What would Americans identify as the most memorable moment of the American Revolution? Some might choose the “Shot Heard ‘Round the World” at Lexington and Concord in Massachusetts. Others might pick General Charles Cornwallis choosing to send a proxy to surrender for him at Yorktown, Virginia, signaling victory for the American cause. But for many, it is the image of General George Washington—standing with one knee bent at the front of a ship, leading his troops to a surprise attack after crossing the mighty Delaware River while an American flag waves majestically over them—that would first come to mind. Thanks in part to the popularity of a portrait by Emanuel Leutze, a German-born painter who hoped to inspire liberal reforms in his home country during the 1850s, what could have been remembered as a footnote in history became one of America’s most iconic moments. Monumental in size (3.8 by 6.5 meters, or 12.4 by 21.3 feet), stature, and symbolism, this painting has not only inspired extreme patriotism, but has also perpetuated some common misconceptions about Washington’s surprise raid of Hessian forces.
Washington attacked the Hessian military base (belonging to hired German soldiers who fought for the British) in Trenton, New Jersey, on Christmas Day 1776, inspiring new hope for the cause of the Patriot Army. Provisions were low, as was morale, during this period. Washington feared more troubles were ahead for the Continental Army. As losses mounted for the Americans, it became more difficult to recruit and retain soldiers, with many choosing to desert rather than face a cold winter of battle with limited supplies.
Washington understood the importance of a much-needed victory before the year let out, and a concentration of around 1,300–1,500 hired Hessians at Trenton became his target. Washington and his men (around 2,400, including future president James Monroe) were part of a larger plan that included two other crossings, but only his was successful in reaching the Hessians. Still, they arrived in Trenton with plenty of artillery and support from Col. Henry Knox, who would be stationed with men at the top of the town. Sailing on cargo vessels that ranged from 12 to 18 meters (40 to 60 feet) in length across the frigid icy waters of the Delaware, Washington and his soldiers were hit with a harsh rain that turned to a snow-sleet mix by midnight. Traveling with heavy artillery, horses, and more men behind him, Washington had support from experienced seamen under the command of Col. John Glover at the crossing site.
This is quite the contrast from the image portrayed by Leutze’s painting. Washington’s boat was much larger than is painted; the men in the painting’s ship represent a diverse group of 12 soldiers; and the flag in the image was not actually designed until after the event took place. Leutze’s work was more of a representation of what the event, and Washington, specifically, symbolized. (Although Leutze tried to be accurate, he also hoped to inspire a greater purpose). Even with these deviations from the facts, his portrait has become intermixed with the history of the moment itself, making it difficult for some to separate reality from folklore.
The Hessians were somewhat aware an attack was coming, thanks to the work of British spies and American deserters. Although they did not fully expect Washington to attack, they were on alert that it was at least possible. Constant false alarms coupled with bad weather conditions gave Washington the surprise opening he and his men needed to launch a successful attack, even if it took more time than anticipated. Once the Continental Army arrived onshore, their execution was excellent. The Hessians surrendered before morning and the Americans sustained few causalities. Stories of this bold, overwhelming American victory grew in legend as it reached other colonists who supported rebellion against the British crown.
The morale boost that resulted from Washington’s surprise attack has continued to grow in stature and legend in classrooms across the country, in part because of Emanuel Leutze’s painting. Depicted larger in size than the other men on the boat, Washington’s stature is representative of the importance he played in reigniting the American cause during the war. Painted in the 1850s during a period of unrest and sectionalism in the United States, the painting worked to convey a sense of nationalism and served as a symbol for unity. Many studies have been done to analyze Leutze’s use of the Stars and Stripes flag or his placing of an African American in Washington’s boat. These subtle symbols reinforced the hopes that Leutze had for his own country of Germany, while also becoming an instant American icon. Today, the portrait hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, continuing to inspire people while reminding them of the incredible challenges Washington and his men faced.