (I mean night) we tumbled over two sleigh loads of ladies helter skelter, head over heels, into the snow.” It seems one party stopped at a tavern outside of town to do some dancing, but a British patrol surrounded the building, captured the officers, seized the four sleighs and horses, and left the young women to get their own way home. General Washington was NOT amused.
Even with these mishaps, anticipation among the 250 villagers and local gentry ran high. When General Greene suggested that the new storehouse, which was to host the ball, might have to be used instead for a court martial and as a dry place to make tents for the Army’s spring campaign, there was quite an uproar of protest.
The afternoon of the great event, it began to snow AGAIN. “The weather is bad, the roads shocking,” noted one officer. Sixty-five officers made it through the storm to the ball. Only sixteen women braved it.
They must have done a lot of dancing, those intrepid sixteen ladies, outnumbered almost 4 to 1 by men in need of a partner! And through that storm rides Peggy, invited by Hamilton’s letter to come distract his fellow-aides-de-camp so that he could monopolize Eliza’s attentions.
The two chapters about this evening—in which Peggy arrives near frozen, worn out from a death-defying three-day journey, and Angelica convinces (actually kind of blackmails) their Uncle Johnny to let Peggy go to the ball that night, and then the ball itself—are some of my favorites. (Chapters 9 and 10)
One of the absolutely delightful things I learned researching these chapters is that George Washington was a legendarily beautiful and enthusiastic dancer. And then I learned that the minuet, which opened each ball, was performed solo, couple by couple in descending order of social importance. SOLO! The entire assembly watching, critiquing, and gossiping. I had no idea how balletic a minuet was, either, full of pliés and graceful arm gestures and little jetés, done precisely and in tandem with your partner. (Below are links to how beautiful but terrifying those dances must have been!)
My daughter thinks my paragraphs describing Hamilton and Eliza dancing the minuet together for the first time, some of my best writing. (see what you think: Pages 178-180)
Chapter 10 ends with the three Schuyler sisters leaving the ball, exhausted but flushed with the romance and adventure of the night. They hear Hamilton and his fellow aides working their way back to their quarters through the snow, singing loudly the Patriots’ cheeky takeoff on the British Grenadiers traditional fight song, a musical mocking of the Redcoats: Vain Britons, boast no longer, with proud indignity…. Huzzah, huzzah, huzzah, huzzah, for war and Washington! I will be sharing a recording of this song with you all soon!
Here are the links to learn more about dance moves in 1780: