Crossing the Delaware

August 7, 2002
Filed under Destinations

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The site is simple. A well-worn path leads down to a broad, pleasant river. On the opposite
shore is another gentle slope. There are far more impressive river crossings in the
country, but none that witnessed an event like the one that took place here. The date was
December 25, 1776. In the darkness, more than 2,000 soldiers of the Continental Army,
wearing tattered uniforms and weakened by hunger, rowed their boats across the rough and
ice-choked water of the Delaware River. It was a treacherous crossing, slowed by sleet and
a blinding snowstorm. Leading this unprecedented attempt was General George Washington. The
goal was to launch a surprise attack on the Hessians who were encamped eight miles
downstream in Trenton, New Jersey. By 4 a.m., when all of the troops had gathered on the
New Jersey shore, they began the march to Trenton. As hoped, the Continental Army took the
Hessians completely by surprise, giving Washington his first victory of the Revolutionary
War. This successful attack was quickly followed by the Second Battle of Trenton on January
2, 1777, and the Battle of Princeton on January 3, 1777. These three battles proved to be
the turning point of the Revolutionary War. Had Washington and his troops not succeeded,
the history of our country might have taken a different direction. To stand on the banks of
the Delaware River, especially on a summer day, and try to visualize what took place on
that fateful night makes visitors appreciate the sacrifices our forefathers made to
establish our country. Washington’s troops had been surviving under almost impossible
conditions. They had little shelter from the bitter cold weather. Communication with the
provisional government was, at best, slow and uncertain. Food was scarce. The fledgling
nation was far from free of British rule, and the future was bleak. But the will to succeed
was strong, and every American now enjoys the freedom that was only a dream on a frigid
Christmas night more than 200 years ago. Today, this historic site has been preserved as
part of Washington Crossing State Park. Adjacent to the landing site, beside the Nelson
House, is a replica of the boats that were used for the crossing. Up on the bluff is
another historic home that should not be missed. It is the Johnson Ferry House, where
Washington and his staff spent the night of December 25, finalizing their plans, while the
army regrouped for the early- morning attack. During the 1700s, the Johnson house was used
as a farmhouse and tavern. The owner also operated a colonial plantation and ferry service.
Visitors to the home can stroll through the 18th-century kitchen garden and orchard and see
living-history demonstrations. In addition to protecting historic sites, the 1,400-acre
park provides recreational opportunities. The nature preserve is a haven for migrating
birds and has hiking trails through the lush forest of hardwoods, red cedar, white pine,
red pine and spruce. In addition to bird watching and hiking, the park is a popular place
for picnicking and, in the winter, cross-country skiing. Crossing the bridge over the
Delaware, you’ll find the site where the boats were launched, depicted in the famous
painting by Emanuel Leutze of Washington crossing the Delaware. To relive the events of the
10 crucial days that changed the direction of the Revolutionary War, follow the signs to
the Old Barracks Museum in Trenton where you’ll learn about the two battles that took place
nearby on December 26 and January 2. Displays and costumed interpreters at the museum
describe the events of those fateful days. Since the Hessians were known for traveling with
their wives, children and pets, the complex where the museum is located was occupied by
families with a few troops there to protect them, and the actual combat troops were
occupying quarters in what is now downtown Trenton. After the battles of Trenton, the
barracks were used by the Continental Army for a military hospital. After touring the
barracks, head back north to Princeton Battlefield State Park, where the third of the three
battles took place. The serene setting you see today was the site of one of the fiercest
fights of the American Revolution. On the heels of their victory in Trenton, American
troops under Washington surprised and defeated a force of British regulars, giving
Washington his first victory against the British. A witness to that battle was Thomas
Clark, on whose property the January 3 battle was fought. Clark opened his home to wounded
troops, including General Hugh Mercer, who fell during the battle and died nine days later.
The stately house, which was designed by the same architect who designed the U.S. Capitol,
is now a museum. The stone patio marks the graves of 21 British and 15 American soldiers
who were killed in the battle. These three sites are only a part of New Jersey’s
Revolutionary War Trail, but the events that took place here were pivotal in winning the
war for freedom. Fortunately for past, present and future generations, the sites have been
preserved so that we may relive the events that were instrumental in the founding of our
great nation.

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