4. George Washington’s Unexpected Turn to Humor
The portrayal of George Washington in Washington Crossing the Delaware is true to the essence of what is known of the man. His style was heavy on projecting an aura of detached dignity and a wall of formality that separated him from subordinates. It was not true, however, to Washington’s actual conduct during the crossing: it was one of the rare occasions when the general let down the formality, and cracked jokes. Washington’s cold, hungry, and demoralized trooped clambered into boats on a frigid winter night, made even more miserable by driving sleet. When it was Washington’s turn to get into a boat, he looked at Henry Knox, his overweight artillery chief, and said: “Shift your fat ass, Harry! But don’t swamp the damn boat!”
All things considered, it was not a comedy gem. But any levity from George Washington in public, especially on such a serious occasion, was highly unusual. At first, the men were stunned, and stood around looking at each other in shocked disbelief. Then somebody chuckled, and before long, contagious laughter rippled throughout the entire force, as Washington’s comment was spread and repeated. With their spirits lifted, the Revolutionaries crossed the river, and fell upon the enemy in Trenton, where they killed, wounded, and captured about a thousand men, for the loss of only two dead and five wounded Americans.