After the victories at Trenton and Princeton the Continental Army under General George Washington arrived in Morristown on January 6, 1777. The site was relatively secure lying behind the Watchung Mountains and the Great Swamp, and it was here that Washington established the army’s winter camp.
Arnold’s Tavern, on the western edge of the Green, became Washington’s Headquarters. Rodney’s Light Infantry was quartered upon the grounds of the Ford Mansion across town. In between, officers and men took quarters in private homes, barns, churches, and other structures throughout town; and scattered in towns from Princeton to the Hudson Highlands.
Before breaking camp in late May, Washington wanted to secure Morristown as a supply base. On May 14, 1777 he ordered the construction of a fortification, called a redoubt, on a hill bordering Morristown so “…that it may serve as a retreat in case of necessity.”
Originally referred to as “the Hill” or “Kinney’s Hill,” it commanded the town. The function of the Fort was as an observation and alarm post, and a place of retreat for guards stationed in the town. The British never made an attack on Morristown, however, and the fortified hilltop was never used. It was common for a small fortification such as Fort Nonsense to be built for the protection of military encampments and strategic military depots.
Washington’s men levelled surrounding trees, dug trenches, raised breastworks, built a guardhouse for 30 men, and fortified the crown of the hill with an earthwork redoubt. As early as the 1790s the hill was called Fort Nonsense. A legend had grown that Washington had set his men to fortify the hill simply as a way of keeping troops busy. This explanation is very unlikely. In their pension claims after the war, soldiers refered to the work as ‘Fort Nonsense.’
In addition to the earthworks, it is believed that the Morris County Militia was instructed to build a beacon of between 18 and 20 feet high. It was to be constructed of a loose frame of logs with smaller combustibles filling the center. Such beacons were in fact found extending from the Hudson Highlands and all through northern New Jersey. The beacon system was used on June 7, 1780 and again on June 23 when the British crossed into New Jersey. Records tell of area militia responding to the alarms in June and engaging the British at Springfield.