George Washington Crosses the Delaware

George Washington Crosses the Delaware

This key moment of the American Revolution, made iconic in a portrait by Emanuel Leutze, was a major victory for General George Washington during the fight for the colonies’ independence. But its artistic depiction, a staple in classrooms across the country, does not tell the whole story about what actually happened that cold day in December.


3 - 12


Social Studies, U.S. History, World History


Washington Crossing the Delaware

More than a tribute to a turning point in the American Revolution, "Washington Crossing the Delaware" was created to inspire liberal reforms in the country where the painter was born, Germany.

Painting by Emanual Leutze
More than a tribute to a turning point in the American Revolution, "Washington Crossing the Delaware" was created to inspire liberal reforms in the country where the painter was born, Germany.
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George Washington served as a general during the American Revolution. On December 25, 1776, he and his troops crossed the Delaware River. They led a surprise attack on Hessian forces. The Hessians were German troops hired by the British to fight for them. This was a key moment in the American Revolution. It was made famous in a painting by Emanuel Leutze. However, the painting is somewhat misleading. It does not tell the whole story about what happened.

Leutze was born in Germany, but he grew up in America. He finished the painting of Washington in 1851. It shows the general standing at the front of a ship. Washington is leading his troops in a surprise attack. An American flag waves above them. Leutze's painting has become famous. At 3.7 by 6.4 meters (12 by 21 feet), it is monumental. This painting has not only inspired patriotism, it has also led to some misunderstandings about Washington's attack.

What Really Happened that Day

Washington attacked the Hessian military base in New Jersey on Christmas Day 1776. About 1,400 Hessians were there. At the time, Washington's soldiers were in bad shape. Supplies were low, and the soldiers were losing hope. Washington knew he needed a victory to turn things around.

The general and his 2,400 soldiers sailed on cargo ships. They ranged from 12 to 18 meters (40 to 60 feet) long. The waters of the Delaware River were icy. The soldiers were hit with cold rain. By midnight it had turned to a mix of sleet and snow.

This was different from what was in Leutze's painting. For example, Washington's boat was much larger than it was painted. The flag was different, too. The one in the painting was not actually designed until after the event took place. Leutze's painting did not show exactly what happened. It was more of a painting of what the event stood for. He hoped it would inspire a greater purpose.

A Painting that Continues To Inspire

Washington's surprise attack was a key victory for the Americans. Once his troops landed, their execution was excellent. The Hessians surrendered before morning. Over time, the story of the attack grew in legend. In large part, that was because of Leutze's painting. He completed it in 1851. That was a time of division in the United States. Leutze painted a very diverse group of Americans in Washington's boat. Leutze wanted the painting to suggest a sense of national pride and unity. Today, the painting hangs in a museum in New York. It continues to inspire people.

Media Credits

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Tyson Brown, National Geographic Society
National Geographic Society
Production Managers
Gina Borgia, National Geographic Society
Jeanna Sullivan, National Geographic Society
Program Specialists
Sarah Appleton, National Geographic Society, National Geographic Society
Margot Willis, National Geographic Society
Clint Parks
Roza Kavak
Last Updated

October 19, 2023

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