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Washington Crosses the Delaware

George Washington and his Continental Army crossed the Delaware River’s ice-choked waters on Christmas night, 1776, ambushing roughly 1,400 Hessian troops in and around Trenton, N.J. Also present at the crossing was another future president, James Monroe. It was a turning point in the Revolutionary War.

The spot where General Washington led this group of 2,400 heroes across the Delaware River in pursuit of freedom is commemorated every Christmas Day during a mid-day reenactment. Unlike the actual evening crossing, where the troops faced a howling nor’easter with freezing rain, snow, strong winds, and temperatures ranging from 29 to 33 degrees, the annual reenactment now takes place when conditions are deemed safe for the participants.

At the visitor’s center on the Pennsylvania side of the river, you can view a replica of the famous 1851 painting by German artist Emanuel Leutze, Washington Crossing the Delaware. Although not entirely accurate in its depiction (for example, the ice more closely resembles what one would observe on the Rhine River in Germany, not the Delaware), it remains one of our nation’s most recognized paintings. The original, which is on display at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, was described by one newspaper in 1851 as “the grandest, most majestic, and most effective painting ever exhibited in America.”

A 3.5-mile drive north of the crossing site along Pa. Route 32 and then a short walk across the Delaware Canal will take you to a memorial cemetery overlooking the Delaware River. The simple plaque erected in 1929 reads, “In memory of many unknown soldiers of the Continental Army who died from sickness and exposure while encamped in these fields before the Battle of Trenton and buried at this spot Christmas Day 1776.” James Moore, a 24-year-old captain from Alexander Hamilton’s New York company of artillery, is the only veteran buried here whose identity is known. These graves along the Delaware are thought to be the final resting place for some of America’s first unknown soldiers.

The Crossing of the Delaware continues to inspire our nation. American patriotism was unfurled on the Delaware River shortly after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks against the United States when a small rowboat displaying our flag appeared one morning where the crossing took place so many years ago. More recently, it was referenced in President Barack Obama's First Inaugural Address in 2009:

"So let us mark this day with remembrance of who we are and how far we have traveled. In the year of America's birth, in the coldest of months, a small band of patriots huddled by dying campfires on the shores of an icy river. The capital was abandoned. The enemy was advancing. The snow was stained with blood. At the moment when the outcome of our revolution was most in doubt, the father of our nation ordered these words to be read to the people:

'Let it be told to the future world ... that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive ... that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet [it].'

America: In the face of our common dangers, in this winter of our hardship, let us remember these timeless words. With hope and virtue, let us brave once more the icy currents, and endure what storms may come. Let it be said by our children's children that when we were tested we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back nor did we falter; and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God's grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations."

Did You Know?
  • Described by one soldier as "it blew a perfect hurricane," the weather in 1776 forced the cancellation of two other planned Delaware River crossings consisting of another 3,000 troops intended to support Washington's Continentals.

  • 2,400 soldiers, horses, and 18 pieces of field artillery (each gun weighing as much as 2,000 pounds) crossed the Delaware River.

  • Contrary to legend, the Hessian troops in Trenton were on high alert and not drunk or drinking; however, they were still caught by surprise by the Continental Army. 

  • Lt. James Monroe (who would become our fifth president in 1817) and Captain William Augustus Washington (a relative of our future first president) were wounded during the Battle of Trenton following the crossing. Both were taken to the Thompson-Neely House, which served as a field hospital, for their convalescence.

  • Although no Americans were killed during the Christmas night crossing and the First Battle of Trenton, a number of Continental soldiers died from exposure, disease, or previous injuries.  

  • Washington crossed the Delaware River from Pennsylvania into New Jersey twice during December 1776: December 25-26 and December 30.  The weather conditions during the second crossing were worse than on Christmas night.

  • The first reenactment of the historic crossing of the Delaware River occurred on Christmas Day 1953. It featured one small boat holding five or six men, including actor/producer St. John Terrell as George Washington.  Mr. Terrell would portray General Washington during subsequent reenactments spanning a quarter of a century.

  • Following Mr. Terrell's retirement, the role of George Washington for the next seven annual reenactments (1978-1984) was played by John B. Kelly, Jr., the brother of the Princess of Monaco, Grace Kelly.  Mr. Kelly was an outstanding oarsman who competed in four Olympics (winning a bronze medal in 1956). At the time of his death in March 1985 at the age of 57, he was president of the United States Olympic Committee.

  • The first time when the reenactors were unable to row across the Delaware River was Christmas Day 1980. With the four Durham boats frozen solidly in the ice on the Delaware and bitterly cold wind chills, the general and his troops made a symbolic crossing by walking across the Washington Crossing Bridge.