In the months following the signing of the Declaration of Independence by the Continental Congress, British Redcoats had trounced George Washington’s troops and hope of independence was fading. Exhausted, cold, hungry, and lacking supplies, discouraged soldiers left as enlistments expired. Some were even deserting.
Desperate, Washington appealed directly to his men. “You have done all that I asked you to do and more than could be reasonably expected,” he said. “But the country is at stake. If you will consent to stay only one month longer, you will render that service to the cause of liberty.”
A few hours later, in the dark before dawn, he led 2,400 men in small boats from Pennsylvania across the ice-choked Delaware River to what is now Titusville, N. J. Waiting at the Johnson Ferry House for his troops to reassemble, Washington’s plans were uncertain, but part of what he intended was keeping his soldiers so busy they couldn’t desert.
But what began as a diversion became the victories at Trenton, eight miles away, and at Princeton. The British defeats turned the Revolutionary War around and, some historians claim, placed Washington on the path to the presidency.
Every Christmas day, costumed re-enactors commemorate this pivotal event in America’s struggle for independence at Washington Crossing State Park at Titusville. This year, the crossing’s 227th anniversary, they’ll do it again.
That crossing at Titusville also led to what may be the most recognized icon of American history—German artist Emmanuel Leutze’s dramatic painting (1851) of the crossing, Washington standing in the bow of a rowboat, the stars and stripes unfurling behind him as oarsmen maneuver around great chunks of ice.
But it’s not accurate. “Except for Washington’s face, probably copied from a portrait, the painting is the artist’s stylized, romanticized vision,” says state archivist Karl L. Niederer, who lives in Titusville (population 3,603). Leutze never saw the boat, nor the Delaware. Otherwise, he’d have known the river freezes in patches, not chunks. And Washington’s boat, a Durham, was three times the size of that depicted. “Washington would have tipped the boat in the picture if he’d stood up,” Niederer says.
A replica of a Durham, together with Revolutionary era objects found around Titusville, is displayed at Washington Crossing State Park. As new objects are discovered, they sometimes “alter our perception of the past,” says Park Superintendent James Appfel. “History isn’t static.”
For the thousands who come to Titusville’s Christmas Day re-enactment, however, it may seem nothing has changed. The woodsy landscape looks much as it did during Washington’s time, though some of the small farms that existed until well into the 20th century are now gone.
Ruth C. Hargeaves, who arrived as a bride in 1938, wrote about changes in Titusville. Since the town had no newspaper, she cranked out a mimeographed newsletter that recorded the history of the village. In 1958, the last issue of The Dela-Gravure reported on an old locomotive wheel rim and hammer used to sound the alarm before the town’s firehouse got an electric siren. She also wrote about celebrations. In addition to the crossing, the village celebrates Washington’s Birthday and the Fourth of July. Independence Day festivities are especially jubilant, an all-day affair with a parade, contests, and fireworks.
Henry Hirschmann, who owns one of only two businesses in the village, wants Titusville to remain as it is. “Why would we want to change?” he asks. “We have the best.” He and his wife Betty fell in love with Titusville on a bicycle tour. They later returned to explore the village and visit stores. “I’d like to own a shop like this someday,” he said in the town’s clock shop.
“You can,” said the proprietor. They talked terms. A handshake sealed the sale.
A German Jew who fled the Holocaust, Hirschmann appreciates the liberty for which Washington fought. On the 50th anniversary of his arrival in this country, he presented a clock to Titusville town hall. He grins. “I pass it every time I pay taxes.”
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