Christmas Night 1776: How Did They Cross?

The War Years (1775-1783)

October 16, 2013
by Editors Also by this Author


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The famous painting of George Washington crossing the Delaware River on Christmas night 1776 is permanently etched in many minds.  It graces the covers of countless books and magazines often with great attention paid to the subsequent Battle of Trenton. But just how did Washington’s army cross the river?

The collector’s print edition of Journal of the American Revolution includes a never-before-published article by William M. Welsch, which addresses that question and several others, such as when and where did they cross? How many crossed? What were the weather and river conditions at the time of the crossing? What types of boats were used, and what was it like to ride in them? Just how difficult was the crossing?

Below is an excerpt of the article, which appears in our collector’s hardcover edition, now on sale.

washcrossingThe Durhams and ferry boats would be crewed by the 177 officers and enlisted men of the 14th Continental Infantry, experienced mariners, supplemented by river men from New Jersey and Pennsylvania, who assisted in both the crossing and the landing on the Jersey side. The 14th—Glover’s Marblehead Regiment—were the Grand Banks fishermen who in late August had evacuated the Continental Army across the mile wide East River from Brooklyn to New York. Captain Alexander Graydon praised them,

“There was an appearance of discipline in this corps.… Though deficient, perhaps, in polish, it possessed an apparent attitude for the purpose of its institution and gave a confidence that myriads of its meek and lowly brethren were incompetent to inspire.”

Although never mentioned as such, the 27th Continental Infantry, under Major Ezra Putnam, was another unit of experienced seafarers who could have also contributed seasoned mariners, as did Captain Joseph Moulder’s Philadelphia artillery company.

According to Henry Knox, eighteen guns were moved across the Delaware on that historic night. These cannon would be the deciding factor in the battle of Trenton, but would present the biggest difficulty at the crossing. The ferry boats would be critical in moving the guns and their accompanying ammunition wagons safely over the river, with each gun taking as much as an hour to load, secure, transport, and unload. Authors who write of the cannon being moved in the Durham boats are incorrect. They were hauled to the ferry landing and rolled or driven, not lowered, into the flats.

In addition to the men and guns, the critical horses had to be transported. Estimates vary as to just how many animals crossed. Historian Kemble Widmer suggests between 64 and 90. Most other writers make no mention of the topic. My own estimate is a bit higher, broken down as follows: the artillery—29-32; senior officers and aides—35; Philadelphia Light Horse troop—24; ammunition carts—7-14. That totals 95-105, an estimate at best and perhaps a bit low.

Given horses’ difficulty with open running water, moving this many animals over the river would have been one of the major challenges and delays of the night, with estimates that three men were needed to control each horse. The flats would have been used for this purpose, not the Durhams as suggested by some chroniclers.

Read the full article in our collector’s hardcover edition of Journal of the American Revolution, now on sale.

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