During the American Revolutionary War, on the evening of December 25, 1776, General George Washington led 2,400 Continental Army soldiers across the very icy Delaware River to attack the pro-British Hessian troops camped in Trenton, New Jersey. Our collective memory of this attack is strengthened by the famous oil painting by Emanuel Leutze, painted fifty years after the event. This painting (or the engraving of it that was published a few years later by M. Knoedler) is reproduced in nearly, every American history textbook.
Why did Washington choose Christmas night to cross the Delaware River? He knew the Hessian troops liked to celebrate holidays, and would not be expecting them. From their Highlights of the American Revolution series, Awesome Stories tells the story of both the historical event and the famous oil painting by Leutze. In addition to the Leutze painting, there is a link to an 1876 Currier & Ives hand-colored lithograph with the same title. To see it, look for the linked phrase "cold and icy."
"During the night of December 25, Washington led his troops across the ice-swollen Delaware about 9 miles north of Trenton. The weather was horrendous and the river treacherous. Raging winds combined with snow, sleet and rain to produce almost impossible conditions." This article includes a small map, showing Washington's approach on Trenton, and a first person report writtten by Elisha Bostwick, a soldier in the Continental Army. You'll find Bostwick's tale about half-way down the page. Note that he calls Washington "his Excellency."
The huge (12 ft by 21 ft) oil painting that is on display in New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art was not Leutze's first painting of Washington crossing the Delaware. "Leutze began his first version of this subject in 1849. It was damaged in his studio by fire in 1850 and, although restored and acquired by the Bremen Kunsthalle, was again destroyed in a bombing raid in 1942." The painting owned by the Met, was started in 1850. Visit this museum page to learn more.
The site where Washington led his men across the Delaware River is now a historic park with an excellent website created by the Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission. This particular section tells the history of the event. It includes articles such as "What Was a 'Hessian'?"(a backgrounder on the German troops that Washington defeated) and "What's Wrong with This Painting?" (a look at where Leutze's painting strays from the historical truth.)
This short article points out the African-American oarsmen in Leutze's painting. "The historical figure whom he represents is believed to be Prince Whipple, an enslaved African who was emancipated during the war, and 'body-guard to Gen. Whipple, of New Hampshire, who was Aid to General Washington.'" Listed under Related Entries, is an article about Thomas Sully's painting of Washington crossing the Delaware. It was commissioned by South Carolina in 1819.