Myth followed Washington across the Delaware

By Chuck Springston
"Washington Crossing the Delaware" by Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze.
"Washington Crossing the Delaware" by Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze.

The image many Americans have of George Washington crossing the Delaware River on Dec. 25, 1776, comes from a painting that is wrong in many of the details, even if the author got the big picture exactly right.

     The famous painting, by Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze in 1851, shows the general standing nobly above a seated crew rowing through the ice chunks as the American flag flaps in the breeze. But there are major mistakes in that picture. Can you find them? It might help to look briefly at the historic events that set the scene for the crossing.
     After the Revolutionary War began with the battles of Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775, Colonial forces immediately began a siege of British-held Boston. In July, Washington arrived as commander in chief of the new Continental Army and continued the siege, which forced the British to evacuate Boston in March 1776.
     At that point, Washington shifted his soldiers to New York City to prepare for a suspected British attack there. But the large British force overpowered Washington’s troops, who retreated southward into New Jersey and then moved west, crossing the Delaware into Pennsylvania on Dec. 7, 1776. Washington camped his forces at various places along the river, putting many of them near a ferry operated by Samuel McConkey, who also had an inn and tavern there.
     Most of the British forces that had been pursuing Washington gave up the chase and went back to New York, although some units stayed behind. Those troops were primarily Hessians, soldiers from the small German state of Hesse-Cassel, whose ruler rented them to the British. They were stationed in places such as Princeton and Trenton, mostly in a rear-guard position. Both the British and American armies, it seemed, were ready to bed down for a long winter’s nap.
     But for Washington, this was no time to hibernate. His often-defeated troops were hunkered down in the middle of a cold winter, short on warm clothing, good shoes and morale. The force had been whittled down by desertions and illness. And many of the dispirited troops who remained would probably be walking away soon because their enlistments ended the same time the year did.
     “To search the writings of the men and women who were there (hundreds of firsthand accounts survive) is to find that they believed the American cause was very near collapse on Christmas night in 1776,” writes historian David Hackett Fischer in Washington’s Crossing (Oxford University Press, 2004).
     Washington and his staff concluded that bold action was needed. They laid out detailed plans for a surprise attack on the Hessian troops at Trenton. A sense of urgency was added when one of Washington’s spies reported that the British might try to cross into Pennsylvania on foot once the river’s ice was strong enough.
     Around 4 p.m. on Wednesday, Dec. 25, approximately 2,400 American troops began assembling on the river near McConkey's ferry. About 6 p.m., boats started taking men, horses and 18 cannons across the river. (It is not known for certain when Washington himself made the crossing.)
     The temperature was below freezing. A light rain started after sunset, and about 11 p.m.—the crossing still in progress—a heavy storm of rain, snow and hail pounded the soldiers and made it hard to see what was ahead. Ice floating in the river made the crossing even more treacherous. The entire force wasn’t across the river and ready to march until about 4 a.m., Dec. 26.
     Washington’s men still had a 10-mile march ahead of them to Trenton. The town’s 1,500 Hessian soldiers, who could not imagine anyone attempting such a feat in a ferocious snowstorm, were completely surprised. However, contrary to one persistent myth, they were not drunk from Christmas partying, as Fischer explains in his book.
     Around 7:30 a.m., Washington’s soldiers reached the outskirts of Trenton. Officers organized the troops into columns and attacked around 8 a.m. The Battle of Trenton lasted about two hours. When it was over, 22 Hessians were dead and 896 were captured, including 83 who were seriously wounded. Fischer, comparing a variety of reports written after the battle, puts the American losses at two privates killed in action, five soldiers wounded and at least four or five deaths from exposure or illness, a number that may actually be much higher.
     That’s the history. So how does Leutze’s painting compare?
     Washington Crossing Historic Park at the McConkey’s ferry site put together an information sheet on four major inaccuracies or misconceptions in the painting and the symbolism the artist attached to those images. Here is a summary and the park’s comments on the symbolism.
     1. In the painting, small icebergs clog the river; however, ice formations on the Delaware usually are large, solid sheets that break into floes. “The icebergs likely are meant to represent the obstacles faced by the Continental Army.”
     2. The boat is too small, and the men are seated. Various types of boats were used. A prominent one was the Durham boat, designed to transport cargo such as iron ore, grain and timber. Durham boats had no seats, so everyone had to stand. They ranged in length from 30 to 60 feet, some perhaps longer, and could hold 30 to 40 men. “Leutze’s intention was for the viewer to focus on George Washington and his soldiers, not the boats.”
     3. The fifth president, James Monroe, an Army lieutenant who participated in the crossing, is shown holding an American flag in Washington’s boat. There is no evidence that Monroe was riding with Washington. The flag with stars and stripes was not created until June 1777. Most units flew their own regimental flag. “Leutze may have included the future president holding an American flag in the center of the painting to foreshadow the colonists’ victory and the formation of the new nation.”
     4. An African-American is positioned next to Washington and said to be modeled after Prince Whipple, a slave with a New Hampshire owner. Prince Whipple was real, but it is unlikely he was with Washington because his master was serving in the Continental Congress, meeting in Baltimore at the time. But Leutze was making a broader point: “Because the Marbleheaders [a New England regiment of seaman and fishermen, formed in Marblehead, Massachusetts], who rowed the boats across the Delaware, were a well integrated group, it is likely that people of color participated in the crossing.”
      The folks at Washington Crossing Historic Park—and Fischer—argue that the artist accurately portrayed important characteristics of the event even if he took liberties with some aspects of it.
      “Leutze successfully captured the determination, anguish and monumental nature of the event,” the park paper states. “The painting may fall short in historic detail, but it certainly conveys the emotion and patriotism of that Christmas night in 1776.” 


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