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.