Tag Archives: Battle of Trenton

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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Filed under American Revolution, Reenacting

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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Filed under American Revolution, History and Memory

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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