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The Boat Ride That Changed America: Washington Crossing Historic Park


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The Boat Ride That Changed America: Washington Crossing Historic Park by Sharon Hernes Silverman. Pennsylvania Heritage Magazine, Fall 1999.

The Boat Ride That Changed America: Washington Crossing Historic Park by Sharon Hernes Silverman. Pennsylvania Heritage Magazine, Fall 1999.

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  • 1. FALL 1999 - Crossing A River To Victory! Â¥} President Lincoln Delivers All Eyes Upon Aaronsburg + Probing Philadelphia Politics
  • 2. aracters seem straight out of a big screen blo )L r: tagonist, a distinguished squire turned military commander, appearing outwardly controlled, yet besieged by internal doubts; his antagonist, a general whose redeeming qualities are negated by his arrogance and complacency; a comely widow; heroes, cads, and a supporting cast of thousands. The plot is also quintessential cinema fare, full of bloody combat, intrigue, harsh weather, infighting, psychological gamesmanship, even a love interest or two. As the dramatic tension mounts, it's clear that the action reaches a turning point. If he prevails in his efforts, the protagonist will change the course of history; liberty for his rebels and those they represent will be the result. If he fails, he and his cause will be remembered only as a footnote to history. The odds are . 3 . I.His forces are outnumbered, under-trained, and poorly
  • 3. - Washington Crossing Historic Park in Bucks County commemorates the Christmas 1776 crossing of the Delaware River by George Washington, whoseforces surprised Hessian enemies at Trenton, New Jersey. Today,authenticallyuniformed volunteers reenact the historic crossing using Durham boats, the same type that Washington's troops used to were originallyused to haul iron ore. equipped. His record so far is poor, By mid-1776, the flood of passion for loss after agonizingloss. And yet dependencethat had begun with does not give up, but tries a bold sistance to the StampAct of 1765, ditch effort that, somehow, some wa rown during such flash points as the succeeds. oston Massacre, and maintainedits It sends chills up the spine to reali omentum from the openingbattles at that this is not a Hollywood concocti gton and Concord, on April 19, but the true story of Christmasnight, through the enthusiasticdays of 1776, when General GeorgeWashingto eclaration of Independence, had (1732-1799)crossed the ice-choked greatly dwindled. For the first time, the Delaware River on his way to success colonistsfaced the cold reality of war's Trenton and Princeton, New Jersey, carnage. Virginian GeorgeWashington, where he stopped the British from appointed Commander-in-Chief of the crushing the American Revolution and ContinentalArmy by the Continental restored the colonists' dream that Congress, had his hands full coping with independence could be achieved. desertion, disobedience,and the Washington Crossing Historic Park deplorableconditions under which his (WCHP)in Bucks County, a five hun- army existed. Congressfailed to provide dred-acresite administeredby the adequate artillery, uniforms, and even Pennsylvania Historical and Museum the most basic of supplies.Most of these Commission (PHMC),commemorates fellowswere not experienced in military this momentous event, opening visitors' life; they were farmers, merchants, eyes to just how extraordinary-and mechanics, carpenters, and tradesmen. how significant-the American victory When they enlisted, most had only was. In contrast, by July 1776the British Commander in Chief, Sir William Howe (1729-1814),landed on StatenIsland with nine thousand professional troops. The following month, his army of British and Hessians (Germanmercenaries hired into the service of British King George 111)had swelled to more than thirty thousand. This well-trained force had dealt the colonials one defeat after another in New York: August 27, at the Battle of Long Island; October 28, at the Battle of White Plains; and the Novem- ber 16debacle at Fort Washingtonon the east side of the Hudson River. The Americans had been positioned advantageouslyinside Fort Washington, although the redcoatsheavily outnum- bered them. Washington, camped at Fort Lee in New Jersey directly across the river, reluctantly allowed Brigadier General Nathanael Greene to try to hold Fort Washington. The results were disastrous.The fort with more than twenty-eighthundred troops surren-
  • 4. barges could be constructed. General Howe decided that there would be no assault on Philadelphia before the New Year. The British would establishwinter quarters in western New Jersey.GeneralHowe at first named a Hessian German, Colonel Carl Ernil Ulrich von Donop, as commander of the troops to occupy Trenton, Bordentown, and Burlington. However, Colonel Johann GottliebRall, another Hessian, talked Howe into givinghim the Trenton command instead. Donop, wary of surprise attacksby the patriots, ordered Rail to build earthen redoubts around Trenton, but the complacentRall refused. Fifty-year-old Rall, known as "The Lion," was a career soldier who had performed brilliantly at Fort Washing- ton. By all accounts,the enlisted men worshipped him. But Rail's officers complained of his cruel refusal to ask the British Army for warm winter clothes for his common soldiers. Rail did not have to worry about keepinghimself warm. He quartered in the home of a wealthy Trentonian, enjoying the comfort that affluenceaccorded while his soldiers endured cold, cramped conditions. General Lee finally entered New Jersey on December 2-3, but rather than joining Washingtonhe began to maneu- ver against Cornwallis's troops. If he could force them out he stood a good ruined ten days later, on December 13, when he was taken prisoner at Mrs. White's tavern in Basking Ridgebyla roving detachmentof British cavalry. General John Sullivanthen led the remainder