Two weeks ago, I was visiting relatives and friends on the East Coast, just outside Philadelphia, and spent a few hours on a cold, gray afternoon observing the rehearsal of an annual Christmas Day reenactment of Washington crossing the Delaware. It just so happens to take place in the small riverside town of Washington Crossing, Penn., in suburban Bucks County.
I was born in Philly and, at the age of 12, my family joined the white flight of the mid-’60s to the growing suburbs, largely in reaction to the violence afflicting many urban areas due to the struggle for racial justice. Today, our country is continuing to struggle with the large and growing chasm over income inequality, which certainly contains more than a hint of racism, but for purposes of this article I want to focus on the more pervasive divisiveness that has rendered many of our institutions of government dysfunctional.
Quite simply, we need to figure out a way to unify our citizenry around the core values and ideals that are evident in our constitutional framework and we need leadership by example to bind the wounds and get us all rowing in the same direction. We need to recapture the true American spirit; hence, I will focus on the inspiration of this strategically dangerous yet powerful military maneuver that happened on the evening of Dec. 25, 1776.
General George Washington’s troops were suffering from exhaustion, cold weather, sinking morale and had virtually been driven from Long Island to Pennsylvania by British troops far better equipped than the ragtag Continental Army. Hessian troops (professional German mercenaries) were camped out in nearby Trenton, N.J., as the British readied for an attack upon Philadelphia where the Continental Congress had taken up residence.
According to John Godzieba, a retired local police chief participating in his 26th reenactment (and 10th as General Washington), that evening in 1776 presented numerous obstacles, most notably the weather. According to Godzieba, “The attack was conducted at a ferry crossing where the Delaware River was only 800 feet across and boats of all types had been brought up the river for the crossing. The temperatures were in the 30s and a Nor’Easter brought with it rain, sleet and, eventually, snow.
“Many of the troops were without shoes and the journey across the river, involving nearly 2,400 troops, would take at least eight hours, commencing at 4 p.m. in the afternoon as the winter sun was setting,” the reenactor continued. “That would be followed by a march of nine miles to Trenton. Troops that crossed first were paraded around in circles until the crossing was complete in order to avoid hypothermia.”
It was certainly a gamble, resting on the element of surprise and that age-old military tactic that distraction would carry the day. During the march, revolutionary partisans would fire across the river at several Hessian checkpoints to distract them from the main contingent working its way toward Trenton. According to Godzieba, however, “Washington had a more practical, yet threatening, problem, namely, low morale among the troops and the approaching of a year-end expiration of enlistments among many state regiments.” From a pragmatic standpoint, Washington needed a victory to turn the tide against the Brits, raise morale and encourage extended enlistments.
While the general had been arguing for the Continental Congress to extend enlistments to three years, differences among the states stretched from one year to the end of the war. Quite simply, Washington needed a victory and this was his only chance: a risky maneuver with most likely more potent downsides than upsides. This was, in a very real way, the supreme test of the strength of the American spirit.
Involved in this historic battle, which resulted in what most historians believe would be the turning point in the war, were three future Presidents (Washington, Madison and Monroe), future supreme court justice John Marshall, future secretary of war Henry Knox, future treasury secretary Alexander Hamilton and future vice president Aaron Burr. A glaring irony would be that, while all survived the battle, nearly 28 years later Burr would slay Hamilton in a duel, or what was known at the time as an “affair of honor,” in—of all places—New Jersey.
While the most famous painting of Washington crossing the Delaware River is an oil-on-canvas painting by Emanuel Leutze (who painted two versions, the original lost in a bombing raid in Bremen, Germany, during WWII, the other currently with the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City), they vividly yet inaccurately capture the event. The works were not done until 75 years after the crossing, allowing for a degree of artistic license, and while they adequately capture the momentous nature of the event, they are filled with inaccuracies.
What captured my attention most vividly upon watching the rehearsal was the fact that the flag that accompanied Washington as he crossed the river is not the Stars and Stripes as portrayed in the painting, but rather the commander-in-chief’s headquarters flag: a square blue flag with 13 six-pointed stars. In addition, it is highly questionable as to whether or not it is even possible for the general to have stood up in the boats largely used for the crossing. Inaccuracies or artistic license notwithstanding, the significance of the moment cannot be denied.
The reenactment is performed to large crowds each Christmas Day and, according to Godzeiba, he plans to not relinquish his commander-in-chief duties prior to 2026, which will represent the 250th anniversary of this historic event. This upcoming event will also attempt to include the nine-mile hike to Trenton.
Washington crossing the Delaware is a shining testament to this nation’s strongly held ideals, namely, the courage to reject intolerance and conformity and determination to strive to create a society based upon freedom, liberty and justice for all. It is these values that should propel us to resolve our differences in a civil manner, to promote diversity and to foster processes that govern our institutions and leaders that are open to vigorous debate and encouraging of peaceful resolution to seemingly intractable issues.
So, as we celebrate this holiday season, let us rededicate ourselves to the ideals of our forebearers in fashioning a free society built upon the foundations and values that preserve the rights of both the majority and the minority of its citizens. We are all in this together.