Just as millions of Americans are tucking into their Christmas dinners, a well-swaddled crowd will gather in a small park on the banks of the Delaware River, about 25 miles northeast of Philadelphia. There they will cheer on the General of the Continental Army as, together with some 58 stalwart supporters, he makes his wintry, watery way across to the Jersey shore.
Even though this will be the 33rd annual reenactment of the historic Christmas crossing of 1776, it will be the first for this general. Understandably, he admits to occasional flutters of stage fright. What if, in front of all those thousands who have passed up the toasty comfort of their yuletide hearths to witness this replay of history, what if George Washington takes a header into the icy waters? It's a possibility that is greatly heightened by the fact that he must make the crossing standing up. But the general is counting on two rehearsals -- plus his own determination -- to carry him safely and in dignity across the perilous river to the New Jersey landing.
For the past nine years, the part of Washington was played by Jack Kelly, Philadelphia oarsman and brother of Princess Grace of Monaco. Kelly died in March, and this year the part will be picked up by James Gallagher, Pennsylvania businessman, ex-Marine and American Legionnaire.
All details of the Continental uniform that he will wear (buff, blue and much buttoned), how he will position himself in the boat (right foot raised on a thwart, left hand clasping the hilt of his sword) and the number, rank and dress of his fellow passengers have all been minutely prescribed by the famous painting, "Washington Crossing the Delaware," by Emanuel Leutze, an exact copy of which is on display in the Memorial Building of the Washington Crossing Historic Park, only a two-minute stroll from where the Christmas Day embarkation will take place.
This painting, done by a German-born artist 75 years after the event, has served to fix forever in American minds the details of that crucial and pivotal revolutionary event. And who cares if it has also perpetuated a goodly number of historical misconceptions? Certainly no such curmudgeonly objections are raised by either the participants or the onlookers, some of whom come from as far away as Texas, Florida and Indiana.
By noon on Christmas Day the numerous free parking areas in the historic park -- at the junction of Routes 532 and 32 -- are already filling up.
In the two hours before the main event, visitors are invited to the auditorium of the Memorial Building to view a 28-minute film -- no charge -- of the December 1776 crossing as well as a dramatization of the colonial losses and setbacks that preceded it. Outside the Memorial Building revolutionary tunes and close-order drills, performed by a variety of local militia detachments, raise the spirits of the crowd to a fine patriotic fervor.
Four boats, all 40-foot replicas of the Durham iron-ore freighters commandeered by Washington early in December 1776, begin to fill shortly before 2 p.m. The boats themselves, so crucial to the success of the undertaking, are unique in design.
Of the original boats, some were up to 60 feet in length, built to transport iron ore from the Durham iron works down river to Philadelphia. Eight feet in the beam, 3 1/2 feet deep, each was capable of carrying 15 tons through shallow 30-inch waters.
But to maneuver them was -- and is -- no easy matter. Four 16-foot, two-man oars, plus, at the stern, a 33-foot steering oar require great strength and skill. Which is why Washington asked Col. John Glover, a sailor from Marblehead, Mass., to take charge of the 1776 transport, manning the boats with his own recruits from the ranks of Gloucester fishermen. In tribute to his services a statue of John Glover stands today on Boston's Commonwealth Avenue.
The actual 1776 crossing took place under cover of darkness, beginning at sundown on Christmas Day. It was not completed until just before dawn on Dec. 26. Today, faithful to the Leutze painting, Washington is accorded space in the first of the boats, along with 14 others. In truth, Washington did not cross the river until a beachhead had been secured on the far side.
Indeed, the Virginian's original plan was not to leave the Pennsylvania shore until the last cannon, horse and soldier had been safely transported across. But the filthy weather -- extreme cold, snow that turned to sleet and freezing rain and a harsh north wind coupled with unexpectedly strong currents sweeping great chunks of ice downstream -- all combined to throw the proposed schedule into a cocked tricorn.
Each boat had to cross and recross many times to get the 18 artillery pieces, 200 horses and the 2,400-man, ill-clad, ill-equipped army to the Jersey shore. The boat that carried Washington and 40 others across the Delaware was captained by William Blackler, a salty, savy Massachusetts fisherman who most certainly would never have permitted Washington, rank be damned, to stand during so treacherous a crossing.
Once across the river, what then? Well, the costumed occupants of the four boats can return either by boat or by bridge, options Washington did not give his men. Instead, as history tells us, he led them nine miles south to Trenton, where he expected to be joined by two other contingents totaling 2,500, who were also to have crossed further downstream. Those reinforcements never made it.
Nonetheless, Washington's men in less than an hour and without a single casualty, overran the Hessian garrison, mortally wounding its commanding officer, Col. Johann Rahl, killed 90 Hessians and captured 900 others, plus six brass cannons, three ammunition wagons and enough food and clothing to enable his rag-tag army to achieve yet another crutial victory at Princeton two weeks later.
As for the Hessian prisoners of war, they were sold into servitude for 30 Spanish dollars per man to the owners of the Durham iron works.