of Lee's command to Wash- ington's encampment in Bucks County. Washington knew the game was almost up. If he did not act, the War for Independencewould be over. He decided that one bold strokemight stem the tide, so he planned a surprise assault on the Hessian garrison at Trenton. Washington's force was camped on the Delaware at McKonkey's Ferry- encompassed now by Washington CrossingHistoric Park-where a supply of boats was assembled.He decided to attack before daylight on Thursday, December 26, gambling that the Hes- sians would not be very alert because they traditionallycelebratedfor several days at Christmas. While Washington planned, Colonel von Donop heard that New Jersey's ColonelSamuel Griffin had gathered eighthundred patriots at Mount Holly, eighteenmiles south of Trenton. Donop marched there and pushed Griffin's small force back toward Moorestown.In Mount Holly that night, Donop became smittenby a young widow and detided to linger. He remained there to celebrate the holiday season, making help unavail- -every suggestionof a rebel attack. He underestimated Washington and his men, a fatal mistake. As a bitter north- east wind blew on ChristmasDay, twenty-four hundred Continental soldiersbegan assemfaliftgat McKon- key's Ferry, eightnutes op theDelaware from Trentoe. Beginning at sundown,. Colonel John Glover's Fourteenth Massachusetts Continental t- the Marbleheadere-began tofefry troops, horses, and eighteen cannon across the icy river inan ever-wotsprang storm of sleet and-snow.The forty t6 sixty-foot, blackDurham beaten4çW^te to carry iron ore and pig iron,c&-bld up to fifteen tons each, perfect for transporting artillery(see "Unconven- tional Patriot: An Interviewwith Ann Hawkes Huttonaby Brent D. Glass, in the Winter 1996issue). Washingtonknew that they would need thelarge guns, since muskets,malfunctioned when wet. The firingmechanism of a cannon, on the other hand, could be kept dry if reasonablep~ecawtionswere ohem&. As the stormy night draiggedon,it was clear that elementof cocap- surpriseWashmgton hAdteop^faron themarchto Treatonhadbeentest becauseittook so-lmgto.feriy.e'veiyone acrossthe river and been noisy and other hand, the accelefaitogstorm
  • 5. effectivelyobscured the troops' w d v ~ to o'clock in the morningbefore tbÃ&waits were assembled on the New Jerseystele, ready to march eight milessouth,@ Trenton. The exhaustingphysical effort, especially on the part of the Marhj^head soldier-boatsmen, poling wad stegnmg the Durham boats amidst blocks of ice, was notable voice of the he-hundre Colonel Henrybox, washeardwefy- where, providing organjzationftl'stebyity. McConkey's Ferry Inn (above),sections of washington himself which date to the eighteenth century,and the position on the N~~ jatewsjk Mahlon K. TaylorHouse (below),a completely overseethe landingof hi5 restored dwelling built about 1817, welcome tirnefiemarchbegan thevfod visitors to experience life in the eighteenth and blowing towardthe çup~tiff nineteenth centuries. the marchersand hurlingmw!and i&e into the facesof enemy sentries. More ominoaswasnewsthat came from Bristol, twenty miles downstream. Washington's master plan had included coordinatedminor crossing@of r d u - ti~naryforcesat TrentonFprry-awl, Bristol. Brigader GeneralJwi?s.I&vk&s six hundred PennaylvapiamilitiaBien were tooossfromTrentoa Peas?te btock any retreat of $Tessians atthe ,' Assunpink ~reek,'soi,iIh of Trenton. ColonelJohn G$wala$er's battalion of ~hiladeiphiaAssod@pfÂwas to cross from Bristol toW ~ M S&Hessian garrison at Bordeniown so &at it could not reinforceTrenton,tiat the weather allowed only &,fewof ~sjwabder'smen to cross, and m e ofSwing'sforce embarkedat T q t p I?$rryiWphington did not leain tfiatbpfn~Bw~sand- Cadwalader's ojaefeatifiBishad faileduntil the following mdpin& - Washington wip determined to risk everythingto carryonghis major objective.By sixb ctejds,the rebelswere in Birmingham, tegsfnaqfive milesfrom ~rentqq/where,A$ysplitintotwo columns. ~eneralGrew$ led the northernattack,@wp+&dby Washingtor?andlby~oxlwho com- manded the artfllety.Gene& John Sullivancon(unaactedthe rightwing, which moved aloag river road, seize4the lower sections of the city, ana
  • 6. For their invaluable assistance,the mihor WashingtonCrossing Historic Pafk: Tow Crossing HistoricPark, P.O. 103, where the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Collins, historic site admidstmbr;Mwrke Washington Crossing, Pennsylvania lived and worked for nearly forty years. ("Pat")P#rizio, education dire*; and 18977;telephone (215)493-4076; or visit Visitors to Doylestown, the county seat, Karen L. Hormth, guide supervisor. its Web site at c& e+oy the JamesA. MichenerArt Picnic pavilions are available for group Museum,which features extensive FOR FURTHERREADING I reservations. Personswith disabilities holdings of works by the New Hope who need special assistance or accom- Schooland the Pennsylvania impression- Owya, WilliamM.,'fde Day is modation should telephone the historic ists. Three of Pennsylvania's more h i & View ~/;(fe~;@o*tfas site in advance of their visit to discuss unusual attractionsare alsolocated in the and Pfincetti& tertyembe~ their needs. Persons who are deaf, hard county seat, thanks to a most unusual 1777.New BmftsWick, N.J.: of hearing or speech impaired who wish individual, Henry Chapman Mercer UnWersityPress, 1983. to contacta hearing person via Text (1856-1930).These are Fonthill,the Telephone may use the PA Relay Center Mercer Museum, and the Moravian Fast, Howard. The-?rossiwfirnark, N f pt 1-800-654-5984. Pottery and Tile Works, constructed New JerseyHistwidd Society, 1971. A full schedule of events is planned entirely of reinforced concrete.' for the remainder of 1999, leading up to Other popular attractionsin Bucks Flexper,James Thomas. WÃ the extremely popular crossing reenact- County includeAndalusia, in Andalusia, Ind@fffsa&Ie-Man. Boston: mid Company, 1974. Hughes, Rupert. George Washington:the Rebel and the Patriot, 1762-1777.New