Washington Crossing Historical Park to hold annual reenacment on Christmas Day

Emanuel Leutze’s icon­ic 1851 por­trait, Wash­ing­ton Cross­ing the Delaware, is rife with in­ac­curacies — the res­ult of in­ten­tion­al li­cense rather than ig­nor­ant mis­takes. PHOTO COUR­TESY OF WIKI­ME­DIA

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.••

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