Marking Pennsylvania History

Momentum, Meaning and Myth

America's first winter looked like it's last. The spirit of the Declaration of Independence, less then six months old, was still fresh. But the Revolution was going very poorly. General Washington had already lost nine out of ten troops. Powerful British forces had overtaken New York, cutting a wedge in the middle of the former colonies. Retreat across the Delaware River was the only option as the British set their sights on Philadelphia.

"These are the times that try men's souls," wrote Thomas Paine in a new pamphlet issued December 19th. Paine's Common Sense had stirred patriotism in the months leading up to the Declaration of Independence. But now he was a soldier, realizing the urgent need to remind and inspire in The Crisis. "Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered...the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph."

While the British waited for the Delaware River to freeze over for a wintry crossing before the campaign for Philadelphia, Washington saw that, as bad as conditions were, his troops were not yet broken. In the midst of a storm on Christmas night, 1776, Washington led his men across the river and attacked the Hessians at Trenton, killing or capturing nearly a thousand men. In a string of successful attacks, the Americans next held off a counterattack by Lord Cornwallis's best troops, avoided defeat, then moved in cold darkness behind the enemy to attack again, this time for a decisive win. Winter fighting had turned around the British hold on New Jersey and gave the Revolution new momentum, new meaning, and new myths.

The best known is represented by Emanuel Leutze's painting "Washington Crossing the Delaware." The general stands proud, officers and men pushing ice and fighting the current. Hardly journalism, this was history painting at its best - illuminating events for posterity, three quarters of a century after the fact.

- Kenneth FInkel, Executive Director of WHYY's Arts & Culture Service

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