If Gilbert Stewart’s painting is the one we all think of when considering who Washington was, it is Emmanuel Leutze’s painting that comes to mind when we think of what Washington did. Visiting the painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I was struck, as is everyone, by its size. This is a big picture, about a big event. It is the picture of a boatload of individuals, thirteen in all, one of which, Washington, stands resolutely, his gaze unblinkingly looking forward, toward the horizon. To many, the picture is absurd. Would Washington really be standing up in this way? Were there truly any African Americans on his boat? What about that woman behind him, that can’t be true, can it? Such questions miss the point. The picture is myth, and like all myths, carries the truth within it. No, we know of no African American being on that boat, but we do know that Washington’s army was the most integrated army that would exist in America prior to World War II, and that by the war’s end it was approximately 20% black. No, of course, no woman was on that boat, but women carried out the struggle of the war as tirelessly as did the men. No, Washington probably did not stand in the boat in that fashion. But has any picture better encapsulated Washington’s inner resolve, his unwavering dedication? I like the way he leans forward, his right hand gripping his small monocular, ready to spring into action.
Henry James remembered being one of the more than fifty thousand people who first saw the painting when it was originally brought to New York. No impression of his youth, he would recall, “was half so momentous as that of the epoch-making masterpiece of Mr. Leutze, which showed us Washington crossing the Delaware, in a wondrous flare of projected gaslight and with the effect of a revelation.” James recalled that he “gaped responsive at every item, lost in the marvel of wintry light, of the sharpness of the ice-blocks, the sickness of the sick soldier.” Mostly, he was inspired by Washington himself, “the profiled national hero’s purpose, as might be said, of standing up, as much as possible, even indeed of doing it almost on one leg, in such difficulties.”
At the time of the crossing, the war was at a particularly ugly point, and the colonies were in desperate need of a victory, any kind of victory. The British controlled New York and New Jersey, and continued their blockade at Boston Harbor. The Congress, often in the voice of John Adams, hectored Washington, wanting him to win a big battle. But Washington always understood that his strategy for winning the war would be mere survival. Sooner or later, he reasoned, the British would come to the conclusion that imposing their will upon the colonies was simply an untenable and impractically expensive process. However, in order for his army to survive, he needed some victories.
During the winter months of 1776, the British were not the only, and perhaps not even the greatest, danger that Washington perceived. The other dangers included the weather, disease, lack of funds, lack of army discipline, and a general myopia that he observed overtaking the colonies and the army. His greatest immediate concern was that a large amount of the army had signed up for two-year enlistments that were ending on December 31st. There was a very real possibility that his army, like Cinderella’s chariot, would simply disappear come January. Meanwhile, the British were comfortably ensconced throughout New York and New Jersey, and were planning to wait out the winter in relative comfort. What Washington needed to do seemed almost impossible – he needed to win some kind of victory that was big enough to be considered, in modern day parlance, a “game changer.” He needed an action dramatic enough to convince not only observers both at home and abroad, but to convince the army itself that they could win this contest.
Where others viewed a drawn-out winter stalemate that would only benefit England, Washington saw an opportunity. As James Flexner put it, “[T]he British Jersey posts were – presumably to protect residents who had accepted Howe’s pardons – widely separated from each other. Furthermore, since naval supremacy consists in having the boats, however small, that will navigate the body of water involved, Washington possessed it for the first time in the war.”
He was also familiar with the commander of the advance enemy positions, Major James Grant, and he found this familiarity “reassuring, since he remembered an idiotic maneuver Grant had executed with considerable loss eighteen years before.” Washington had found it both humiliating and aggravating to work with British soldiers who looked down upon him as a backwoods American. If Grant was one of those soldiers, (and, given his disdain of the Colonial Army, it seems highly likely that he was), then this added yet one more small inducement towards his plan of action.
In any event, Washington realized that he had little choice; with New Year’s Day coming up in just a week, he needed to do something dramatic and uplifting. His nighttime cross of the Delaware and morning victories in Trenton against the blurry-eyed Hessians manning the posts filled the bill in every way. This battle is generally believed to be the war’s most important American engagement prior to Yorktown. Had Washington not planned as he had planned or acted as he had acted at that time, it is very possible that the British may have won the war. The battle had another ramification as well. It was after this battle that Washington, in the eyes of the country, went from being the general, to being the leader and icon. This was his first step towards the heights of Mount Rushmore and beyond.
And so, on a crisp warm day, the first day of spring, in fact, after a long and drastic winter, I grabbed my camera and drove forty-five minutes to the State Park where George Washington gave Americans the thing that they needed most – hope.