16. GW Birthday Thoughts

Monday is George Washington’s 289th birthday. That is, according to the Gregorian calendar adopted in Great Britain and its colonies in the mid-eighteenth century, which delayed his original birthdate by eleven days from the Julian, or Old Style, calendar. In any case, more than two centuries have passed since the squire of Mount Vernon left the scene—and yet it’s probably fair to say that he is, to this day, more myth than man in the historical consciousness of most Americans. Why is that?

A Bundle of Contradictions

I think part of the problem stems from his public persona, as Washington deliberately sought to maintain a degree of reserve around others that made him unapproachable to many of his peers and even more so to succeeding generations. In addition, the complexity of the man raises questions about just who he really was. Notwithstanding the lengthy exploration of this subject by far more authoritative voices, I took a stab at explaining just how enigmatic GW was—albeit in a very cursory manner—in The Road to Assunpink Creek.

Here’s the pertinent excerpt (p. 181):

The paradoxical qualities to be found in the father of our country are many and varied. The Washington who in his formative years was a self-interested, sometimes brash youth and a provincial Virginian became in his wartime role a selfless leader who exhibited prudent judgment and a steady hand in the cause of his country’s independence while adopting the perspective of an ardent nationalist.

In terms of his character, Washington might be described as an individual of driving ambition but modest public persona and as someone who experienced powerful emotions but publicly maintained an aloof and dignified demeanor. As a planter, he proved to be a shrewd businessman but struggled in his quest for financial security. A demanding slaveholder, he nevertheless became the only “founding father” to free those he held in servitude. And while generally demonstrating sound judgment, he needed ample time to make decisions.

As a public figure, Washington exhibited keen political skills but is not generally regarded as an accomplished politician. Although not an intellectual, he committed himself wholeheartedly to the pursuit of certain ideas. He was a warrior who resolutely adhered to the principal of civilian control over the military, a general who lost more battles than he won but ultimately emerged victorious in America’s fight for independence, and an army commander who refused to accept a salary for his services yet kept a meticulous record of his expenses—for which he expected to be, and was, reimbursed by the Continental Congress at the end of the war. Finally, this was a leader who was used to exercising enormous power but appears to have eagerly relinquished it and in doing so demonstrated the full measure of his greatness, both when he resigned his commission as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army in 1783 and when he left office after serving two terms as the first president of the United States in 1797.

An Imperfect Icon

Flawed GW was—as someone who bore his share of human frailties and as a member of a generation whose notions of freedom and equality were sadly deficient by today’s standards—but no one risked more in the quest to secure America’s right to rule itself than the Continental army’s commander-in-chief. His life, property, and reputation all hung in the balance.

At a very personal level, the Revolutionary struggle was an existential one for our foremost Founding Father, for failure would have meant certain death—either on the battlefield or at the end of a British rope. Of course, one could argue that other leading Patriot advocates like John Hancock or John Adams would have faced similarly dire consequences if the war had ended badly, but perhaps they would have had a better chance to elude capture, at least in theory, and thereby escape the wrath of a vengeful Crown than would a general on the frontlines.

Historians will differ on whether or not Washington was indispensable to the success of what he termed the “Glorious Cause,” the pursuit of American independence. Still, one thing seems abundantly clear. If he was not, nobody was.

15. Keeping History Alive in Challenging Times

Our current health-related circumstances have obviously impacted the mission of historic sites such as Washington Crossing Historic Park (WCHP) in Pennsylvania, one of the most revered venues in North America. I am grateful to Jennifer Martin, Executive Director of The Friends of Washington Crossing Park (FWCP), for her willingness to explore the subject in this blog post.

In conjunction with its board of trustees, Jennifer oversees the efforts of FWCP to educate the public about the significance of WCHP—the site of George Washington’s fabled 1776 Christmas night crossing of the Delaware River—and to preserve its legacy for future generations. Since 2010, the Friends have worked in collaboration with the State of Pennsylvania to share the inspiring story of that extraordinary event—and since 2015 with the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources as their partner in this endeavor.

Here are Jennifer’s thoughts on a variety of issues relating to the work of the Friends organization and the historical-education programming at the park:

What has been your biggest challenge in managing FWCP operations during this unsettling time?

The biggest challenge has been finding ways to reach and engage our visitors safely during a time when in-person programming is not possible and funding is limited. The park has always been a community center and an important destination for students looking to learn more about the Revolution and the role that the Christmas night crossing played in the quest for America’s independence.

This year, our staff was challenged by the need to alter programming, and I was very impressed with the innovations that we accomplished. Our monthly book club and lecture series became virtual, and audience attendance grew by five-hundred percent. Our “Colonial Days” field trips and summer camp became virtual, and that allowed us to develop programs for students all over the country that will carry on even after current restrictions are lifted. Our video presentation of the 2020 crossing reenactment has been viewed over twenty-three-thousand times on the park’s Facebook page and YouTube channel, as compared with the six thousand visitors that we typically get for the event—so the virtual crossing has allowed us to share this experience with a much larger audience.

