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Over the river once more

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Sunday, November 22, 2009

WHY: Rebels with a cause, the Garden State of war and Revolutionary roads.

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HOW FAR: About 25 miles from start to finish, and about 170 miles from Washington

A picture may be worth a thousand words, but even the famous painting of Gen. George Washington crossing the Delaware can't fully evoke the cold and courage of that Christmas night in 1776. However, on Christmas day 2009, a small army of volunteers will bring the painting -- and the historic moment -- to life, reenacting the river traverse that helped turn the tide of the Revolutionary War.

Of course, no good performance goes on without a dress rehearsal, so on Dec. 13, the actors will don uniforms for a run-through of the Christmas event, now in its 57th year. About 150 reenactors will march up the Pennsylvania shore to the same spot where Washington and his men gathered that fateful evening. Thousands of spectators typically line the shores, rooting for the Continental team.

Washington and his 2,400 men had it rough: They launched in the middle of the night, rowing and poling their way through pan ice and wind-blown sleet and snow. In contrast, today's soldiers start the crossing to Jersey at 1 p.m., if the river is indeed hospitable. (A strong current once swept a boat downriver and rescue vessels had to tow it back.) They return via a bridge. Washington's fighters, on the other hand, continued on to Trenton, where they routed the Hessian mercenaries stationed there by the British.

"Watching the troops come down the path that morning in the cold weather," says Jennifer Phillips April, museum educator at Washington Crossing Historic Park, which organizes the event, "it just sends prickles up your spine."

The commanding role of Washington will be played by John Godzieba, a police lieutenant from Bristol Township, Pa. The 50-year-old first appeared as a private in 1992. "To me it's not a pageant," he says. "You want the visitors to take away something from the reenactment, to learn something from it."

-- Scott Elder

Annual Christmas Crossing Reenactment and Dress Rehearsal Washington Crossing Historic Park, 1112 River Rd., Washington Crossing, Pa., 215-493-4076, http://www.ushistory.org/washingtoncrossing. Christmas Day crossing occurs around 1 p.m., free; the Dec. 13 dress rehearsal activities are from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., with the crossing around 1 p.m., $8.

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