On the evening of December 25, 1776, George Washington led a ragtag group of Colonial soldiers across the ice-choked Delaware River and successfully attacked the Hessian garrison at Trenton, New Jersey. Coming after a string of crushing defeats and after the colonial army had shrunk in size by 90%, the Trenton victory sustained the American Revolution during one of its most desperate periods.
Perhaps the best book on the Trenton action and the events leading up to it is David Hackett Fischer’s “Washington’s Crossing” which was published in 2004. Besides being a masterful account of that period of the war, Fischer also considers one of America’s most famous paintings – Emanuel Leutze’s “Washington Crossing the Delaware” which hangs in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Here’s what Fischer writes about the painting which is shown above:
The painting is familiar to us in a general way, but when we look again its details take us by surprise. Washington’s small boat is crowded with thirteen men. Their dress tells us that they are soldiers from many parts of America, and each of them has a story that is revealed by a few strokes of the artist’s brush. One man wears the short tarpaulin jacket of a New England seaman; we look again and discover that he is of African descent. Another is a recent Scottish immigrant, still wearing his Balmoral bonnet. A third is an androgynous figure in a loose red shirt, maybe a woman in man’s clothing, pulling at an oar.
At the bow and stern of the boat are hard-faced western riflemen in hunting shirts and deerskin leggings. Huddled between the thwarts are farmers from Pennsylvania and New Jersey, in blanket coats and broad-brimmed hats. One carries a countryman’s double-barreled shotgun. The other looks very ill, and his head is swathed in a bandage. A soldier beside them is in full uniform, a rarity in this army; he wears the blue coat and red facings of Haslet’s Delaware Regiment. Another figure wears a boat cloak and an oiled hat that a prosperous Baltimore merchant might have used on a West Indian voyage; his sleeve reveals the facings of Smallwood’s silk-stocking Maryland Regiment. Hidden behind them is a mysterious thirteenth man. Only his weapon is visible; one wonders who he might have been.
The dominant figures in the painting are two gentlemen of Virginia who stand tall above the rest. One of them is Lieutenant James Monroe, holding a big American flag upright against the storm. The other is Washington in his Continental uniform of buff and blue. He holds a brass telescope and wears a heavy saber, symbolic of a statesman’s vision and a soldier’s strength.