Fundraising was a challenge with the cancellation of such activities as our Spring and Fall Brewfest events and the Summer Winefest. However, our staff had time to investigate and apply for new grants and develop a successful annual giving campaign, which has created new funding sources to help us build capacity as we approach the 250th anniversary of the legendary crossing in 2026.

What are you hoping – and do you think is realistic – for FWCP to accomplish in this new year?

Though virtual programming, I hope we are able to provide resources to all the schools that typically visit the park. I am also hoping that during this time, we are able to reach new audiences throughout the country by providing educational content that will encourage future site visitation and public engagement with the park.

What do you think is most important for the public to know about FWCP and how it is responding to current circumstances?

Our goal has always been to safely provide high-quality programming for the community we serve. We are practicing all safety measures recommended by the Pennsylvania Department of Health and will only resume public programs when it is safe to do so. Until then, we will continue to provide educational opportunities and resources for both the general public and the teachers who depend on the educational value that the park offers.

Can you discuss any plans that the organization has in terms of preparing for the 250th anniversary of the Crossing in 2026?

FWCP is working closely with the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources to fundraise and execute the implementation of a visitor-experience plan that will prepare the park for 2026. This plan includes new features on our site such as an interactive exhibit, interpretive signage, and tour enhancements. Our hope is that the semiquincentennial will encourage more site visitation and that visitors will enjoy new and enhanced educational opportunities to learn about how Washington’s army made its daring crossing of the Delaware River on December 25-26, 1776.

Are there ways that the related historic sites in this area can collaborate to help convey the story behind the “Ten Crucial Days” specifically or the legacy of the Revolution more generally and has there been any discussion of that among the staff or board at WCHP and with people from the other sites?

WCHP leads a group called the Ten Crucial Days Round Table that consists of WCHP staff and representatives from Washington Crossing State Park in New Jersey, the Old Barracks Museum, and Princeton Battlefield State Park. We discuss program opportunities and collaboration among the various organizations. Last year, we created a rack card to encourage tourism at partner sites, and in December 2019 we hosted a Ten Crucial Days bus tour that stopped at three of the four sites. In 2021, if circumstances permit, all four sites will be included in the tour. Our goal is to promote the Ten Crucial Days historic area in such a way as to offer visitors a more comprehensive understanding of the 1776 Christmas night crossing and the remarkable ten-day military campaign that followed it.

What is most satisfying to you about doing this job?

I remember my first trip to the Howell Living History Farm when I was eight years old. Prior to that, I never really cared about history, but there was something different about dressing up in period clothes, playing eighteenth-century games, and touring the grounds. I learned that history can be fun and exciting. I like finding creative ways to make history fun for visitors of all ages so that people can connect with and understand the importance of preserving places like Washington Crossing Historic Park and sharing the important history that took place here.

Thank you, Jennifer, for sharing your perspective—and for your leadership.

Home Improvement

Great news! The State of Pennsylvania has committed $8.7 million to a significant restoration project at WCHP that will rehabilitate eleven historic homes and other structures throughout the park, and groundbreaking is to occur this month. The long-overdue effort augurs well for a celebration of America’s approaching 250th birthday at this venerable locale that will be worthy of the occasion.

Let’s face it. If you’re a history buff, the news of this upgrade to Washington’s storied crossing site has to (ahem) float your boat—oar else.

14. Black History Month

Its Significance

February is almost here and brings with it the widely observed annual celebration of the achievements of African Americans. Black History Month (also known as African American History Month) reminds us of the significant and often-overlooked role blacks have played in our national saga. Since 1976, every U.S. president has officially designated this month accordingly. In addition to receiving official recognition from governments in the United States and Canada, it has more recently been observed in Ireland, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom.

Leutze and Liberty

Aficionados of Washington’s legendary Delaware River crossing know the essential role played by Colonel John Glover’s Marblehead Regiment from Massachusetts, whose seafaring men included black soldiers recruited from among Glover’s neighbors. Indeed, Emanuel Leutze’s iconic 1851 painting, Washington Crossing the Delaware (shown above)—while notoriously inaccurate in many respects—is absolutely correct from a metaphorical standpoint in placing a dark-skinned Marbleheader in the same boat as Washington—and next to him, no less. The symbolism inherent in this gesture emphatically conveyed the artist’s belief that the American Revolution represented a harbinger of liberty for ALL people.

