George Washington crossed the Delaware River in the thick of war, during a fierce winter storm in the darkest hours of Christmas Day. I, more than two centuries later, was warmed by a midday fall sun and faced no enemies within a 20-mile radius. And yet I still doubted a successful passage.
Anxieties sprang from different wells. The acting commander (a George Washington reenactor) worried that we’d capsize or float away in the strong current. I was slightly traumatized by repeat viewings of the American masterpiece “Washington Crossing the Delaware,” the 19th-century painting that dramatizes the momentous event in 1776. If there were truth in art, we’d be riding stormy waters, ramming into an iceberg or tumbling into the murky depths because Washington wouldn’t sit down in the rickety boat.
Three episodes from the American Revolution are permanently inked on our collective arm: Valley Forge, Yorktown and the Delaware crossing. Of the trio, I regard the river expedition as the most illustrative and affecting act in the struggle for independence. Unlike battles and their tumultuous nature, the crossing was tranquil and focused, a campfire paean to freedom.
I could clearly envision the imposing general, the concert of boats, the singular mission, destiny. And with a bit of artful incisions, I could insert myself into that moment.
Hey, George, make room for one more.
Here is what I wanted to avoid: shivering, pinging ice chunks, fighting Hessians or their modern-day equivalent.
The brave commander took control of my jitters.
“We don’t want to emulate the painting,” said John Godzieba, who wears the general’s pants (and shirt and shoes) during the reenactment held every Christmas. “We want a crossing of the Delaware as it was.”
The 1851 painting by Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze, which hangs in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, is a fanciful retelling of the pivotal event that transformed the Continental Army from underdogs into comeback kids. Trussed up in idealism and romanticism, the painting goes straight for the heart.
Before delving into what didn’t happen, though, let’s review what did.
In December 1776, Team Independence was not faring so well after suffering a string of retreats and losses to the British redcoats. After a rough November in New York that demoralized the troops, Washington hatched a plan to attack the Hessian garrison in Trenton, N.J. His men rounded up watercraft, snatching them from docks and yards, and prepped them to transport horses, gear, provisions and artillery for a surprise attack.
Washington, who set off from McKonkey’s Ferry in Pennsylvania, had hoped to start the crossing at 6 p.m., which would allow the 2,400 fighters to hike the nine miles to Trenton under the cloak of night. They would arrive at enemy camp in the pale light of pre-dawn. Instead, they were hampered by delays, including a merciless nor’easter, and departed closer to 9 p.m.
They landed in the early morning, and despite the setbacks, the revolutionaries vanquished the Hessians with maximum efficiency and minimal loss. Only two patriots died on the banks, freezing to death.
But Leutze didn’t set out to capture the real experience. So instead, we gaze at the German artist’s symbolic interpretation of the event, a personal anthem to heroic acts and democratic ideals. His canvas sings of triumph; it does not moan in despair.
“The painting served its purpose, but it’s not correct,” Godzieba said.
To tease out the fiction from the truth, the Washington Crossing Historic Park’s visitors center, which reopened in March after a $4.68 million renovation, installed informational panels highlighting the discrepancies. Inspecting the full-scale digital reproduction hanging in the auditorium, I immediately noticed the river and how it shared little with the one flowing a few feet away.
“I don’t know anywhere on the Jersey side where there’s a mountain like that,” said Patrick Jordan, a reenactor from Philadelphia.
That’s because Leutze used the Rhine as his model for the Delaware.
Also, the ice on the Delaware River does not form as large bergs but as thin sheets. James Monroe, who is pictured with a fluttering Stars and Stripes, “wasn’t there,” Godzieba said. (The future president was guarding a crucial intersection on Pennington Road.) The painting’s version of the American flag, the Betsy Ross, was not adopted until 1777. The troops would have raised regimental or state flags, or skipped them entirely.
“Since the crossing was done at night, no flags would have been flown,” Godzieba said. “It was sleeting and raining, and most likely the flags would have been cased to protect them from the elements.”
The list goes on. The sky is too bright, glowing like early morning, not winter’s evening. The weather is too clear, with no traces of a driving snow or sleet. Pieces of the soldiers’ ensembles — beaver cap, buckskin jacket and tam-o’-shanter — are incorrect.
“You wouldn’t dress like this for a crossing,” Godzieba said.
During the annual Christmas Day reenactment, the actors row Durham boats, cargo carriers that historical documents place at the 1776 crossing. (The park displays replicas inside a building.) The rowboats in the painting are smaller and tricked out with greater comforts, such as seats. They are also wobblier. If Washington had tried to stand up, much less strike a noble pose, he most likely would have landed face-down in the river. Which brings us to that face: The artist matured the leader by at least a decade, slapping President Washington’s head on Gen. Washington’s body.
For the reenactment, Godzieba said some participants single out a specific figure from the painting to play. One man shows up every year bundled in a blanket with a bandage wrapped around his head and a hat plunked on top.
