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Private Journal of Margaret Morris--December 6-17, 1776

It frequently seems that whenever great wars occur the story of that conflict is recorded for history mostly from the point of view of the victor. The treatments received by the vanquished in text accounts and other commemorations of the events are routinely ignored or minimized. Little attention is paid to the case to be made for the defeated unless some committed supporters of the defeated group remains to keep their point of view alive. The continued contemporary interest in the cause and the commitment of the people of the Confederacy in the American Civil War stands out as a notable example.

In 1836, John J. Smith, Jr., the grandson of Margaret Morris, had a journal reprinted kept by his grandmother in the weeks prior to the Battle of Trenton. She resided in Burlington, New Jersey. The journal was kept for her sister who resided in Montgomery Square, Pa. The journal, excerpted here, details her fears, beliefs and concerns. As you read the journal respond to the questions interspersed among the text excerpts.

Dec. 6th, 1776. Being on a visit to my friend, M. S., at Haddonfield, I was preparing to return to my family, when a person from Philadelphia told me the people were there in great commotion,--that the English fleet was in the river, and hourly expected to sail up to the city,--that the inhabitants were removing into the country,--and that several persons of considerable repute had been discovered to have formed a design of setting fire to the city, and were summoned before the Congress and strictly enjoined to drop the horrid purpose. When I heard the above report my heart almost died within me, and I cried, surely the Lord will not punish the innocent with the guilty, and I wished there might be found some interceding Lots and Abrahams amongst our people. On my journey home, I was told the inhabitants of our little town [Burlington, N. J.] were going in haste into the country, and that my nearest neighbors were already removed. When I heard this, I felt myself quite sick; I was ready to faint--I thought of my S. D. [Sarah Dillwynn, wife of George, then absent,] the beloved companion of my widowed state--her husband at the distance of some hundred miles from her --I thought of my own lonely situation, no husband to cheer with the voice of love my sinking spirits. My little flock, too, without a father to direct them how to steer. All these things crowded into my mind at once, and I felt like one forsaken; a flood of friendly tears came to my relief, and I felt a humble confidence that He who had been with me in six troubles, would not forsake me now. While I cherished this hope, my tranquillity was restored, and I felt no sensations but of humble acquiescence to the Divine will--and was favoured to find my family in good health upon my arrival, and my dear companion not greatly discomposed, for which favour I desire to be truly thankful.


  • Can you tell at this point what Margaret Morris' view of the revolutionary war was? Which side did she favor?
  • What do you think Margaret Morris meant by punishing the innocent with the guilty?

Dec. 7th. A letter from my next neighbour's husband, at the camp, warned her to be gone in haste, and many persons coming into town to-day, brought intelligence that the British army were advancing towards us.

Dec. 10th. To-day our amiable friend, E. C. [Hetty Cox] and her family bade us adieu. My brother also left us, but returned in less than an hour, telling us, he could not go away just as the Hessians were entering the town--but no troops coming in, we urged him to leave us next morning which he concluded to do after preparing us to expect the Hessians in a few hours. A number of galleys have been lying in the river, before the town, for two days past.

Next Margaret Morris describes the arrival of a Hessian contingent near the town. She refers to "our doctor Odell" who agrees to meet with the Hessian commander.

Dec. 11th. After various reports from one hour to another, of lighthorse approaching, the people in town had certain intelligence that a large body of Hessians were come to Bordentown, and we might expect to see them in a few hours. About 10 o'clock of this day, a party of about 60 men marched down the main street--as they passed along they told our doctor[Odell,] and some other persons in the town, that a large number of Hessians were advancing , and would be in the town in less than an hour....

The gentlemen went out, and though the Hessian colonel spoke but little English, yet they found that upon being thus met in a peacable manner on behalf of the inhabitants, he was ready to promise them safety and security, to exchange any messages that might be proper with the gentlemen of the galleys. In the meantime he ordered his troops to halt, they remained in their ranks between the bridge and the corner of the Main street, waiting an answer from on board. J. L.and T. H. went down to report what had passed, and told Capt. Moore that the colonel had orders to quarter his troops in Burlington that night, and that if the inhabitants were quiet and peacable, and would furnish him with quarters and refreshment, he would pledge his honour that no manner of disorder should happen to disturb or alarm the people....Dr. Odell was told it would be a satisfaction, both to the Hessian commandant and to our own people, to have a person who could serve as interpreter between them--not doubting the foreigner could speak French, the doctor went to him, and he had the satisfaction to find it probable at least, that he might be of service to the people of the town. The commandant seemed highly pleased to find a person with whom he could converse with ease and precision.