They Were There

In her recent work, Standing in Their Own Light: African American Patriots in the American Revolution (University of Oklahoma Press, 2017), historian Judith Van Buskirk has made an important contribution to the Revolutionary War literature with her revealing account of the effort made by African American soldiers in our struggle for independence. Although this story has been chronicled in earlier works, the service and sacrifice of these soldiers is still largely unrecognized among the general public. The exploits of these men are a memorable testament to their bravery and zeal for freedom that sharply contrasts with the founders’ failure to extend their crusade for liberty to the slaves who existed in every North American colony in the 1770s.

African American soldiers could be found in the Continental army throughout the war. In his journal entry of September 2, 1776, Ambrose Serle, secretary to Britain’s Admiral Richard Lord Howe, observed that the rebel combatants facing the Crown’s forces in New York included “Old men of 60, Boys of 14, and Blacks of all ages.” Flash forward  to the climactic siege of Lord Charles Cornwallis’s army at Yorktown, Virginia, on October 14, 1781, and among the Continental soldiers storming the British-held Redoubt 10 were the black soldiers of the 1st Rhode Island Regiment.

Bottom Line

African Americans fought on both sides, but they accounted for about five percent of those serving in the Continental ranks throughout the war and a larger percentage than that among Northern units. Some of them were free men and some sought to escape our most infamous institution by substituting for a slave master who promised to free them in exchange for their military service—a promise not always honored. Indeed, the Continental army should be celebrated as the first integrated national institution in the United States, as much as for any other reason.

Perhaps Henry Wiencek provides the most succinct and cogent explanation for the role played by these soldiers. In his notable work, An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003), he observes that the commander-in-chief needed them for one very simple but compelling reason: white enlistment was precarious (p. 215).

It is at least arguable that the contribution of African Americans to what Washington termed the “Glorious Cause” of American independence impacted his thinking about slavery in the years following the Revolution such that he ultimately determined to free his slaves (the only slaveholder among the founding fathers to do so)—albeit by a provision in his will to take effect upon his wife Martha’s death. In other words, the man who can lay greatest claim to being indispensable in the struggle for young America’s right to rule itself understood at some level the extent to which black soldiers mattered in that enterprise.

13. A Relief Pitcher?

Was there really a Molly Pitcher? Well, yes, but only in a manner of speaking.


She exists in historical memory as a legendary Patriot stalwart who allegedly carried water to the thirsty rebel soldiers manning artillery at the Battle of Monmouth on June 28, 1778. This was the longest one-day engagement of the war and involved the largest exchange of cannon fire on any Revolutionary battlefield.

Various accounts have even attached a name to the mythical heroine. John Ferling, in Almost a Miracle: The American Victory in the War of Independence (Oxford University Press, 2007), references the fable in which Molly Pitcher—who was perhaps Mary Ludwig Hays of Carlisle, Pennsylvania—supposedly “took up a rammer and helped fire the field gun previously operated by her mortally wounded husband, if the doubtful story is true.”

Carol Berkin, in Revolutionary Mothers: Women in the Struggle for America’s Independence (Alfred A. Knopf, 2005), seeks to put this bit of folklore to rest once and for all. “Molly Pitcher simply did not exist,” she asserts, except as the functional equivalent of Rosie the Riveter during World War II. Rather, this mythical moniker was “given to the many women who carried water to cool down the cannons so that soldiers could reload and fire them again.” (Professor Berkin’s work is listed among the one-hundred best American Revolution books of all time by the Journal of the American Revolution and deservedly so. It is simply masterful.)


But all is not lost. Those disabused of the Molly Pitcher legend can find solace—and inspiration as well—in the story of Margaret Cochran Corbin. She wore men’s clothing while standing by her husband John during the British-Hessian attack on Fort Washington high above the Hudson River on November 16, 1776, took his place in the midst of battle, was seriously wounded, taken captive, and returned home with a permanent combat disability.

As the enemy assault on Fort Washington began, assistant gunner John Cochran assumed his position with the artillery, but he was soon forced to operate the cannon when the gunner was killed. Margaret, then twenty-five years old, came to her husband’s aid, helping him load the big gun until he too was slain. She then loaded and fired the field piece herself but was struck by grapeshot—a type of exploding shell that featured a canvas bag wrapped around objects such as iron balls, nails, stones, or pieces of chain. Margaret sustained wounds to her left shoulder, chest, and jaw. The soldiers who saw her fall bore her away from the battle line and put her under the care of other camp followers who were caring for the wounded.

Fort Washington’s capitulation was one of the worst defeats of the war for the rebel cause—over 2,800 were taken prisoner with an equivalent number of muskets and forty-one field guns lost to the attackers. After the garrison surrendered, Margaret was among the wounded American soldiers whom the victorious British set free on parole. The released defenders were ferried across the Hudson River to Fort Washington’s sister citadel, Fort Lee, which would fall to the British several days later at the start of their invasion of New Jersey. But by then, Margaret had been removed by wagon en route to Pennsylvania.

