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George Washington crossing the Delaware River by Leutze

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George Washington crossing the Delaware River/Leutze

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The image of George Washington crossing the frozen Delaware River is perhaps the most recognizable symbol of the American Revolution. The original painting was exhibited by Emmaneul Gottlieb Leutze in 1851. A later engraving of Leutze's painting by Paul Girardet is the image most often reproduced.

The painting commemorates a somewhat minor event that nevertheless had tremendous morale value for the Continental army. In December 1776, after Washington's troops were routed in New York and New Jersey, forcing them to flee into Pennsylvania, a British victory seemed certain. Convinced that the colonials would pose no threat, Sir William Howe, commander of the British forces, settled into New York for the winter.

In a bold move on that bitterly cold Christmas Eve, Washington had his men ferried across the Delaware River, made dangerous and barely navigable by huge chunks of ice. Once on the other side, in Trenton, New Jersey, the patriot army surprised Britain's Hessian mercenaries, capturing 900 of them.

In Leutze's painting, one of the oarsmen shown battling the treacherous ice is black. The historical figure whom he represents is believed to be Prince Whipple, an enslaved African who was emancipated during the war, and "body-guard to Gen. Whipple, of New Hampshire, who was Aid to General Washington."

Image Credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of John Stewart Kennedy, 1987. (97.34) ©1985 by the Metropolitan Museum of Art

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Related Entries:
George Washington crossing the Delaware River by Sully
The Marriage of Washington to Martha Custis
The Washington Family

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