There are few portraits in the lexicon of American art that are as easily recognized as Washington Crossing the Delaware by Emanuel Leutze. The iconic painting presents a triumphant and proud George Washington and 12 other men in a rowboat crossing an ice-strewn Delaware River on Christmas night in 1776. Leutze’s painting dates to 1851, more than 7 decades after the actual crossing at McConkey’s Ferry in Upper Makefield Township.
But is Leutze’s painting accurate?
Not quite, says Stuart Leibiger, chair of La Salle University’s history department and author of “Founding Friendship: George Washington, James Madison, and the Creation of the American Republic.”
For example, take the boats depicted in the painting. The actual boats Washington’s men used were Durham boats, which were used for transporting iron ore, and were much larger than the ones in Leutze’s rendering. In fact, Washington chose the boats, which could hold 40 men each, for this reason, and he had only three or four boats at his disposal.
“They had to go back and forth to ferry all the men across the river, which, given the ice, delayed the crossing by four hours,” Leibiger said.
The inaccuracies don’t stop there.
The ice was not jagged and freshly broken as is depicted, it was smooth. The flag wasn’t designed until 1777. And, of course, the scene appears to be set at dawn rather than in the mid of night.
This wasn’t simply ignorance on Leutze’s behalf, though.
“These inaccuracies were not ignorant mistakes, they were intentional licenses,” Leibiger said. “Leutze, a German immigrant to the U.S., had returned to his native land to support the Revolutions of 1848. His painting was meant to inspire those Revolutions.”
Leibiger noted the symbolic placement of 13 men in a boat “laying everything on the line for their cause, led by a charismatic leader.”
“Leutze carefully included men of different classes, races, and regions, and perhaps even a woman as well, all joining in a common effort,” Leibiger said, noting the ambiguous gender of one of the rowers.
Washington Crossing Historical Park will commemorate the now-legendary turning point of the Revolution with its annual reenactment this Christmas.
Last year, nearly 8,000 people came out to watch the event, which takes place in the afternoon and features replica Durham boats.
“We don’t march to Trenton to defeat the Hessians, we just cross the Delaware,” Joan Hauger, Historic Site Administrator at the park, said.
Hauger said that the actual crossing involved not only Durham boats but ferries, as well.
“That is why they were positioned right here,” Hauger said, referring to McConkey’s Ferry site.
In fact, because Washington likely rode on a horse, it’s unlikely that he was in a Durham boat at all, says Tom Maddock, a historical interpreter at the park.
“Horses and cannon went across on a ferry,” Maddock said. “We don’t think he was even in a boat.”
Perhaps one of the biggest misconceptions about the crossing is the idea that Washington planned the attack based on knowledge that the Hessians would be hungover from Christmas revelry.
Not the case, says Leibiger.
“He launched the attack as soon as he could get it together regardless of the date,” Leibiger said. “The Hessians were not drunk. They had been prepared for an attack that night but lowered their guard when dawn arrived — just before the attack began, hours behind schedule. It was the Americans who got drunk — on Hessian rum — after the battle.”
Washington Crossing Historical Park will host its free reenactment of George Washington’s 1776 river crossing on Christmas day from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. For information, visit ushistory.org/washingtoncrossing or call 215-493-4076.••