A Melancholy Ending

The injuries to her chest and jaw healed over time, but Margaret Corbin was never again able to use her left arm. She did receive a veteran’s pension—”half the pay and allowances of a soldier in service”—in an unusual acknowledgment by Congress of her military contribution to the Patriot enterprise. But while she was able to live on that amount, Margaret did not find happiness in later life. Moving to Highland Falls, New York, she turned to drink and died in 1800, apparently disdained by the majority in her community who knew her as an acerbic alcoholic named “Dirty Kate.” Few of them were aware of her service in the Revolution.


12. Field of Heroes

Looking Back

January 3, 2021 will mark the 244th anniversary of the Battle of Princeton. In that 1777 engagement, George Washington’s army won its third and climactic victory of the fabled “Ten Crucial Days” campaign that profoundly altered the course of our war for independence. It was one of the very few encounters in which the Americans defeated British regulars in open-field combat, although Washington’s roughly four-to-one numerical advantage clearly facilitated that outcome.

Courage amidst the Carnage

Princeton’s frozen ground could not absorb the blood shed during a winter morning’s savage clash. Few Revolutionary War encounters were more ferocious, and brave men abounded on both sides. Here are a few of them:

Charles Mawhood: The lieutenant colonel was an eccentric but highly esteemed officer—routinely riding into battle accompanied by a pair of “springing spaniels”—who commanded the British 4th Brigade, which held Princeton when Washington’s army arrived on January 3. Mawhood led a spirited and skillful resistance by his small contingent that held off the much-larger rebel force long enough to enable most of the British supply wagons to escape from Princeton and so exhausted the attackers—already weary after a twelve-mile overnight march from Trenton—that they were unable to achieve Washington’s primary objective of assaulting the redcoats’ supply depot at Brunswick (New Brunswick today).

Hugh Mercer: The Scottish-born general led the advance guard of his small Continental brigade into battle against Mawhood’s elite 17th Regiment of Foot in the initial phase of the engagement. Mercer refused to surrender when he toppled from his wounded horse and was surrounded by the British. He was bayoneted seven times while attempting to fight off the enemy and died nine days later in the Thomas Clarke House adjacent to the battlefield. (Mercer County, NJ, was named after him when it was created in 1838.)

John Haslet: The Irish-born colonel of the Delaware Continental Regiment was killed by a musket ball to the head while attempting to rally Mercer’s men or come to the general’s aid after the latter had fallen from his horse. Following the battle, a search of his pockets found an order from Washington for Haslet to return to Delaware to recruit soldiers for his depleted regiment, which he had deferred acting upon until the army concluded its winter campaign. Legend has it that Washington wept over the colonel’s body.

Joseph Moulder: The 62-year-old captain of the 2nd Company of Artillery, Philadelphia Associators, orchestrated a cannonade from his two-gun battery that halted the British advance—after Mawhood had routed Mercer’s vanguard—long enough for the Americans to regroup and launch a countercharge that turned the tide of battle. Today a marker graces the spot where Moulder’s young gunners stood their ground at this most pivotal moment.

Thomas Rodney: The Delaware militia captain was among those holding off the British advance until the rebel army organized its counterattack. His account attests to the ferocity of the action: “the enemies fire was dreadful and three balls, for they were very thick, had grazed me; one passed within my elbow nicking my great coat and . . . another carried away the inside edge of one of my shoesoles, another had nicked my hat and indeed they seemed as thick as hail.”

George Washington: The battle featured one of the most remarkable moments of the war when the Continental army’s commander-in-chief personally rallied his regulars and militia as he rode to within thirty paces of the British line. Washington presented an easy and obvious target for an enemy musket yet escaped without a scratch, much to the amazement of some very fretful subordinates. He reportedly inspired his troops with these words: “Parade with us, my brave fellows! There is but a handful of the enemy, and we will have them directly.”

John Cadwalader: The colonel of the Philadelphia Associators made a valiant effort to rally his militia in the face of a fierce British bayonet charge across the frozen field after Mercer’s outnumbered vanguard had been forced to retreat. Cadwalader would lead his men forward as part of the counterattack that ensued from Washington’s effort to personally rally his troops.

Looking Forward

Today the 96-acre Princeton Battlefield is a New Jersey state park and a registered National Historic Landmark. Visitors can walk the grounds and, once public health restrictions are lifted, will be able to explore the 1772 Thomas Clarke House, the last surviving witness to the battle. In the meantime, the Princeton Battlefield Society (PBS)—celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2021—has been developing a new educational exhibit for the Clarke House Museum with the generous assistance of donors to its History & Heritage Fund. The exhibit’s opening is planned for early next year.

