Historic Pelham

Presenting the rich history of Pelham, NY in Westchester County: current historical research, descriptions of how to research Pelham history online and genealogy discussions of Pelham families.

Monday, March 07, 2016

Does Pelham Have a Connection to the Painting "Washington Crossing the Delaware" by Emanuel Leutze?

Most Pelhamites likely have wandered the galleries of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and have admired the massive oil on canvas painting of "Washington Crossing the Delaware" by Emanuel Leutze.  An image of the iconic painting appears immediately below.


Washington Crossing the Delaware, Oil on Canvas, 149 Inches
by 255 Inches, Now Hanging in the Metropolitan Museum of Art
in New York City, by Emanuel Leutze (American, Schwäbisch Gmünd
1816–1868 Washington, D.C.).  NOTE:  Click on Image to Enlarge.

The painting depicts George Washington standing near the bow of a boat as he is rowed across the Delaware River by a group of soldiers on the night of December 25-26, 1776 to lead the Continental Army in a successful surprise attack on 1,400 Hessian troops holding Trenton, New Jersey.  

Washington's Surprise Attack on the Hessians at Trenton

Beginning about 11:00 p.m. on Christmas night, Washington began moving portions of his army across the half-frozen Delaware River from three locations.  Overnight he moved about 2,400 soldiers across the river, but two more divisions totaling another 3,000 men with artillery pieces failed to rendezvous at the appointed time and were not moved across the river.  

On the morning of December 26, about 1,400 Hessian defenders were sleeping off the effects of a Christmas celebration the evening before.  Washington separated his men into two columns and approached Trenton stealthily.  The Continentals surprised the Hessian troops, quickly overwhelmed their defenses and, by 9:30 a.m., had the entire town surrounded.  Although several hundred Hessians escaped, Washington captured nearly 1,000 prisoners and lost only four Americans in the attack.  

Although historians continue to debate the importance of the battle, it seems to have had little strategic significance.  Instead, it served as a morale-booster and emboldened the Americans after they had suffered a string of defeats at the hands of British and German troops.

A Little More About the Painting

The painting by Emanuel Leutze has become an American icon.  The one hanging in the Metropolitan Museum of Art is not, however, the original painting.  The original hung in the Kunsthalle in Bremen, Germany, but was destroyed in a British air raid in 1942.  Leutze painted two additional versions of the scene, one of which once hung in the West Wing of the White House but now is part of the collections of The Minnesota Marine Art Museum in Winona, Minnesota.  The other, of course, is a full-sized replica by Leutze of the original destroyed in 1942.  It is that replica that hangs in The Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan.

There are a host of fascinating stories involving the Leutze painting that hangs in the Met.  For example, in 2007, researchers located a photograph of the painting taken by the studio of Matthew Brady in 1864 and discovered that the simple frame in which the painting was displayed was not the original frame.  The photograph established that the original frame was a massive 12 feet by 21 feet hand-carved frame topped with a massive eagle atop a crest that is fourteen inches wide.  The painting is now displayed in a replica frame hand-carved by artisans of Eli Wilner & Company to match the Brady photograph.  

In the painting, the man standing behind General Washington holding the American flag is Lieutenant James Monroe who, of course, later became the fifth President of the United States of America.  He is, however, holding an American flag that did not exist at the time Washington crossed the Delaware.  It is the "Stars and Stripes" whose design was not specified by the Continental Congress until June 14, 1777 and reputedly flew for the first time on September 3, 1777, nearly nine months after Washington and his army captured Trenton.  

Is There a Pelham Connection?

Washington and his men crossed the Delaware only nine weeks or so after the Battle of Pelham on October 18, 1776.  Pelhamites long have recounted that the painting "Washington Crossing the Delaware" depicts Marblehead Mariners who fought in the Battle of Pelham rowing the boat.   

It turns out that among the forces that rowed Washington's troops across the Delaware that fateful night were the Marblehead Mariners led by Colonel John Glover who headed the American forces during the Battle of Pelham.  But, Is the tale that the Marblehead Mariners who fought in the Battle of Pelham are depicted rowing Washington across the Delaware a true tale?

First we can dispatch a part of the tale.  Colonel Glover's Marblehead Mariners did not actually fight in the Battle of Pelham.  Colonel Glover left his men at his orginal encampment to serve as a reserve force to slow the British and German troops if, at the close of the Battle of Pelham, the British and Germans had chased Colonel Glover and the remaining troops he led during the Battle of Pelham across the Hutchinson River toward Washington's army as it moved from northern Manhattan toward White Plains.  The British and German troops, however, did not chase Glover and the men he led across the Hutchinson River.  Rather, they ended the chase at the river, losing an opportunity to attack Washington's main army.

The question remains, however.  Though Glover's Marblehead Mariners did not fight in the Battle of Pelham, are they depicted rowing Washington and Monroe across the Delaware?  The most likely answer seems to be that although the Marblehead Mariners were among those who moved Washington and his troops across the River, they were not the only ones. Indeed, many watermen from the Philadelphia area joined the cause and helped move Washington's men that night.  Moreover, many believe -- but have not established with certainty -- that the soldiers rowing the boat in the painting are not intended to depict specific individuals or members of particular units but, rather, are intended to depict a symbolic cross-section of the young American States.  According to one popular account:

"The people in the boat represent a cross-section of the American colonies, including a man in a Scottish bonnet and a man of African descent facing backward next to each other in the front, western riflemen at the bow and stern, two farmers in broad-brimmed hats near the back (one with bandaged head), and an androgynous rower in a red shirt, possibly meant to be a woman in man's clothing.  There is also a man at the back of the boat wearing what appears to be Native American garb, possibly representing colonial appropriation of previously indigenous holdings, but also possibly to represent the idea that all people in the new United States of America were represented as present in the boat along with Washington on his way to victory and success."

Source:  "Washington Crossing the Delaware" in WIKIPEDIA:  The Free Encyclopedia (visited Mar. 5, 2016).  

Moreover, Colonel Glover's Marblehead Mariners had distinctive uniforms that do not appear to be depicted among any of those on board the boat in the Leutze painting.  The Marblehead Mariners of Marblehead, Massachusetts were seamen whose uniform consisted of a short blue seaman's jacket, tarred pants, and woolen caps.  None of the soldiers in the boat appear to be in such a uniform.

In short, though Pelhamites long have told the story that the famed Marblehead Mariners of Colonel John Glover, who led American troops in the Battle of Pelham are depicted rowing Washington and James Monroe in the painting "Washington Crossing the Delaware," the story seems apocryphal.  It is another fascinating legend that provides insight into our Town's magnificent history, but it seems to be just that -- a legend.

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