On Christmas Day in 1776, George Washington led what was left of his army across the Delaware River in the middle of a blizzard to attack a Hessian outpost in Trenton, NJ. In one bold stroke, he turned almost certain defeat into at the least the promise of eventual victory. Washington’s crossing was immortalized in the painting, Washington Crossing the Delaware, by Emanuel Leutze in 1851. Everyone agrees that while Emanuel Leutze’s painting is dramatic, it has a number of historical inaccuracies, including the width of the river, the time of day, the weather and the design of the boats used in the crossing.
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.
The Washington Crossing Historical Park has several replica Durham boats on display which it uses for yearly re-enactments of the famous crossing.