Washington Crossing: History happened here


Re-enactors in a recent Christmas Day crossing of the Delaware.

“George Washington stayed here.” It is a saying familiar to generations throughout Bucks and surrounding counties.

Only the local village of Washington Crossing, however, can claim that Gen. George Washington “crossed here.”

His crossing of the Delaware shaped the outcome of the American Revolutionary War.

Exactly where Washington’s crossing of the Delaware River took place continues to fascinate historians. Whether they are interested in the father of our country’s military genius, or the importance of the local geography in our nation’s quest for independence. Washington led his bedraggled troops towards Trenton, on Christmas Day, 1776. To this day, Washington Crossing symbolizes the importance of his resolve.

The Delaware River was a physical barrier for the Continental Army’s efforts to attack the British Army. Despite all odds against success, Washington led his weary troops (after having endured months of illness and lack of adequate food and shelter) to the area of McConkey’s Ferry. George Washington maintained a headquarters in this area, where he spent weeks planning the logistics of the river crossing.

The crossing, aimed to surprise the British, just across the Delaware River in New Jersey, was orchestrated secretively by Washington, who employed local river masters in the logistics of the crossing at then McConkey’s Ferry, the site he chose for the daring and unlikely river trek across frozen waters of the Delaware.

Washington could only accomplish this through ferry masters and their Durham boats, designed to handle large volumes of passengers and cargo across the river for commerce between New York City and Philadelphia.

By the time Washington made the crossing of the river, he had already managed to hide the necessary number of boats just upstream at what is now Lambertville, N.J.

Even under the duress of his troops’ failing numbers and health, and unsuccessful battles elsewhere, Washington made the bold move to cross the Delaware, surprising the opposition, and forever immortalizing the importance of the ensuing events.

In darkness, Washington and his officers orchestrated a surreal parade of a battalion of 2,400 soldiers, plus horses and cannons and other heavy ammunition across the river on the sturdy Durham boats. Not only was Washington faced with the danger of the harshest weather conditions, but he and his own intelligence officers recognized that the local Tories, with allegiance to British rule could at any moment foil his strategy, and further destroy any hope for American victory.

The battles that ensued over the next few days stunned the Hessians and area British generals and their troops who reportedly may have imbibed a bit too much in celebration of the holidays. This all occurred on Dec. 25 through the morning of Dec. 26, 1776. And a second crossing took place at approximately the same place on Dec. 29, before the British could retreat from the decisive Battle of Trenton.

Washington surprised even his own leadership at a time when members of Congress were fleeing Philadelphia (then the nation’s capital) under threat that the British army was prepared to seize its control.

On both sides of the Delaware River, Pennsylvania and New Jersey have for many years celebrated the crossing, forever immortalized in Emanuel Leutze’s iconic painting of the crossing.

Visitors to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City have the privilege of viewing Leutze’s original 1851 painting depicting an idealized crossing of the Delaware. The painting hangs on the walls of the museum, among paintings by America’s most prominent artists.

The original painting hung for many years in Washington Crossing Historic Park’s visitor center. A full-size replica of the painting, commissioned by the Washington Crossing Foundation founder, Ann Hawkes-Hutton, is displayed there today. Mrs. Hutton is credited widely as a leader to preserve and promote the park and the area as a state and national treasure.

Her foresight and investment in the park exemplify the importance of its history.

A live re-enactment of Washington’s crossing takes place every year on Christmas morning in the park. Broadway producer St. John Terrell, one of the founders of the Bucks County Playhouse, staged the first re-enactment in 1953 as a fun excursion for his friends.

Parks on both sides of the river host tens of thousands of visitors each year for the crossing re-enactment. The event attracts both local and international visitors.

Efforts to maintain the crossing’s historical importance continue today, thanks to the efforts of enthusiasts. A partnership between the Friends of Washington Crossing Historic Park with DCNR (Pennsylvania’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources) hopes to ensure the perpetuity of the park, its recreational value and historic value.

McConkey’s Ferry eventually became known as Washington Crossing. The small village of Washington Crossing, Pa., has its own ZIP code, but is not incorporated as a municipality within the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

Home to several businesses and restaurants, the village resides within the sprawling township of Upper Makefield, a scenic and fertile farm region, home to more than 8,000 residents in predominantly upscale homes.

The river that once had the power to divide our nation’s destiny is now a revered place that unites Pennsylvania and its cross-river friend, New Jersey.

2017 © Bucks County Herald