Washington’s Crossing with Trenton Ferries, June 3, 2019, with David Price

We began with lunch, and Joe Teti called us to order at 12:30.  George, our Treasurer, reported a balance of $1604.91.  Acceptance of the treasurer’s report was moved, seconded, and voted affirmatively.

Carol Rogers kindly reported on the May meeting, as I was not able to attend.  Thanks,  Carol, for stepping in!

David Price joined us again to follow up his presentation in 2018 about unsung Continental heroes during the “Ten Crucial Days” of 1776-77.  His presentation today examined the “rest of the story,” the other resources that made the crossing and the successful engagement at Trenton possible for Washington and his army. 

He began with comments on The Crossing as rendered by artists, citing Paul Staiti’s 2016 book Of Arms and Artists.  Staiti argues that the paintings and prints of the Revolution, including the Crossing, were a key medium for educating a public of high but not universal literacy.  Of course, they also added mythic drama to national memory.  Major painters of scenes and portraits of the Revolutionary era include

Charles Wilson Peale’s portrait of George Washington
John Singleton Copley, portrait of Paul Revere
Benjamin West, Benjamin Franklin catching the lightning
Gilbert Stuart, Thomas Jefferson

Mythmakers especially sought to create George Washington as a national icon. Peale’s painting of Washington at the Battle of Princeton , showing the victorious Commander as cool, composed, and approachable, was used to recruit new troops and inspire civilians to resist British gold and sell their foodstuffs, horses, and cloth to the Continental Army.  Peale’s portrait was a composite evocation of Washington’s generalship at Princeton, showing events that did occur simultaneously, the aftermath with prisoners, and all of it framed by the rising sun behind him.

Price invited us to compare Peale’s Washington (right) with Allan Ramsey’s portrait of George III.(below)  Price suggested that Peale was in some degree “quoting” Ramsay, but to show the greater manliness of Washington along with his republican modesty.

John Trumbull, Signers of the Declaration of Independence

Similarly, but later, Price argued, the famous painting of the Crossing itself, done in 1851 by Emanuel Leutze, was designed to persuade liberal German reformers that they could win their own battles against entrenched power, that “untrained people” could prevail.

Lloyd Garrison’s version of the crossing, shown below, is actually a great deal more historically accurate, showing the artillery and horses crossing the river on a ferry moved by visible cables, and this version points to “the rest of the story.”  Building on Frank Dale’s book, “Delaware Diary: Episodes in the Life of a River,  Price let us know that the Delaware

hosted several ferries in 1776.  These were specially built to accommodate the rivers fast current.  They were moored to the opposite banks so that the ferry itself travelled across at an angle, mobilizing the force of the current to push the ferry barge across.

A 1777 sketch of the Bristol Ferry by Charles Willson Peale (below) illustrates the cable system more clearly than Garrison’s painting. 

Price emphasized that, without the ferries, Washington’s army would have had to make the march to and attack on Trenton without horses or artillery.  Lacking those resources, and the ability to carry all that to Princeton too, the “Ten Crucial Days” might have ended very differently.

Editor’s Note:  Symposium members’ attention is directed to the Riverwalk near the Riverview cemetery.  Signs posted along the walk offer additional history about Trenton’s ferries and the work they did to help the city to prosperity.  Renewing the scarred Plexiglas to make the excellent history more readable might be a worthwhile philanthropic target for the symposium.

Discussion with Mr. Price included the overall duration of the Crossing (12 hours) and an extended discussion of 18th century ferry mechanics, which I have not reproduced.  Perhaps interested parties could have a look at Frank Dale’s book noted above.

We adjourned at 1:22 pm. 

We will meet next on Sept 23, at Blooming Grove Inn.

Respectfully submitted,

Shan Holt, secretary