Over the recent holiday weekend, we went on a road trip like thousands of other inhabitants of the United States. We went to Washington Crossing State Park in New Jersey where there is a small museum and memorial to mark the spot where George Washington made his daring 1776 Christmas attack on Trenton by crossing the frozen Delaware river. The revolutionary armies boosted the morale of their side by capturing about 900 Hessians of the mercenary regiments of Colonel Johann Rall, Gen. Knyphausen and Gen. von Lossberg. This small battle was important because it was a victory for the revolutionary forces after a series of setbacks. They had been driven out of New York and New Jersey between August and November 1776 by Gen. William Howe’s redcoat armies. Retiring to Pennsylvania, Washington developed the plan to cross the Delaware and launch a surprise attack on the Hessians at Trenton.
The poor principality of Hesse-Cassel lay in the fragmented area we now know as Germany. It was a good recruiting ground for European powers looking for mercenaries to bolster their existing militaries. This business was also a good revenue-generating scheme for the rulers of the smaller German princely states. The Thirty Years War (1618–1648) had reduced nobles to poverty and the poor to destitution. Hesse-Cassel had been overrun during the Seven Years’ War (1756–1763). Its ruler and feudal classes earned revenues by hiring out their sturdy peasantry as mercenary soldiers in other powers’ wars. Prince Frederick II of Hesse-Cassel was particularly active in this business. Of him, Frederick the Great of Prussia wrote to Voltaire in 1776: “If he had come out of my school, he would not have turned Catholic, he would not have sold his subjects to the English as one sells cattle to have their throats cut. This last act is in no way compatible with the character of a prince who poses as the preceptor of monarchs. The pursuit of a sordid interest is the sole cause of this unworthy proceeding.”
The Landgrave of Hesse-Cassel probably didn’t bother much about such homilies. He made 8.5 million taler from the soldier trade and an additional 12 million taler from hiring out his subjects to fight against the colonists during the American Revolution. The Hessians had already fought for the British in putting down the 1745 Jacobite uprising as well as during the French and Indian Wars in North America. For Hessian mercenaries to fight for the British against the American colonists was thus not entirely a novel departure in colonial warfare. Prince Frederick sent approximately 18,000 soldiers to fight for the British. They were disliked by the colonists as barbarians and aliens although the colonists would often propagandize captured Hessians in order to win them over to their side.
The peaceful promenade and the pretty setting of Washington Crossing State Park are a reminder that there are still scenic parts to the otherwise drab and industrial state of New Jersey. The Delaware river flows quickly here and one can only imagine the effort it took Washington’s soldiers to cross the half-frozen waters on that Christmas night in order to surprise the Hessians. As a contemporary poem put it:
Our object was the Hessian band,
That dared invade fair freedom’s land,
And quarter in that place.
Great Washington, he led us on,
Whose streaming flag in storm or sun,
Had never known disgrace
History is written, of course, by victors, and often painted by them too. As in the poem above, the iconic visual representations of Washington crossing the Delaware usually show him standing determinedly on the prow of a boat, a comrade clutching the revolutionary colors, both gazing steadfastly at the opposite shore while the soaked oarsmen labor to get the whole crew across.
Emaneul Leutze (1816–1868) painted two versions of the famous painting. The first was owned by an insurance company and then acquired by the Bremen museum. This was destroyed during World War II. Luckily, Leutze also painted another version of the composition that the Metropolitan Museum in New York bought in 1897. The painting no doubt resonated differently with German and American audiences but since the Bremen painting no longer exists, we can only conjecture. In American representational history, the painting has come to mean determination against all odds, resistance against imperial hegemony, a longing for freedom, and of course the great horizon of hope opening up as rays of Enlightenment reason cut through the darkness of despotism.
But, if there is grandeur in the iconic and the “great men of history” style of art, there is a quiet nobility in the simple truths of history. We do not know the inner thoughts of all the soldiers who followed Washington but we know that they followed him in simple crafts that were almost raft-like in their construction. This replica at the Washington Crossing State Park shows that the crossing was probably a lot more of a surreptitious affair (it had to be — it was a surprise attack) than either the poetry or the paintings claim. George Washington would most definitely not have been standing heroically in the simple craft seen below:
Like the soldiers who made it across, these vessels show solidity, strength and character in their plainness. We do not know the thoughts of those fighters but these artefacts show us those who built these crafts were skillful and resourceful. The commanders who led these soldiers were also quite likely white supremacists, for many were slave owners, including Washington. Emanuel Leutze’s depictions of Americans, on the other hand, reflected the yearnings of those Germans who wanted liberal reforms in Diisseldorf. In Leutze’s mind those who sailed across the perilous Delaware to liberty were a cross-section of Americans like him — there is an African-American, a woman, possibly a native American accompanying Washington in the painting. In other words, immigrants chasing the American dream. And just like the dream, the ideal and the actuality are mis-aligned but each slightly real in its own way to the dreamer and the participant. Who knows, perhaps Leutze might even have wanted to sneak in a few renegade Hessians into the painting. After all, of the 18,000 soldiers who were sent by Prince Frederick, 3000 stayed behind for there was nothing to return to in the feudal backwater of Hesse-Cassel. Yesterday’s enemies were today’s comrades and tomorrow’s fellow citizens.