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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On the night of December 25, 1776, General George Washington and his troops crossed the Delaware River. They launched a surprise attack on Hessian forces in New Jersey. The Hessians were hired German soldiers who fought for the British. This was a key moment in the American Revolution. It was made famous in a painting by Emanuel Leutze. However, the painting does not tell the whole story about what actually happened that cold day in December.

Leutze was born in Germany, but he grew up in America. He hoped to inspire reforms in his home country during the 1850s. Leutze's painting shows Washington standing with one knee bent at the front of a ship. The general is leading his troops in a surprise attack, an American flag waving above them. Leutze's painting has become famous. At 3.7 by 6.4 meters (12 by 21 feet), it is monumental in both size and symbolism. This painting has not only inspired extreme patriotism, it has also led to some misunderstandings about Washington's surprise raid on Hessian forces.

Washington's Troops Were in Trouble

Washington attacked the Hessian military base in Trenton, New Jersey, on Christmas Day 1776. The victory inspired new hope for the Patriot Army. At the time, Washington's troops were in bad shape. Supplies were low, and the soldiers were losing hope that they would ever be able to defeat the British. Washington feared more troubles were ahead for the Continental Army. As losses mounted for the Americans, it became more difficult to retain soldiers. Many chose to desert rather than face a cold winter with limited supplies.

Washington understood the importance of a much-needed victory before the year let out. The group of about 1,400 Hessians at Trenton became his target. Washington had about 2,400 men. They were part of a larger plan that included two other crossings of American soldiers. However, only Washington and his men were successful in reaching the Hessians. Washington and his soldiers sailed on cargo ships that ranged from 12 to 18 meters (40 to 60 feet) in length. On the icy waters of the Delaware River, they were hit with a harsh rain. By midnight it had turned to a mix of sleet and snow.

The Attack that Became a Legend

This was very different from what was shown in Leutze's painting. For example, Washington's boat was much larger than it was painted. The flag in the image was not actually designed until after the event took place. Leutze's work was more of a painting of what the event symbolized. Although Leutze tried to be accurate, he also hoped to inspire a greater purpose. His painting has become intermixed with the history of the moment itself. That has made it difficult for some to separate the truth from the legend.

The Hessians were somewhat aware an attack was coming, thanks to the work of British spies. They did not fully expect Washington to attack. However, they knew it was possible. Constant false alarms along with bad weather gave Washington the surprise opening he needed to launch a successful attack. Once his army arrived onshore, their execution was excellent. The Hessians surrendered before morning and the Americans suffered few causalities. Stories of this bold American victory grew in legend as they reached other colonists.

The Painting Is an American Icon

Washington's surprise attack gave the Americans a huge confidence boost. The legend of that day has continued to grow in classrooms across the country. In large part, this is because of Emanuel Leutze's painting. The artist completed it during the 1850s, a time of division in the United States. He intended the work to suggest a sense of national pride and unity. Many studies have been done on Leutze's use of the Stars and Stripes flag or his placing of a diverse group of Americans in Washington's boat. These symbols helped create an American icon. Today, the painting hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. It continues to inspire people while reminding them of the challenges Washington and his men faced.

Media Credits

The audio, illustrations, photos, and videos are credited beneath the media asset, except for promotional images, which generally link to another page that contains the media credit. The Rights Holder for media is the person or group credited.

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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