Crossing the Delaware

Crossing the Delaware: Brilliant Strategy or Painting Opp?

When one asks "Why did George Washington cross the Delaware?" the answer is obvious: "To get to the other side." Nevertheless, more can be said.

Close investigation reveals that Washington crossed the Delaware during turbulent times. There was civil disorder. This disorder is now called the American Revolution. The revolution was related to the price of tea, not in China, but in Boston. The British had imposed a large tea tax, which made tea very expensive. To show their disregard for that tax, the citizens of Boston dumped a lot of tea in Boston harbor, making a big mess, and starting what was essentially a civil war (most of the people living in Boston and participating in the "Tea Party" were British, you know).

George Washington became the general in charge of the anti-tea tax forces. Needing a victory to keep the revolution going, Washington decided to attack some German mercenaries celebrating Christmas in Trent. But there was a big problem. He and his army were on the wrong side of the river. It is for this reason that he had to get to the other side. He chose to go by boat.

Hindsight is said to be 20-20, but nevertheless it can be asked "Was this the best strategy?" Of course, since he made it across, it is obvious that it wasn't too bad. Only if everyone had fallen in the river could we say that it was a really bad idea. However, if one looks closely at the painting above, it can be seen that there is a lot of ice in the river. It was not a good time to cross the river. It might have been better to wait for it to get warmer and the ice to melt. Moreover, the soldiers obviously didn't know much about boats. For example, the people in front are not using their paddles effectively. Also, there are boat safety issues. There are too many people in the boats and many of them are standing up, increasing the chances that the boats will tip over. Even Washington himself, the big guy in front, is standing in an unsafe position, perhaps showing how macho he is. Incredibly, Washington's horse Nelson is in the next boat, and someone seems to be trying to mount him. To do what? What is going on? Nelson was a calm horse, but there are limits. Finally, no one is wearing a life jacket, not even the horse.

Did Washington really have to use the boats? The answer is resoundingly no. Anyone who visits the site of the crossing immediately sees a safe and convenient alternative, the bridge, which most visitors use while there. The suitability of the bridge is especially clear during historical reenactments of the crossing during low water on the river. The bridge serves them well. Washington could hardly have missed it when he brought his army up Pennsylvania State Highway 532 (also known as George Washington Memorial Blvd.). For that matter, there is a bridge on I-95 into West Trent.

So why didn't Washington use the George Washington Memorial Crossing Bridge? Perhaps he thought it was just too easy. Maybe he thought it would be good practice for the troops. With regard to the first, if you are engaged in a military action, it is not a good idea to make things tough for your army just for fun. That is the enemy's job. With regard to the second, given the bad weather conditions, it was not a good time to have the soldiers practice boating. Someone could have gotten hurt.

Thus, only one answer seems likely. Washington wanted someone to paint a picture of him crossing the Delaware to show how tough he was. This conclusion is supported by the fact that Washington later ran for president of the United States and he needed some visual documentation to show that he was a "war hero." He knew that using a boat would make for a better painting opp than just walking across the bridge.

Other aspects of the military operation support this conclusion as well. For example, all of the soldiers walked to Trent in the snow, many without shoes, rather than using snowmobiles, which would have made the journey, once again, faster, easier, and safer.

Looking at the big picture, we can ask: "Was the crossing of the Delaware worth it?" Well, he did win, but of course the Germans were all drunk and asleep, so it was really a sure thing, made tougher only by the handicaps Washington imposed on his own troops because of his desire to run for president.

Did the crossing then really make any difference? The American British revolutionaries did get a victory, but as it turned out, most Americans switched to coffee making the tea tax irrelevant anyway, and calling the whole revolution into serious question, for that matter. Furthermore, the artist who finally agreed to paint the picture wasn't even born when Washington crossed the Delaware and the painting wasn't completed until 1851, long after the election was over, thus making the whole affair pointless as far as Washington's political aspirations were concerned.

Painting by Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze, Metropolitan Museum of Art