Americans (both the people and their soldiers) were demoralized by Christmas of 1776. Five months after asserting their freedom from Britain, their commander-in-chief and his troops were losing key battles. Badly needing a victory, Washington made a decision that changed the momentum of the war. He, and his 2400 men, would cross the cold Delaware River on Christmas night.
Why pick this night? Washington knew that Hessian soldiers, fighting for Britain, liked to celebrate holidays. Christmas was a major holiday and the Hessians would not be battle-ready at their camp in Trenton, New Jersey. If the Americans could surprise them at night, the impact would be even greater for the Patriots.
It would not be easy to cross the river, however. It was cold and icy, making it hard for the boats to safely maneuver. Among the men who attempted the trip were James Madison and James Monroe (future American presidents), John Marshall (future Chief Justice of the United States) and future dueling rivals (Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton).
Despite the adverse conditions, the Americans made it safely to the other side (at 3:00 a.m.) where they regrouped and marched to Trenton. Surprising the Hessians (although not by cover of darkness), General Washington's forces took control within forty-five minutes, taking nine hundred Hessians as prisoners. Soon after, Washington and his troops also captured Princeton. Not only were both victories great morale-boosters, they also drove the British out of New Jersey.
The painting depicted above, created in Dusseldorf by Emanuel Leutze (1816-1868) around 1851, substitutes romantic effect for some historical facts. The crossing was at night, in the midst of driving sleet and snow. The "Betsy Ross" flag (with stars in a circle) was created about six months later. Prince Whipple (a legendary black patriot depicted in this scene) was in Baltimore during December of 1776. And James Monroe (one of Washington's trusted scouts and advisors shown holding the flag) was not (according to historical records) in the General's boat that night.
Notwithstanding, this work of art has become an iconic American treasure. Click on the image for a better look.
George Washington Crossing the Delaware, by Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze, 1851. The painting is large (more than twelve feet high and twenty-one feet long) and today is owned by the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Linked above: Washington, Crossing the Delaware. Lithograph by Currier & Ives, 1876. Library of Congress.
Also linked above: Surrender of the Hessian troops to General Washington. Lithograph by Henry Hoff, 1850. U.S. National Archives, image 148-GW-332
And ... Washington at Princeton on the 3rd of January, 1777. Lithograph by D. McLellan, 1853. U.S. National Archives, image 148-GW-331.