In recent years, PBS has been conducting tours from May through October in conjunction with the NJ Division of Parks and Forestry, and although the pandemic frustrated that effort in 2020, PBS looks forward to its resumption as soon as practicable. In addition, area Rev War buffs can anticipate (not this year but as soon as public health circumstances permit) a continuation of the annual PBS early-morning, premier educational event that celebrates the battle’s anniversary in late December or early January. For now, you can learn more about PBS and a variety of related informational resources on the PBS website while we await more opportune circumstances to celebrate and promote in person the legacy of a Revolutionary generation’s gift to posterity.

Best wishes for a healthy and safe holiday season!

11. Measuring Patriotic Sacrifice

The men in arms who embodied what George Washington termed the “Glorious Cause”—the struggle for young America’s right to rule itself—suffered deprivations that we can only imagine today. In the memoir of his service with the Connecticut militia and the Continental army during the Revolutionary War, Joseph Plumb Martin observes: “The period of the revolution has repeatedly been styled ‘the times that tried men’s souls.’ I often found that those times not only tried men’s souls, but their bodies too.”


What kinds of personal sacrifice were entailed in our quest for independence?

To cite just one notable example, the Delaware Regiment—known as the Delaware Blues for the color of their uniforms—endured an array of hardships that I referenced in John Haslet’s World as follows:

From 1776 to 1783, the Blues would march in broken shoes or without shoes, on rutted roads and where there were no roads, in mud and sand, across marshes and streams, in sweltering heat and frigid cold, for thousands of miles. They slept—or attempted to—in tents in freezing weather, or absent any shelter whatsoever, missing blankets or any covering, on the bare ground in rain and snow, in need of clothing, food, and drink, and going without pay from one year to the next. 

One especially challenging period serves to graphically illustrate the challenges this regiment confronted: after encountering the ferocious winter weather and acute food shortages that plagued Washington’s army during its Morristown encampment of 1779-1780, the Delawares plunged into the Southern campaign of 1780 that brought with it searing heat and multiple illnesses arising from their natural surroundings. They survived for two weeks on a diet of a half-pound of flour a day for each man and spoiled beef supplemented by green apples and peaches from nearby orchards.The ordeal left them weak and sick.

In Washington’s general orders of April 19, 1783, which confirmed the termination of hostilities with Great Britain eight years to the day after the eruption of those hostilities at Lexington and Concord, the commander-in-chief paid tribute to “the honest exertions of a feeble people (determined to be free) against a [powerful] Nation (disposed to oppress them) and the Character of those who have persevered, through every extremity of hardship; suffering and danger being immortalized by the illustrious appellation of the patriot Army.”

These hardships were shared by those not in combat. Civilians suffered, and in some cases died, from diseases unintentionally spread by soldiers on both sides, naval attacks on coastal communities, Indian raids, the use of tactics that would be termed “guerrilla warfare” today, and siege operations. The violence perpetrated against civilians by soldiers on both sides included widespread loss of property as well as physical assault. And of course, women of modest means were forced to shoulder the burden of operating farms and shops left behind by their husbands who had gone off to war—in addition to caring for their families.


Recalling how a young nation’s citizen-soldiers met the most formidable challenge of their time impels one to salute those who’ve exhibited the same spirit of determination and self-sacrifice that’s required to meet the most daunting challenge of ours. We’ve seen that resolve manifested in recent months by our unsung pandemic heroes—the health care professionals, first responders, and essential workers who set an example for us all. They’ve demonstrated what true patriotism is all about. Decency, common sense, and public spiritedness call upon the rest of us to support their efforts and take the necessary precautions that will protect each other from the latest foreign adversary to threaten our common welfare and security.

When it comes to making sacrifices, wearing a mask and observing appropriate distancing in social settings are hardly commensurate with the severity of hardships endured by our forebears, especially when there looms not so far ahead a vaccine-induced light at the end of what might otherwise seem an interminable tunnel. We can do this. We must do this.

A healthy and safe Thanksgiving to all!

10. The Most Famous Commute in American History


It has been called America’s most memorable commute, and was even dubbed our first D-Day. But whatever phrase you use, this event began the “Ten Crucial Days” of the American Revolution—the period from December 25, 1776 through January 3, 1777.

The crossing of the Delaware River, from Pennsylvania to New Jersey, on Christmas night 1776 by George Washington’s Continental army was probably the most famous nautical venture ever undertaken by American infantry (with the possible exception of June 6, 1944) and the beginning of perhaps the ten most remarkable days in our country’s history. Despite a fierce blizzard that impeded both the crossing and their march of almost ten miles to Trenton, this ragtag force overcame the brigade of British-allied German soldiers (known as Hessians) occupying the town. Washington’s winter campaign reversed the momentum of the war just when the quest for independence from Great Britain appeared on the verge of final defeat.


