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Historical Context

Emanuel Leutze’s painting Washington Crossing the Delaware was completed in Germany seventy-five years after George Washington’s legendary victory at Trenton, yet the painting has become perhaps the most iconic image commemorating the American Revolution. In this lesson, students will analyze the painting for themes of unity and diversity, and appreciate the historical contexts of both the depicted scene and the creation of the painting.

Crossing the Delaware and the Battle of Trenton: A Turning Point

George Washington desperately needed a victory. The year 1776 brought intense fighting with several significant defeats and no major achievements for the American army. The Battle of Long Island, the first battle after the Declaration of Independence, humiliated the Continental Army and forced it to retreat into New Jersey, leaving New York City firmly in British control. To make the situation even more dismal, the enlistments of many of Washington’s soldiers would end at the first of the new year. The “great cause” as Washington called the Revolutionary War seemed over before it barely began. With British commander Lord Cornwallis in hot pursuit of Washington’s forces, the commander-in-chief outlined a route designed to boost morale among his troops and revitalize the War for Independence.

In a daring move, Washington targeted hired Hessian troops garrisoned at Trenton near the Delaware River for a surprise attack. Only officers knew the plan, the soldiers received orders as they needed to execute them. Troops numbering 2,400 mobilized on Christmas night to attack the enemy at dawn. Despite meticulous planning, a fierce storm arose, generating muddy roads on land and ice jams on the river. By midnight, the entire operation was delayed by three hours and on the verge of disaster. Washington considered aborting the mission but decided they had already passed the point of no return. The army moved on.

Hessian commander Johann Rall suspected an attack and kept his troops on high alert. One Hessian soldier recorded in his journal they slept at the ready in their clothes. Reports that the Hessians were caught drunk or sleeping on the night of the attack are false. These rumors spread in the British press after the attack to discredit the Continental Army’s success. Though the Americans arrived long after dawn, the raging storm provided cover and they gained the advantage. The Hessians were surrounded, and a battle ensued. Soon, the Hessians surrendered nearly 1,100 troops and sustained 22 dead and 83 wounded. The Americans only suffered 2 dead and 5 wounded.

News of the victory spread quickly and infused new life into the great cause. Some of Washington’s troops reenlisted and new enlistments spiked. Hope of ultimate victory was restored. The war was not yet over.

A Popular Painting

Emanuel Leutze, the artist who created Washington Crossing the Delaware, lived in the United States as a child and returned to Germany as an adult. He made the painting in 1849 in Düsseldorf, Germany. Leutze hoped it would inspire liberal reformers during the European Revolutions of 1848 to look to the American Revolution as an example of freedom and national identity.

The first iteration of the painting was damaged in a studio fire and Leutze created a second that came to America in 1851 for exhibition. Thousands of Americans came to New York City to see the enormous painting commemorating Washington’s daring attack. As democratic revolutions ignited in Europe, regional divisions exacerbated by the question of slavery deepened in the United States. The country grew more divided. The rowers in the boat, however, represented a cross-section of Americans who fought for freedom in unity. The message of unity and diversity, coupled with commemorating the American Revolution, resonated with Americans at the moment and the painting was intensely popular. Now it is likely the most famous image depicting the American Revolution.

A Dramatic Painting for a Dramatic Event

Washington Crossing the Delaware is a dramatic portrayal of an important event in American history. The size, detail and composition of the painting transmit the sense of drama of the moment. This painting is one of the most iconic of the American Revolution for its success in conveying the feeling and significance of the war.

Critics have sneered at the painting for some historical inaccuracies. The painting was created 75 years after Washington’s surprise attack and therefore it contains some imprecise features. The flag depicted was not created until 1777, about one year after the Battle of Trenton. The soldiers used a different type of boat than in the painting, a Durham boat, which is flat-bottomed and double-ended for loading freight. The ice in the painting looks more like it would be found in the Rhine River in Germany, rather than in the Delaware River. Additionally, George Washington looks much older in the painting than he was at 44 years old when he led the attack on Trenton. Washington also would not have been standing in the boat or it would have capsized. The painting is not a photograph of the moment; it is an artist’s rendering of a dramatic event in American history meant to convey themes of unity, diversity, freedom, and independence.

The Figures in the Boat

George Washington’s small boat is crowded with thirteen men. Their dress tells us that they are soldiers from many parts of America, and each has a story. One man wears the short tarpaulin jacket of a New England seaman; we look again and see 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 the stern of the boat are hard-faced western riflemen in hunting shirts and deerskin leggings. Huddled in the back of the boat 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 gentleman 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 George Washington in his Continental uniform of buff and blue. He holds a brass telescope and wears a saber, symbolic of a statesman’s vision and a soldier’s strength. The artist invites us to see each of the soldiers as individuals, but he also reminds us that they are all in the same boat, working desperately together against the wind and current. He has given them a common sense of mission, and in the stormy sky above he has painted a bright prophetic star shining through a veil of cloud.

African American Man in the Painting

Leutze’s inclusion of an African American man in the painting was not an accident. The painter was a committed abolitionist. He meant to highlight the role of African Americans in the fight for freedom.

Enslaved African Americans and free blacks fought for both the British and Patriot forces during the Revolutionary War. Lord Dunmore’s 1775 proclamation in Virginia promised freedom to slaves of rebel masters who fought for the Crown. Thousands of enslaved men freed themselves to reach British army lines. Free blacks often worked as sailors in New England, and some came to serve in the Continental Army. John Glover’s Marblehead Regiment famously managed the boats during the crossing of the Delaware. This regiment also helped to rescue the American army from Long Island and fought in the campaigns around New York. Several of John Glover’s men were of African descent.

When George Washington first arrived in Cambridge in 1775 as the newly appointed commander-in-chief, he resisted the presence of African-American men in the army. He at first tolerated their presence, but later banned the new enlistment of black men to the army. Over time, Washington, in constant need of more troops, witnessed firsthand the valiant service of black men. This led the commander-in-chief to approve the active recruitment of African American men to the army.

Discussion Questions

What do you think is the message of the painting? How do those represented in the painting influence the message?

Why would an artist in 1851 choose to depict a scene from the the American Revolution? Why would an European artist choose to depict a scene from the American Revolution?

What themes does the artist emphasize? Support your answer with evidence from the painting.