Saturday, December 27, 2014

Washington's Crossing: more than meets the eye

It's not exactly hidden New Jersey, but the annual reenactment of General George Washington crossing the Delaware River was a bit of an eye opener for me when Ivan and I attended this Christmas.

This year's reenactment looked nothing like this.
Washington Crossing the Delaware, Emanuel Leutze.
Metropolitan Museum of Art collection,
gift of John Stewart Kennedy, 1897
Every American school child learns the story of the crossing and events that led to it, or should. Having lost the Battle of Long Island and Forts Washington and Lee in the summer and fall of 1776, Continental troops retreated across New Jersey to the relative safety of Pennsylvania. During these bleak days, morale plummeted and troops deserted in droves, having lost confidence in Washington's leadership. Philosopher and pamphleteer Thomas Paine, traveling with the retreating forces, was inspired to write some of his most famous words in The American Crisis: "These are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman."

Washington knew that he would have to make a daring move to save the young nation that had been born with the Declaration of Independence less than six months earlier. While a diversionary attack would be waged farther downstream, he would lead 2400 men across the Delaware about eight miles upstream of Trenton on Christmas night. Once ashore they'd split up and march southward to surprise and engage Hessian troops at their winter quarters.

Today we know that Washington's plan succeeded. Wins in three battles over the following ten days gave the Continental Army a much needed shot in the arm and the encouragement to continue fighting for the cause of freedom. Artistic representations of the Delaware crossing are part of our shared vernacular and are used everywhere from New Jersey's contribution to the state quarter series to The Simpsons.

But... you don't really get it until you see it. At least that's what I came to realize as Ivan and I stood on the banks of the Delaware this Christmas, waiting for the reenactment of the crossing.

When we arrived at Washington Crossing State Park that morning, skies were cloudy and the temperature around 50 degrees. Winds were blustery, though, and while there were no ice floes as there were on the original night, the river current was running briskly. We walked across the narrow bridge that spans the river to get to the Pennsylvania side, where the small town of Washington's Crossing was buzzing with a growing number of reenactors and spectators. Altogether, the group may have totalled about half the number Washington had with him that night. A few Durham boats had already been brought down the riverbank and positioned in the river, only a small representation of the number that the general had commandeered for the crossing.

The relatively warm weather and all of the hubbub made it hard to envision what Washington and his troops faced on that stormy, bitterly cold night in 1776. Even when we returned to the New Jersey side to await their arrival, the event was taking on a carnival atmosphere. Children chased each other between chatting adults, the local Lions Club was selling hot chocolate and a historian was describing the events that led up to the fateful night.

As we often do, Ivan and I had brought our binoculars for some casual birding as we waited for the event. They came in handy as we gauged how close the crossing was to starting; when the reenactors walked down toward the boats, we probably had a much better view than most of the people on the Pennsylvania side, but it still seemed to be taking a long time.

"Eagle," Ivan said, looking over the Washington's Crossing Bridge. Indeed, a nearly-adult Bald Eagle was soaring overhead, unnoticed by the people around us but entirely fitting for the event. It circled once or twice and then winged away, perhaps looking for someplace a bit less crowded to set down in a tree.

And finally, a small party of about six or eight reenactors made their way into the smallest of the boats -- a bateau -- to make the initial foray across the river. We're accustomed to thinking of Washington and his men rowing directly across the Delaware in more or less of a straight line, pushing blocks of ice aside along the way. Bergs weren't a factor for the 21st century patriots, but the current seemed to be. First struggling to row a few hundred feet upstream, the crew valiantly started making their way across in somewhat of a V pattern. For a bit, they seemed to be losing to the force of the river, leaving me to wonder if they might actually end up traveling to Trenton by boat rather than possibly reenacting the march.

We're so accustomed to seeing history represented in movies with action-heightening editing and dramatic music that an actual reenactment can seem tedious by comparison. Watching the struggles of the batteau men, however, seemed so much more realistic and perhaps truer to history, even if the weather, time of day and river conditions weren't consistent with the actual event. Were they going to be able to make it to New Jersey safely? We didn't know. Would all of the boats make the trip, or would the organizers decide conditions weren't right to finish the reenactment? Only time would tell.

The uncertainty, more than anything else, made an impression on me. Washington truly didn't know if his plan would work. He wasn't sure that all of his troops and their horses and equipment would make it across the Delaware, and in fact, it took hours longer than he expected. Further downstream, the diversionary attack was aborted without his knowledge. If the crossing we were watching had been cancelled, it would have been disappointing but not a tragedy. Had Washington's not worked, the future of the United States would have been in question.

Ultimately, in 2014 all of the boats made their way to New Jersey, their crews welcomed by loud applause and cheers from a happy crowd. Reenactors got into formation and marched across the bridge back to Pennsylvania, many of them undoubtedly looking forward to a big Christmas meal.

For the rest of us, they'd provided a memorable insight into the realities of one of the pivotal events in our forefathers' fight for independence. It's one I'll not soon forget.

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