Each December since 1953, weather permitting, the crossing has been faithfully reenacted at Washington Crossing Historic Park (WCHP) in Upper Makefield Township, Pennsylvania. And since the Bicentennial, the limestone sculpture seen above has been standing guard across the street from the park under the care of the Washington Crossing Foundation. A gift from the citizens of Bedford, Indiana, it’s a three-dimensional representation of the world-renowned Emanuel Leutze painting, which is displayed in the form of a digital reproduction in the WCHP visitor center.

Three of the leading stewards of this site’s historic legacy share their thoughts below on the significance of the 1776 crossing and the annual reenactment. Their comments provide a useful perspective on why this inspiring aspect of America’s past and present still matters:

Kimberly McCarty, Museum Curator, WCHP — In one of the most unexpected and celebrated military maneuvers in American history, the crossing of the Delaware River began a series of events that changed the course of the war, and the course of history. Washington’s army was diverse—if not by choice, then by necessity. While women followed the army, soldiers of color were part of it and actively participated in the crossing and the battles that followed. The annual reenactment is an important reminder of that and shines a light on this often-overlooked part of our nation’s history.

Jennifer Martin, Executive Director, The Friends of Washington Crossing Park — Washington’s crossing of the Delaware was a very daring undertaking at a desperate time for his army. Despite the obstacles they faced, he led his troops to victory at Trenton and turned the tide of the Revolution. Each year, the crossing reenactment shares with visitors this powerful story and the courage that led our nation to independence.

Thomas Maddock II, Historical Interpreter, WCHP — The bold military action initiated by General Washington and his very ragged army was a wonderful example of courage, determination, and perseverance. These qualities helped make Washington the leader that soldiers wanted to follow. They believed in him because he believed in them. The reenactment helps us remember all that.


There may be no more hallowed ground in North America than the site where the crossing occurred and where it has been reenacted for more than half a century. While current public health considerations preclude the type of crossing reenactment that occurs each December before a vast throng of avid viewers, the tradition will abide. Beginning Christmas Day, you will be able to view a special pre-recorded video presentation on the WCHP Facebook page and YouTube channel that represents the 2020 version of this venerated ritual.

Going forward, information about the various events and programs at WCHP is available online or by contacting the visitor center at 215-493-4076. And you can rest assured that the crossing reenactment will resume in customary fashion as soon as practicable. After all, this is one routine that is not routine.

9. Bravo, Barracks!

The Old Barracks Museum in New Jersey’s capitol city of Trenton has enjoyed a unique history dating back to 1758, when it was built to house British soldiers during the French and Indian War. A remnant of the eighteenth-century town then in Hunterdon (now Mercer) county, this registered State and National Historic Landmark helps visitors in particular to understand two key military engagements that occurred during the “Ten Crucial Days” campaign of George Washington’s Continental army in the winter of 1776-1777: the Battle of Trenton on December 26, 1776 and the Battle of Assunpink Creek (also known as the Second Battle of Trenton) on January 2, 1777. More generally, the building now known as the Old Barracks offers visitors a singular perspective on the story of its surrounding area.

Its Past

The history of the Old Barracks is characterized by a diversity of uses and distinctions over the past three centuries:

  • It is one of five such structures throughout New Jersey built to house British soldiers in the 1750s and the only one still standing.
  • At the time it was constructed, this was the largest building in Trenton and the second largest public building in New Jersey after Princeton’s Nassau Hall.
  • It is the only surviving and restored military structure left in New Jersey that is associated with the colonial wars predating the Revolution.
  • The original structure was utilized for a variety of purposes during the Revolutionary struggle: holding British prisoners of war, raising four companies of the 2nd New Jersey Continental Regiment, and serving as an army hospital where smallpox inoculations were performed on Continental army soldiers—making this the site of the first mass medical treatment in the Western Hemisphere.
  • After the Revolution, part of the building was demolished in order to extend Front Street to the newly erected State House; however, the building continued to meet a variety of community needs over time, as: The Indigent Widows’ and Single Women’s Home Society of Trenton, the residence of the first mayor of Trenton, and a boarding school.
  • This site was the object of a joint campaign by the Daughters of the American Revolution and the Colonial Dames at the beginning of the twentieth century, which organized the Old Barracks Association and orchestrated an effort to “Save the Old Barracks.”
  • From 1985 to 1998, the structure underwent a multi-million dollar second restoration that resulted in its current appearance, which is thought to be a much more accurate representation of how it originally appeared.

Its Present 

Today, the Old Barracks Museum hosts an array of programs and activities designed to inform and entertain people of all ages. These include: onsite tours, virtual field trips for schoolchildren, digital exhibits, a History Summer Camp and Patriots Week events—including the annual Colonial Ball—each December (all subject to current public health considerations), and more.

