Tag Archives: Battle of Trenton

Across the Delaware

The crossing of the Delaware River is probably the Revolutionary War story we cherish the most, or maybe a close second behind Paul Revere’s ride.  Since I’m spending the month within walking distance of the site where it went down, I had to head over and check it out for myself.

Perhaps I should say the sites where it happened, because Pennsylvania and New Jersey each have a historic park on their respective banks of the Delaware devoted to Washington’s crossing.  Here’s the view from Washington Crossing Historic Park in the Keystone State.

Washington’s army made it across without mishap.  I haven’t been so lucky.  A couple of days ago I drove over to New Jersey for some groceries, and I got so caught up in the historic view from the bridge that I forgot how doggone narrow it is.  There went my passenger side mirror.  Looks like I’ll be visiting an auto shop when I get home.

Washington himself stands atop a column near the visitor center, wrapped in his cloak and gazing across the water toward Trenton and the Hessian garrison.

Closer to the riverbank, near the spot where the troops likely embarked, is a more modest monument.

WCHP’s visitor center boasts a relic of the Franco-American alliance.

If you take the tour, you’ll get an up-close look at the Durham boats the reenactors use for the annual commemorative crossing.  They seemed larger in person than I was expecting.

If you peer inside, you’ll notice a conspicuous absence of seats.  Leutze was quite right to paint Washington standing.  It’s all those guys sitting around him that make the painting inaccurate.  (Well, that and the sunlight.)

The first time I drove into town, I freaked out when I spotted the McConkey Ferry Inn.  I don’t remember where it was—I think it was that A&E movie with Jeff Daniels—but somewhere I’ve seen a depiction of the crossing where Washington sets up his headquarters here.  It was the one thing at WCHP I was most excited to see.  Turns out it wasn’t Washington’s HQ after all; in fact, it wasn’t even there in 1776.  The oldest parts of the current building date from 1790.  Samuel McConkey was operating a ferry from this spot that Christmas night, but nothing remains of the Rev War-era structure except the basement.  Still, this is a nicely restored building, and well worth a visit.

A few miles down River Road from the McConkey inn and the visitor center is the park’s upper section.  Tradition holds that American troops monitored enemy activity from atop Bowman’s Hill.  There’s little evidence they did so, but at least we got an impressive tower out of the story.  Built during the Great Depression, it commemorates the Continental occupation of the area during the winter of ’76/77.

An ascent to the top of Bowman’s Hill Tower gives you a nice view of the region the Americans and Hessians were contending over.

This structure was there during the time of the crossing: the Thompson-Neely House.  Home to a prosperous milling family, it became a hospital for sick and wounded Continentals when the army moved in.  William Washington, who went on to dramatic exploits in the Southern Campaign, spent time here.  So did James Monroe, another Virginia officer who had quite a career ahead of him.

Washington and Monroe made it through that winter alive, but for James Moore, a New York captain of artillery, the Thompson-Neely property was the last stop.  He’s buried not far from the house…

…alongside comrades whose names are unknown.  Moore’s original gravestone is on display in the visitor center.

The graves face the Delaware Canal, which dates to the 1830s.  Ever wonder how the Pennsylvania coal that powered the Industrial Revolution’s factories got from point A to point B?  Here’s your answer.  Boats laden with anthracite were hitched to mules, and the mules walked along the canal bank, pulling the cargo behind through the water.  The advent of steam engines marked a revolution in manufacturing, but it took old-fashioned animal power to keep the machines going.

Over on the New Jersey side of the river is Washington Crossing State Park.  If you’re an artifact aficionado, don’t miss seeing Harry Kels Swan’s exceptional collection of Rev War objects in the museum.  The exhibit cases are packed to bursting with muskets, bayonets, swords, personal items, and documents signed by a who’s who of Revolutionary luminaries.  The officer’s model Ferguson rifle is especially nifty.  (Unfortunately, they don’t allow photos inside, so no eye candy here.)

While McConkey handled ferry traffic from the Pennsylvania side, Garret Johnson operated the ferry from Jersey.  The Johnson Ferry House is still there, and since it’s just uphill from the riverbank, there’s a good chance Washington and the other high-ranking officers spent time inside, cursing the awful weather and anxiously awaiting the end of the operation.

Here’s the view from the Jersey side, looking back toward Pennsylvania.

While Durham boats carried the troops, the artillery and horses crossed over on flat-bottomed ferry boats like the one you can still see at the New Jersey landing site.

The Garden State has its share of monuments devoted to the crossing, too.

Finally, this trail past the Johnson Ferry House follows the same road the soldiers took to their victory at Trenton—a victory born of equal parts audacity and desperation.

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Auditions for a crossing

Every Christmas there’s a reenactment of the Continental Army’s crossing of the Delaware River on the way to attack the Hessians at Trenton, and one lucky guy gets to portray George Washington.  I’d always assumed the organizers got their Washington the same way other museums and historic sites find people who do first-person portrayals—just flip through the Rolodex and make a phone call.  Back when I was in the Lincoln museum business, we had a couple of go-to guys we used for this sort of thing.  (There is, in fact, an Association of Lincoln Presenters in case you need somebody to show up at an event and deliver the Gettysburg Address.)