“That’s his reenactment,” Godzieba said. “We are trying to get away from that.”
While inspecting the artwork, I had spotted a figure with feminine features, snuggled in a red coat. Keeping my inspiration to myself, I quietly pulled back my hair, straightened my red jacket and walked toward the river.
Washington crossed that?
From the Pennsylvania bank, the distance to New Jersey measures 800 feet, which equals about five laps in an Olympic-size pool. I swam greater lengths at summer camp. But I was not here to belittle history.
The immortalized section of the Delaware was a clear blue ribbon dusted with diamonds on this Sunday. Grassy banks sloped toward a pebbly strand of beach. Jet skiers buzzed back and forth. Pontoons bobbed in the current. Gentlemen in britches, white shirts and waistcoats milled along the river’s edge.
The plan was to canoe in Washington’s wake, with slight adjustments. I would paddle an aluminum canoe, not a Durham, which the park releases only twice a year, for the public dress rehearsal the second Sunday of December and the reenactment on Dec. 25. But for a touch of authenticity, reenactor Lisa Tolles suited me up in a sleeved waistcoat with a trail of metal buttons. A black brim hat teetered on my head. For the best accessory possible, “Washington” would accompany me as commander of the canoe.
For the Christmas Day showpiece, now in its 61st year, four Durhams each carry a dozen soldiers and 10 crew members for the round-trip ride. The Battoe Moon pushes off first, ferrying an advance team to secure the landing site and warming up the 8,000-strong crowd on both sides of the river.
I boarded the replica 18th-century boat at Titusville, N.J., less than a mile upriver from the Pennsylvania park. Low water levels forced the jolly quartet to take a small detour.
I sat on a hard bench near a barrel spilling over with food, rum and clothes. I sat behind Tolles, who has been performing reenactments of various wars for 25 years. As she yanked the heavy wood oar, I asked her what drew her to the interpretative dance of U.S. battles and events.
“The history, and I’ve always been a tomboy,” she said. “I’m an avid shooter and hunter, and I wanted to do something more active than putting on a gown and sewing.”
Despite the skipper’s admonishment to chat less and row more, we continued to talk about the world of reenacting. “It’s like 8-year-olds playing in a sandbox,” she said. We paused once to watch a bald eagle swoop through the sky, a symbol delivered on puffs of wind.
We were closing in on land. ”Where’s your phone?” asked Scott Lance, who needed to communicate with ground forces when we bumped and stalled.
“You feel that?” Lance asked his crew. “We’re hitting.”
Ice floes? No, just the rocky river bottom.
The crew began to pole us, Venice gondola-style, out of the shallows.
“When I say, ‘pull,’ pull,” Lance ordered. “It doesn’t mean stop.”
Diminutive figures on shore watched our slow, labored progress.
When we finally reached the landing, Godzieba was waiting for us. When he’s not being George Washington, Godzeiba is a Bristol Township, Pa., police lieutenant and president of the Friends of Washington Crossing Park, which has run the December events since 2009. He was wearing the weekend casual outfit of forest green fleece, jeans and hiking boots. For three years, the 22-year veteran of reenactments has channeled Washington’s spirit.
“I love to teach the people standing behind me a little about the Revolution,” he told me, while exacting a stately pose of foot on boulder, hand on knee. “Hopefully, they leave knowing something about that night.”
The official event hews as close as possible to the facts. Yet, on occasion, organizers must make concessions. Such as departing in the afternoon, a more favorable time for participants and viewers. And asking for towing assistance when necessary. “At some point,” he said, “you don’t have enough horsepower to go against the current.”
“The Continental Army,” he continued, “couldn’t give into the river conditions. This was Washington’s last chance for a victory.”
Since independence was not riding on my actions, I could make similar compromises. However, feeling the tug of history, I wanted to genuinely honor Washington and the many “Washingtons” who followed him. I was going to cross, and if we tipped over, well, I’d just stand up, shake off the water and crawl back into the boat.
Our crew of two slipped on life jackets, with “Gen. Washington” looking surprisingly stately in a neon orange vest tight in the neck. We took our positions, paddle up, then down. Row, etc.
The river was soundless except for the pitter-patter of the oars. I pondered the profundity of the experience. Each advance of our canoe mirrored the revolutionaries’ progress toward independence. New Jersey was no longer a place to stretch my legs but an emblem of hope, determination and bravery.
And then freedom snagged on rocks.
Godzieba and I flailed like minnows before righting ourselves in the wrong direction. With a few commands, he straightened us out, leading us around the trouble spot.
Less than 10 minutes later, we arrived — by George! — on the opposite shore, a thin strip of land studded with rocks. We bounced on the current for a few minutes before deciding to move on. But instead of heading to Trenton, per history, we reversed course to Pennsylvania. Freedom had already been won, so we could go straight home.
Andrea Sachs is a Washington Post travel writer.
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