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The significance of Washington crossing the Delaware River on Christmas 1776

Washington’s crossing

A look at Gen. George Washington’s Christmas crossing of the Delaware River and the art that it inspired.

High stakes in the war

It was the winter of 1776. With the War of Independence failing, Gen. George Washington and his army had low morale and few new recruits.

Washington’s campaign in New York had not gone well. On Dec. 2, he was forced to retreat across the Delaware River to Pennsylvania. It took five days for the Continental Army to cross. Washington ordered various boats along the river to be seized and gathered on the Pennsylvania side as a defensive measure.

As a harsh winter set in, soldiers were forced to deal with a lack of food and warm clothing. The army shrunk due to desertions and expiring enlistments. Desperate for a victory, Washington decided to attempt crossing the Delaware River once again to attack Hessian troops at Trenton, N.J.

The Hessians were a group of German troops fighting for the British. Germany had about 300 city-states at the time and the hiring of foreign armies was common in Europe. About 30,000 Hessians fought in the war.

Typically used to carry pig iron down the Delaware River, the large Durham boats were used for the crossing. Fully expecting to be supported by two brigades south of Trenton, Washington assembled his troops near McConkey’s Ferry in preparation for the crossing. On Dec. 25, by 6 p.m., 2,400 troops began to cross the icy river. The weather forced the men to fight their way through sleet and a blinding snowstorm.

Not everyone came across

The weather obstacles proved to be too much for the supporting brigades led by Col. John Cadwalader and Gen. Thomas Ewing. Their attempts to cross at southern points along the Delaware River failed. Washington and his men successfully completed their crossing and marched into Trenton on the morning of Dec. 26, 1776. The army achieved a resounding victory over the Hessians. Gen. George Washington’s strategy gave new life to the American Revolution.

About the painting

German-born artist Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze, who was born 40 years after the battle, painted “Washington Crossing the Delaware” in Düsseldorf.

Leutze grew up in America but returned to Germany as an adult. He hoped the painting, and therefore the American Revolution, would inspire liberal reformers during the European revolutions of 1848.

Leutze’s depiction of Washington’s attack was a great success in America and in Germany. Leutze began his first version of this subject in 1849. It was damaged in his studio by fire in 1850 and, although restored and acquired by the Bremen Kunsthalle, was again destroyed in a bombing raid in 1942. In 1850, Leutze began this version of the subject, which was placed on exhibition in New York during October 1851. At this showing, Marshall O. Roberts bought the canvas for the then-enormous sum of $10,000 (more than $380,000 today).

The people in the boat represent the diversity of the American colonies, including a man in a Scottish bonnet, a man of African descent, a Western rifleman and two farmers in broad-brimmed hats near the back.

Artistic license

Leutze didn’t have the ability to search Google for details about the crossing. The painting was intended to be a heroic depiction, but for history buffs, the following are some of the inaccuracies:

The flag depicted did not exist at the time of Washington’s crossing. The historically accurate flag would have been the Grand Union Flag.

The crossing took place in the dead of night, not with the sun above the horizon.

The boat is too small to carry all occupants, but this emphasizes the rowing soldiers’ struggle.

The light that can be seen on the face of the forward rowers and shadows on the water add depth; however, it could not have come from the clouded sun source.

The river is modeled after the Rhine, where ice tends to form in jagged chunks as pictured, but not standard on the Delaware.

The actual crossing is far narrower than the river depicted in the painting.

It was storming and raining during the crossing.

The army did not bring horses or field guns across the river in the boats but had them transported by ferries.

Washington’s stance would have been tough to keep up in the stormy conditions of the crossing.

Where to see it

After changing ownership several times, the painting in 1897 was donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, where it still hangs today.

Several authorized copies of “Washington Crossing the Delaware” exist, including one that hangs in the West Wing of the White House in Washington, D.C., and one at Purdue University.

The following timeline is from Washington Crossing Historical Park and recaps the 10 crucial days after Christmas 1776:

Day One: Dec. 25, 1776

Soldiers cross the Delaware River into New Jersey at McConkey’s Ferry. Once on the other side, they march 10 miles to Trenton in a blizzard to assault the 1,500 Hessian troops occupying the town.

Day Two: Dec. 26, 1776

In the First Battle of Trenton, the Continental Army defeats the Hessians at Trenton, winning its first significant victory of the Revolutionary War to date. The army then returns to Pennsylvania with prisoners and captured goods.

Day Three: December 27, 1776

Washington and his generals cross the Delaware River into New Jersey and discover the enemy has withdrawn from the Trenton area.

Day Four: December 28, 1776

After convening a council of war, Washington and his generals plan to defend Trenton from Cornwallis.

Day Five: December 29, 1776

The Continental Army crosses the Delaware River at several ferry crossings and returns to Trenton.

Day Six: December 30, 1776

Washington persuades a slim majority of his soldiers to remain with the Continental Army for another six weeks by promising to pay each soldier $10 in hard coin. Washington’s force of 6,000 men prepares a defense on high ground south of Assunpink Creek in Trenton.

Day Seven: December 31, 1776

The Continental Army advances from Trenton toward Princeton, which is occupied by enemy forces.

Day Eight: January 1, 1777

The Continental Army skirmishes with British and Hessian troops in Princeton on New Year’s Day.

Day Nine: January 2, 1777

In the Second Battle of Trenton, the Continental Army fights 8,000 British and Hessian troops under General Cornwallis. The army repelled Cornwallis’s attacks along Assunpink Creek until dusk. Cornwallis noted that he planned to “bag the fox in the morning.

Day Ten: January 3, 1777

Overnight, Washington and his troops withdraw from Trenton and begin to march to Princeton, where they defeat the British and Hessian forces. This victory in the Battle of Princeton is their third and final triumph, thus ending the military campaign associated with the Ten Crucial Days.

Epilogue: January 3-6, 1777

The Continental Army makes its way from Princeton to Morristown, New Jersey, where it establishes its winter quarters.

Sources: Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Mount Vernon, Washingtoncrossingpark.org, joyofmuseums.org, U.S. Army. Photos are public domain.

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