Stuff You Should Know – Washington Crossing the Delaware

by Garrett Barner

On the evening of December 25, 1776, General George Washington gathered his troops and made a crossing that created the scene for one of the most recognizable and famous paintings in American history. This painting is titled, “Washington Crossing the Delaware,” and was painted by Emanuel Leutze in 1851.
Though this painting is extremely well-known, and a beautiful depiction of a brilliant and courageous effort by the patriots, there are some inaccuracies that are unknown to most people by most people.
The crossing of the Delaware was conducted so that the Continental Army, led by George Washington, could attack an isolated garrison which held about 1,400 Hessian troops. The status of The Continental Army as a whole was suffering due to expiring enlistments, desertions and very low morale from previous defeats.
General Washington thought a quick and decisive victory at Trenton would help boost the low morale of his Army and encourage excitement and commitment for the upcoming Spring campaign. The attack reaped great benefits, with only three Americans killed and six other Americans wounded. The Continental Army captured over 1,000 prisoners and seized gunpowder, muskets and heavy artillery which helped boost the morale of the Americans and led to a Continental Army victory.
One of the most glaring inaccuracies of the painting is the weather and light conditions that are depicted during the crossing. The river crossing was supposed to occur as soon as it was dark enough to conceal their movements, but the troops did not reach their crossing point until 6 p.m.
Crossing the 300-yard-wide river and preparing to march ended up taking over ten hours. Thus, the real crossing occurred in the dead of night to prevent their enemies from witnessing their movements. The painting’s depiction of the sun peering through the clouds and illuminating the whole area is a blatant error.
Additionally, the weather depicted in the painting appears calm and the water appears to be mostly flat. In truth, the temperature during the crossing ranged from 29 to 33 degrees and had strong, persistent winds, making the rain, sleet and snow even worse.
One comical inaccuracy has to do with the flag being held in General Washington’s boat. The flag being presented in the painting was adopted in June 1777. Can you guess why it is the wrong flag? It’s because the flag adopted six months after the crossing! The flag that should’ve been used was The Grand Union Flag. In addition, the flag would have never been flown in such treacherous conditions. Instead, the flag would have been folded and tucked away to ensure its protection.
Another large inaccuracy of the painting includes the type of boats that were used in the crossing of the river. The painting portrays the boats as having low sides and being very small. The actual boats used consisted of strongly built cargo ships which were 40 to 60 feet in length and with very high sides. In addition to the scale of the boats, a historical argument persists of whether or not General Washington would have stood in the middle of the boat, as depicted in the painting.
Nonetheless, there are two ways the men could have been situated in the boat. Either all of the men should have been standing in the boat to get out of the cold water, or all the men should have been sitting and crouched to prevent the boat from capsizing.
Looking past the inaccuracies, Emanuel Leutze created a painting in which the viewer cannot help but feel the courage, perseverance and strength that was displayed by the patriots not only on that Christmas evening in 1776, but during the entire fight for independence.
As I have looked at the painting, which has held a place on my wall in each of my college dorm rooms for the past three years, I am reminded to give gratitude for our great country and the brave men and women that have fought for our independence time and time again.
Maybe Emanuel Leutze knew about the inaccuracies of the painting, but decided that depicting the scene differently would make the painting timeless and enduring – helping to remind Americans, and the world, of the beauty, grace and strength that this nation was founded upon.

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