  • What emotions do you think Margaret Morris felt about the approach of the Hessians? Was the Hessian request for "quarters and refreshment" reasonable? Where would the residents of Burlington get them?
  • How do you think Margaret Morris felt about Dr. Odell's meeting the Hessian commander? How would the revolutionaries and the loyalists view his actions?

How did the New Jersey State Convention view Dr. Odell's actions? To find out their view of Dr. Odell's actions examine the "Order Confining Jonathan Odell to the immediate area of the court of Burlington due to his loyalist sympathies.

Odell was regarded as one of the best writers among the loyalists. One of the people he wrote about was John Witherspoon, one of New Jersey's most outspoken signers of the Declaration of Independence.

Dec. 11....but as it happened the commodore had received intelligence of a party of Hessians having entered Burlington before Captain Moore got down to him, and had ordered up four galleys to fire on the town wherever any two or three persons should be seen together....The four gondolas came up, and the first of them appearing before the main street, J. L., T. H. and W. D. went down upon the wharf and waved a hat, the signal agreed on with Capt. Moore for the boat to come ashore and give the commodore's answer in peace; to the astonishment of these gentlemen, all the answer received was first a swivel shot. Not believing it possible this could be designedly done, they stood still, and J. L. again waved his hat, and was answered with an 18 pounder.; both these fires as the gondola people have since told us, were made with as good aim as could be taken, as they took it for granted it was at Hessians they fired;"


  • Who is firing on the town? Is it intentional or an accident? If you were Margaret Morris, how would you feel about the people firing on the town?

These being now and then seen at different times, induced the people on board to believe that the houses were full of Hessians, and a cannonade was continued till almost dark, in different directions, sometimes along the street, sometimes across it. Several houses were struck, and a little damaged, but not one living creature, either man or beast, killed or wounded. About dark the gondolas fell down a little below the town, and the night was passed in quiet.

Dec. 14th. This day there was no appearance of the formidable Hessians. Several of our friends called to see us; amongst the number was one (Dr. Odell,) esteemed by the whole family, and very intimate in it; but the spirit of the devil still continued to rove through the town in the shape of tory-hunters. A measure was delivered to our intimate friend, informing him a party of armed men were on the search for him--his horse was brought, and he retired to a place of safety. Some of the gentlemen, who entered the foreigners, were pointed out to the gondola men--two worthy inhabitants were seized upon, and dragged on board.


  • Margaret Morris's view of [What was a Tory? Who would be searching for them? What conclusions can you draw about the war at this point? Which side does she favor?

Dec. 17th. More news! great news! very great news; J.V.'s). The British troops actually at Mount Holly!--guards of militia placed at London and York bridges--gondola men in arms are patrolling the street, and diligent search making for firearms, ammunition, and tories--another attempt last night to enter into R. Smith's house. Early this morning J. V. sent in, to beg I would let my son go a few miles out of town on some business for him. I consented, not knowing of the formidable doings up town--when I heard of it I felt a mother's pangs for her son all the day; but when night came, and he did not appear, I made no doubt of his being taken by the Hessians. A friend made my mind easy, by telling me he had passed through the town where the dreadful Hessians were said to be "playing the very mischief," (J. V. again); it is certain there were numbers of them at Mount Holly, but they behaved very civilly to the people, excepting only a few persons, who were actually in rebellion, as they termed it, whose goods, &c. they injured. this evening every gondola man sent on board, with strict orders not to set a foot on the Jersey shore again--so far so good.


  • Who were the Hessians? Which side were they fighting for? How did Margaret Morris feel about them? Does there appear to be any contradiction in her view of them and who they are fighting with?


Private Journal Kept During A Portion of the Revolutionary War, for the Amusement of a Sister by Margaret Morris of Burlington, New Jersey. (Philadelphia: Privately Printed, 1836). Rutgers University Special Collections and University Archives.