In the winter of 1776, General George Washington and his ragged army had experienced only defeat and despair. The War for Independence was going badly, with failure following failure.
In the preceding months, Washington’s campaign in New York had not gone well; the Battle of Long Island ended in a loss when the British troops managed to out-maneuver the Continental Army. A series of defeats settled around Washington as he was forced to retreat across New Jersey to Pennsylvania on December 7 and 8.
As the harsh Pennsylvania winter set in, the morale of the American troops was at an all-time low. The soldiers were forced to deal with a lack of both food and warm clothing, while Washington watched his army shrink due to desertions and expiring enlistments. Now, more than ever, a victory was desperately needed.
General Washington hatched a daring plan to cross the Delaware River under the cover of darkness, march to Trenton and attack the Hessian outposts in and around Trenton. The boats to be used for the crossing were gathered earlier in the month in compliance with Washington’s orders, primarily as a defensive measure. Various types of boats were collected; most notable were the large, heavy Durham boats used to carry pig iron down the Delaware.
Fully expecting to be supported by two divisions south of Trenton, Washington assembled his own troops near McConkey’s Ferry in preparation for the crossing. By 6 pm, 2,400 troops had begun crossing the ice-choked river. The operation was slow and difficult due to the condition of the river. There was an abrupt change in the weather forcing the men to fight their way through sleet and a blinding snowstorm. These obstacles proved to be too much for the supporting divisions led by Generals Cadwalader and Ewing, ultimately preventing their crossing at southern points along the Delaware.
Against all odds, Washington and his men successfully completed the crossing and marched into Trenton on the morning of December 26, achieving a resounding victory over the Hessians. By moving ahead with his bold and daring plan, Washington re-ignited the cause of freedom and gave new life to the American Revolution.
Painted in 1851 by German artist Emanuel Leutze, Washington Crossing the Delaware became a sensation on both sides of the Atlantic. Painted in Dusseldorf Germany, Washington Crossing the Delaware shows a bold General Washington navigating through the frozen river with his compatriots braving the elements on their way to victory at Trenton. While the painting was in Germany, Leutze hoped that this brave episode in pursuit of American independence and republican rule would stir his fellow countrymen to more liberal reforms. In the fall of 1851 the painting was shipped to the United States where it wowed audiences in New York City and the U.S. Capitol Rotunda in Washington DC. The New York Evening Mirror boldly called it “the grandest, most majestic, and most effective painting ever exhibited in America.”
Leutze went to great lengths to make his portrait accurate, but even his efforts still left some inaccuracies in place. Nevertheless, the 12’ 5” by 21’ 3” (3.8m x 6.5m) painting stirred the patriotic emotions of countless Americans who have seen the painting which now is on display in the American Gallery at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Credit: Washingtoncrossingpark.org, mountvernon.org