Yes, the museum is open, but reservations are required to visit. You can purchase tickets in advance here—they are not available at the museum. The admission fee is: $10 for adults, $8 for students, and $8 for seniors (age 62 and up). Admission is free for museum members, active-duty military personnel, and children age five and under.

Tours are available Tuesday through Saturday and begin at 10 am, 12 pm, and 2 pm. Visitors have up to two hours to see the museum and are required to leave by the start of the next tour. While there, check out the Quartermaster’s Store, which offers a wide variety of books and other items relating to the Revolution and early America. Of course, masks must be worn at all times inside the building.

And for anyone who’s interested, several rooms within the Old Barracks are available for group rentals. Find out more here.

Want to Know More?

The Old Barracks Museum is located next to the New Jersey State House, and parking is available nearby at the Capitol Complex Visitor Parking Garage, metered street parking, and other parking garages. The street address is: 101 Barrack Street, Trenton, NJ 08608. For more information, call the museum at 609-396-1776 or visit its website.

When you’re in downtown Trenton, history is right around the corner. It lives at this iconic landmark. Just ask the tens of thousands of people who have come here from across New Jersey and around the globe. And if you’re a Rev War buff living in the Delaware Valley, failing to visit would be, well, revolting.

8. A President without Precedent

The upcoming presidential election will be occurring in the midst of heightened national anxiety and acrimony stemming from multiple sources. At what may be a defining moment for our democracy, we might do well to recall some relevant insights from the first POTUS.

By George

The name of American, which belongs to you in your national capacity, must always exalt the just pride of patriotism more than any appellation derived from local discriminations. 

The basis of our political systems is the right of the people to make and to alter their constitutions of government. But the constitution, which at any time exists, till changed by an explicit and authentic act of the whole people, is sacredly obligatory upon all.

When a people shall have become incapable of governing themselves and fit for a master, it is of little consequence from what corner he comes.

Government being, among other purposes, instituted to protect the persons and consciences of men from oppression, it certainly is the duty of rulers, not only to abstain from it themselves, but, according to their stations, to prevent it in others.

The marvel of all history is the patience with which men and women submit to burdens unnecessarily laid upon them by their governments.

If we cannot learn wisdom from experience, it is hard to say where it is to be found.

We must never despair; our situation has been compromising before, and it changed for the better; so I trust it will again. If difficulties arise, we must put forth new exertion and proportion our efforts to the exigencies of the times.

(The above are from Quotations of George Washington, Applewood Books, Inc., 2003.)

Wise Warnings

Today, when the country may be more politically polarized than at any time since the Civil War, one can almost infer from Washington’s letter to William Gordon of July 8, 1783 that he foresaw the sort of political rupture that would lead to America’s most dire conflagration eight decades later:

When the band of Union gets once broken, everything ruinous to our future prospects is to be apprehended—the best that can come of it, in my humble opinion is, that we shall sink into obscurity, unless our Civil broils should keep us in remembrance & fill the page of history with the direful consequences of them.

Perhaps Washington’s greatness was most especially manifested in his deference to civilian rule. The general who steadfastly adhered to the notion of military subservience to the people’s government noted “how dangerous to civil liberty the precedent is of armed soldiers dictating terms to their country.” That conviction was never more dramatically illustrated than in admonishing his fellow Continental army officers—while addressing them at Newburgh, New York, in March 1783—not to translate their grievances against Congress into military action against the civil authority and thereby undermine the foundations of a young nation’s political order and democratic rule:

And let me conjure you, in the name of our common Country, as you value your sacred honor, as you respect the rights of humanity, and as you regard the Military and National character of America, to express your utmost horror and detestation of the Man who wishes, under any specious pretenses, to overturn the Liberties of our Country, and who wickedly attempts to open the floodgates of Civil discord, and deluge our rising Empire in blood.

Judging GW

Granted, he had his share of human frailties. Who doesn’t? And yes, he shared the prevailing mindset of a generation whose freedom-and-equality train left black people, Indians, women, and men without property back at the station. (That is, notwithstanding Washington’s decision to free his slaves—making him the only slaveholder among the founding fathers to do so—albeit by a provision in his will that took effect upon the death of his wife Martha.) But then our democracy has always been a work in progress, however gradual, tentative, and sometimes painful that progression may have been.

In any case, I can’t help thinking that the elusive Virginian still has something to teach us. As Ron Chernow explains in Washington: A Life (The Penguin Press, 2010), “History records few examples of a leader who so earnestly wanted to do the right thing, not just for himself but for his country. Avoiding moral shortcuts, he consistently upheld such high ethical standards that he seemed larger than any other figure on the political scene.” This was true of the army commander who most prominently risked his life, possessions, and reputation to secure America’s right to rule itself. And as well of the president who provided a template for his successors—above all, and to his everlasting credit, creating a tradition of presidential term limits—while converting the promise of republican government into a living reality, even as he endured the personal attacks and financial adversity attendant to his serving in office.

