28. Washington’s Dramatic Pose as He Crossed the Delaware Was Great Art, But Historically Inaccurate
Leutze’s painting depicts the crossing of the Delaware as if it took place in the dawn’s early sunlight, which is inaccurate. The whole idea was that the crossing and the subsequent attack should surprise the enemy. So the Patriots crossed the river around midnight on the night of December 25-26, 1776, not at the break of dawn. Sunlight however does give the painting a nice glimmer that adds to the drama. From an artistic perspective, its addition – even if inaccurate – was a good thing. The actual crossing, as depicted above by Mort Kunstler, known for the historic accuracy of his work, was not as cinematic as Leutze’s depiction. George Washington did not cross the Delaware standing at the prow of a rowboat. That probably would have caused him to fall into the icy river or swamp the boat. Instead, he and his men crossed in flat boats.
Rather than small boats that carried just a few men, the flat boats used by the Patriots were more like barges, packed with men, horses, and cannons. And they would not have been rowed across, but pulled by wires strung across the river, helped along by men who pushed poles into the river bottom. Another dramatically brilliant but historically inaccurate bit about Leutze’s painting is the presence of mini icebergs on the river. In reality, the Delaware would have been cluttered with ice sheets. And even on a more secure flatboat, Washington would not have crossed in a heroic pose at the boat’s front, one leg dramatically placed in front of the other. Instead, he would have crossed in a more sensible manner, well balanced and probably grasping something like a well-secured cannon.