Teach PA History
Crossing the Delaware: A Visual Myth or Reality?
Background Information for Teachers

Emanuel Leutze's Washington Crossing the Delaware is a universally recognized image and the painting that historians "love to hate." Though it depicts a significant historical event during the American Revolution–a turning point in the war that began on the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware River–the historical inaccuracies represented in the piece are subjects for analysis and debate. In this lesson plan, students will observe and interpret the work and offer their conclusions in a persuasive analysis.

Washington Crossing the Delaware depicts George Washington leading the colonial army across the Delaware River to New Jersey, on the morning of December 26, 1776.The original work was painted by Emanuel Leutze in Germany in 1850 and is representative of the "Romantic" style. The 1850 painting was damaged in a studio fire in 1850 and Leutze produced a second version that he sent to the United States in 1851. Emanuel Leutze was born in Germany in 1816 and came to the United States at the age of nine. He grew up in Philadelphia, became a successful artist, and returned to Dusseldorf, Germany in 1841.

Historians generally agree on several historical inaccuracies identified in Emanuel Leutze's painting. These include:

The flag: The flag in Leutze's painting, "The Stars and Stripes," was not adopted until June 14, 1777, six months after Washington's crossing. The Grand Union Flag, officially hoisted by Washington in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was the standard of the Continental Army and the first national flag in use at the time of the crossing.

The boats: The boats depicted in Leutze's painting were much smaller than the actual Durham boats used to transport the colonial troops. Durham boats were flat-bottomed and had vertical sides and were used to transport freight and raw materials.

George Washington: Some historians argue that Washington looks too old in the painting (Washington was forty-four years old at the time); almost all agree that he would never have been able to remain standing in the position depicted without falling overboard.

The weather and the time: Examine the background in the painting. First-hand accounts report Washington reaching New Jersey after 3:00 AM. A fierce snowstorm developed, impeding the crossing.

The ice: The waters of the Delaware River flow swiftly in the area of the crossing and ice forming in that section would probably have been smoother than the jagged ice depicted in the painting, though river ice would have been perilous for the fording soldiers.

Prince Whipple and James Monroe: Prince Whipple was the African-American portrayed in the painting. While he was a minor Revolutionary War hero, he was not present at Washington's crossing. Rather, he was in Baltimore, Maryland. The only other recognizable figure in the painting is James Monroe (holding the flag). While the future president was one of Washington's trusted scouts, no records suggest that he actually crossed in the same boat as Washington.

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