Sunday, December 25, 2011

Washington crosses the Delaware on Christmas Day 2011

Washington made it across the Delaware River on Christmas Day in 2011 in a Durham boat. Both CBS and NBC had stories on revised history as to the painting Washington Crossing the Delaware.

Philly Channel 10 (NBC) was on the bridge, shooting video.

***Of the "revised history" which made the rounds on Dec. 25, 2011, Rick Spilman blogged:

The New York Times recently featured an article, Crossing the Delaware, More Accurately, describing the work of modern painter, Mort Künstler, who has painted what he claims is a more accurate representation of Washington making the crossing. His painting shows Washington on a flat bottomed ferry connected to both shores by a rope cable. While I make no claim to expertise on Washington’s crossing, it looks to me that Künstler’s version ignores the historical record just as Emanuel Leutze’s painting does.

The problem is that most historians think that the American crossing of the Delaware used Durham boats, large flat-bottomed boats which hauled cargo such as ore, pig-iron, timber, and produce from upcountry mines, forests and farms down the Delaware River to Philadelphia’s thriving markets and port. Robert Durham, an engineer at the Durham Iron Works in Reiglesville, Pennsylvania, reputedly designed a prototype for these large cargo boats as early as 1757. Washington wrote to Governor Livingston of New Jersey, directing him to secure “Boats and Craft, all along the Delaware side…particularly the Durham Boats” for his anticipated crossing.

While it is possible that a flat bottom ferry was used by Washington in the crossing, there seems to be little historical evidence for it. (If I am showing the extent of my ignorance here I would be happy to be corrected.) A flat bottomed ferry would be far more efficient for transporting artillery and horses, while the Durham boats would be fine for transporting troops. Nevertheless it appears that the same boats were used for both purposes. Lt. Col. John Fitzgerald wrote in his diary, “The troops are over, and the boats have gone back for the artillery. We are three hours behind the set time.” Washington’s army transported 18 field pieces across the Delaware. (The American army relied far more heavily than the British on artillery, using cannon as a “force multiplier,” to use modern terminology.)

It also strikes me as a bit unlikely that a flat bottom ferry with a cable running across the river could have been set up and rigged in the darkness during a blizzard across an ice laden river. Whether flat bottom ferries were used significantly in the crossing is unclear. Several sources describe cannon being secured on Durham boats, while David Hackett Fischer’s Washington’s Crossing suggests that barges were used for the artillery and horses.

It appears unlikely, however, that Washington himself traveled by flat bottomed ferry. By tradition, he was rowed across with the troops in a boat under the command of Captain William Blackler, arriving on the New Jersey river bank prior to the artillery. It seems most probable that Washington, like most of the troops, traveled by Durham boat. One complaint about Leutze’s painting is that it shows Washington standing in the boat. The depth of the Durham boat effectively requires that everyone aboard stand, though the gunnel would be waist high, unlike the boats shown in Leutze’s painting.


Post a Comment

<< Home