But it turns out the organizers of the Delaware crossing reenactment pick their Washington through a formal audition process every few years.  Think  American Idol, except with middle-aged men in tricorn hats.  It’s the subject of a short documentary produced by The Star-Ledger.

I recommend watching the film, not just because it’s a fascinating glimpse into the commemoration of the Revolution but also because it’s surprising to see how fierce the competition is and how passionately these guys want the role.  There are Rev War reenactors for whom this is the holy grail of living history, but of course only one guy is chosen, and there are some bitter feelings when the winner is announced.  Of the competitors featured in the documentary, I think the guy who bore the strongest resemblance to Washington was the winner, but the film doesn’t really show any of them in character except for a few brief speech excerpts.

Portraying Washington at an event seems like it would be pretty tough, at least if you were really trying to get it right.  Doing first-person interpretation to a crowd requires you to be engaging, but Washington was famously reserved.  He was also a rather bland public speaker, at least when using a prepared text.  I’d imagine that playing somebody more personable, like Franklin or Lincoln, would be a lot more fun.

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Crossing the Delaware. . .in Zodiacs

Check this out:

The sun was still trying to punch its way through a thick fog Friday morning when 22 U.S. Army infantrymen climbed board two inflatable Zodiac assault boats and started paddling across the Delaware River at Washington Crossing Historic Park in Upper Makefield.

It was the same spot where George Washington and his men made their famous crossing more than 200 years ago — and that was the point. Friday’s trip across the river by members of the 4th Battalion, 3rd United States Infantry Regiment was part of an informal exercise called a “staff ride,” during which service members simulate famous battles or campaigns in American military history at the sites where they happened.

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Crossing site gets a makeover

Washington Crossing Historic Park is getting a new visitor center, and I think it’ll be money well spent.

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Tourists surprised to learn that Revolutionary War soldiers did not fight in Civil War

No, seriously.

Perhaps nothing illustrates a declining awareness of American history than often-asked queries from young and old posed to Revolutionary War reenactors at flintlock target shoots, battle reenactments and educational living history presentations.

The questions: Were you at Gettysburg? Do you go to Gettysburg?

They weren’t. And they don’t.

They politely note they are highlighting the 18th-century American Revolution and not the 19th-century American Civil War.

“We see a lot of people who are not aware of this basic part of American history,” said Donald F. Yost, 53, of Robeson Township, joining three friends in period clothing of the First Pennsylvania Regiment of the Continental Line one cold December Sunday morning as they practiced drills and hiked at French Creek State Park in Union Township.

This is probably as good an occasion as any to relate a war story from my first stint of museum employment.  I’m often asked to tell it in small gatherings; indeed, it’s acquired something of a mythic status among my acquaintances.  I swear this actually happened, although if it hadn’t happened to me personally I probably wouldn’t believe it myself.

Like most small museums, this one had a tiny staff.  Instead of hiring somebody to man the front counter on a full-time basis we all used to rotate weekends, with each staff member minding the store every fifth or sixth Saturday and Sunday.  On one of my weekends an upbeat, somewhat heavyset man—he was probably in his sixties—walked in, folded his hands on the counter, and asked, “Can you tell me how to get to the beach?”

I should note that this museum is located near the juncture of Tennessee, Kentucky, and Virginia, some 350 miles from the nearest coastline.  I naturally assumed that this was a lame attempt at humor and managed a polite chuckle.

Dead silence.  The guy stood there with an expectant look on his face.

“Um, you’re serious,” I said.

“Yeah.  About how far is it?”

I said that it depended on which beach he intended to visit.  He said, “Virginia.  The beach in Virginia.”

“You mean Virginia Beach?”

“Yeah, that’s the one.  We’re from Virginia, and we’re trying to get to the beach.”

This man lived in Virginia, and in an attempt to get to Virginia Beach, he had driven southwestward into Tennessee, away from the coast.

I informed him that I couldn’t give him street-by-street directions from Harrogate, TN to Virginia Beach, since that wasn’t the sort of information I carried around in my head.  But I told him that the first thing he needed to do was go back the way he came, since if he continued on his present course he’d cross the Mississippi, the Great Plains, and the Rockies before arriving at a beach, and when he got there it would be the wrong one.  At that point he thanked me and walked back out the door.

I don’t know if he ever made it to the beach.  For that matter, I don’t know how he managed to reach retirement age without winnowing himself out of the gene pool.

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Re-crossing the Delaware

Mort Kunstler unveiled his newest painting last night at the New York Historical Society.  It depicts Washington’s crossing of the Delaware in a much grittier, more realistic fashion than Leutze’s classic canvas in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  You can get a look at the painting by clicking here.

I love it.  It’s aesthetically pleasing, but it doesn’t sanitize the harsh reality of the soldiers’ situation—these guys are cold and wet.  The painting also conveys Washington’s heroic stature without sacrificing the credible naturalism that Leutze tossed out the window.  If you ask me, Kunstler’s depiction does more credit to the bravery and determination it took to launch the attack on Trenton, because it shows us ordinary men overcoming miserable conditions.

Now, when do we get to buy prints?

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It’s the most wonderful time of the year

Unless you’re a Hessian.

Passage of the Delaware, by Thomas Sully (1819). Now in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

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