The Crossing of the Delaware

"Crossing the Delaware River" by Emanuel Leutze

"Washington Crossing the Delaware" by Emanuel Leutze

On Christmas Day in 1776, Washington’s strategic crossing of the Delaware River helped to bring about an important victory for the American troops during the Revolutionary War. It was the first move in a surprise attack against the opposing forces in Trenton, New Jersey at the Battle of Trenton.

About the Painting

Artist Emanuel Leutze painted this iconic painting in 1851 while studying art in Germany. His oil painting hangs in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and measures 12ft. 5in. x 21ft. 3in. An exact replica of this painting hangs in the West Wing of the White House.

Much artistic license was used in this famous painting. However, the determination, anguish and monumental nature of the event depicted are clearly seen. Certainly, a small group of men, banded together to fight a common cause is a lasting impression from the image. One also gets the sense of the heroic nature assigned to General Washington from this painting. The painting may fail in historic detail but it certainly appeals to humanity on many other levels…whether they are emotional, patriotic or simply appreciative of a moment in time.

So, what’s wrong with the painting?

First of all, it was night. That wonderful light coming through the clouds to highlight General Washington was far from the reality of the night. The crossing began in the late afternoon of December 25th…the sun, if it had been out, would have set by then. Very little light would have been visible outside of a few lanterns with candlelight.

Compounding the darkness and certainly indicating that no sun was available, is the fact that diary account after diary account talk of the horrible weather that accompanied the crossing. Rain to sleet to snow pelted the troops and made the conditions difficult and disheartening. One account mentions that it was supposed to be a nearly full moon that night, yet you could barely see the moon as the clouds made it impossible to view. The darkness of the night and the darkness of the murky river water made for a dangerous mission.

The Delaware River was believed to be at flood stage at the time of the crossing. However, the River in the painting is not modeled after the Delaware, but rather the Rhine River in Germany. Mr. Leutze’s family was originally from Germany. Emmanuel had gone to Germany to study art and painted this work, his most popular, while there. The ice that forms in the Delaware River tends to be large, solid sheets that break into floes in the River. Some of these would have been quite large and would have constantly pounded into the side of the boats as the current pushed them down river. However, in the painting, the ice tends to be depicted as ice caps and crags instead of the way the Delaware River still looks when ice forms. The boats would have taken quite a beating as they were rowed back and forth across the River.

One of the favorite comments of folks as they view Mr. Leutze’s painting is that they would not be standing in the boat like General Washington was in the painting. I think most folks would agree that standing in the type of row boat that is seen in the picture would not be very safe, especially on a fast flowing river. This is certainly where Emmanuel used the most artistic license in his painting. The Durham boats which were gathered for the tasks are replicated and on view today at the Park (Washington Crossing Historic Park). Anyone who looks at them knows that the boat in the painting is not exactly what was used to transport the troops. The Durham boats, boats designed for iron ore and transporting cargo, had no seats. All the troops would have been standing in some way. When standing within a Durham boat, the sides come well above the waist of someone of average height. General Washington would have been standing safely within the sides of the boat. Rowers would be standing within the boat with the troops, while men operating setting poles would walk/stand on the wide planks on the sides of the boats. A man to operate a steering sweep would also stand on the end of the boat which was a wider platform that formed into a point. Horses and cannons were probably taken across the River on ferry boats and other watercrafts and not the Durham boats. The cannons were the last items to cross the River. Other people and items within the boat have also raised questions.

According to descriptions of the painting, future President James Monroe is supposedly the young man holding the flag in the painting. James Monroe was a young man from Virginia when he left school to join the army in the 1770’s. He was present at the crossing and subsequent battles. He was a lieutenant at the time and we have no reason to believe he would have been in the same boat as General Washington.

The flag itself raises many questions. The flag in the painting is what is known as the “Betsy Ross” version. Though the date of when it was developed and used is sometimes debated, it is generally accepted that this would not have been a flag carried by the army at the time of the crossing. In addition, most units would have had their own state or regimental flag as their main colors.

Like the character said to be James Monroe, the rower by Washington’s knee, who is a person of color, is said to be a man named Prince Whipple. Though Prince Whipple was an African who served in the Revolution, there is no documentation to state that Prince Whipple was present at the crossing. There were many people of color present at the crossing as the Marbleheader unit from Massachusetts was a well integrated group of seafaring men. They took the lead role in rowing General Washington and his troops across the River.

The image of the good General himself is also suspect. We are accustomed to seeing General Washington as a wise older gentleman…very similar to the paintings done of him as President. At the time of the Crossing, George Washington was only about 44 years of age. He was still fairly young looking — at least not graying — according to the other likenesses of him done in the mid to late 1770’s by contemporary artists. The gentleman in Leutze’s painting shows us an older man than Washington was instead of the middle-aged man who would have been present at the crossing.” …as provided by the Washington Crossing Historic Park.

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