Bottom Line

Simply this. When it comes to certain values at the moral center of democratic governance—like putting country ahead of party and the national interest over private interest—the republic would be far better served if today’s “Washington mentality” reflected Washington’s mentality.

7. A Window on Our First Civil War

“Civil wars so often take on the character and cruelty of a crusade because they are about the nature of society itself.” So writes the acclaimed historian Margaret MacMillan in her most recent work. “The other side is seen as having betrayed the community by refusing to agree to shared values and a common vision and so extremes of violence and cruelty become permissible, even necessary, to restore the damaged polity” (from War: How Conflict Shaped Us, Random House, 2020, p. 42). The struggle between fellow countrymen is powered by the anger and hurt that each side feels at the incomprehensible betrayal of the other.

The American Revolution was truly a civil war—an armed contest between neighbors, relatives, and former friends that was often waged in the most intimate and brutal manner. It lasted twice as long as the far bloodier War between the States eight decades later.


In John Haslet’s World, I offered the following synoptic explanation of what was at stake between the American combatants on both sides—the so-called Patriots or Whigs who supported political separation from Great Britain and the Loyalists or Tories who rejected the cause of independence (p. 108):

As much as the more brutal conflagration of 1861-1865, the struggle for independence literally involved, in some cases, a fight that pitted brother against brother, father against son (witness revolutionist Benjamin Franklin and his Tory son, William), and neighbor against neighbor. The more militant advocates of rebellion would brook no opposition from those less sympathetic to their cause and often strove to stamp out such dissent in the harshest and most uncompromising ways, which could involve the use of extreme violence, seizure or destruction of property, and scathing public ridicule. Notwithstanding its transformative and positive consequences, their insurrection “required violent escalation and terror to sustain itself and combat its domestic enemies,” as with other modern revolutions. To the insurgent faction, the objective of attaining liberty and independence justified the fierce treatment of fellow Americans who were seen as standing in the way.

For their part, the Loyalists were strongly committed to ensuring constitutional protections of their liberties, and many agreed with the rebels in opposing specific British policies. However, unlike those Revolutionaries, who supported the notion of independence, the Loyalists remained faithful subjects of the King and wanted to settle any disagreements within the existing constitutional framework. They feared that separation from the mother country would have adverse economic consequences and disrupt their social networks. In addition, many discounted the possibility that the colonists could overcome Britain’s armed might.

Ferocity in the South

The Southern theater of the conflict, where the fighting predominated in its later stages (1780-1782), witnessed the most savage clashes between Patriot and Loyalist units. In many cases, no mercy was shown by either side, even to those who had already surrendered.

Thomas Brown was an Englishman who established a Georgia plantation before the Revolution and was beaten, tarred, and feathered for failing to pledge his support to the Continental Congress. Commissioned as a lieutenant colonel by the royal governor of East Florida, he led Loyalists and Indians fighting along the Florida-Georgia frontier (1777-1778), and commanded the King’s Carolina Rangers during the British Invasion of Georgia (1779-1781). Brown confessed that the armed struggle “exhibits many dreadful examples of wanton outrages, committed by both parties, disgraceful to human nature.” He further commented: “A civil war being one of the greatest evils incident to human society, the history of every contest presents us with instances of wanton cruelty and barbarity. Men whose passions are inflamed by mutual injuries, exasperated with personal animosity against each other, and eager to gratify revenge, often violate the laws of war and principles of humanity” (from his letter to David Ramsey in The American Revolution: Writings from the War of Independence, 1775-1783, ed. John Rhodehamel, The Library of America, 2001, pp. 681-682).

These remarks are echoed by Robert Gray, a South Carolina Loyalist commissioned as a colonel in the provincial (Loyalist) forces after the British occupied his state in 1780. When writing about the war in the Carolinas, he noted that “both parties in this petty, but sanguinary war . . . seemed to breathe the extirpation of their enemies” (from his “Observations on the War in Carolina” in Rhodehamel, p. 764).

Final Notes

Some sixty thousand white Loyalists—about two percent of the population—left the country when the war ended and braced themselves for an uncertain future in exile. At the same time, several hundred thousand like-minded Americans had to contend with the threat of retaliation by their neighbors or at least the prospect of an unsettled relationship with the communities into which they sought to reintegrate.

And speaking of civil war, the savagery of the Patriot-Loyalist struggle in the South evokes the observation made by General William Tecumseh Sherman when he ordered the evacuation of Atlanta’s inhabitants in 1864: “War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it.” The depredations suffered by the South’s residents at the time made those inflicted on their eighteenth-century forebears seem tame by comparison.