That was the residence of the principal citizen, all the way from the suburbs of New Orleans to the edge of St. Louis . . . Over the middle of the mantel, engraving -- Washington crossing the Delaware; on the wall by the door, copy of it done in thunder-and-lightning crewel by the young ladies -- work of art which would have made Washington hesitate about crossing, if he could have foreseen what advantage to be taken of it.
--Mark Twain, 1883
" Washington's crossing!" the stranger said with a bright smile of recognition. Then a dark frown passed across his face. "Was it like the painting?" he said. "Did it really happen that way?"
The image that he had in mind is one of the folk-memories that most Americans share. It represents an event that happened on Christmas night in 1776, when a winter storm was lashing the Delaware Valley with sleet and snow. In our mind's eye, we see a great river choked with ice, and a long line of little boats filled with horses, guns, and soldiers. In the foreground is the heroic figure of George Washington.
The painting is familiar to us in a general way, but when we look again its details take us by surprise. Washington's small boat is crowded with thirteen men. Their dress tells us that they are soldiers from many parts of America, and each of them has a story that is revealed by a few strokes of the artist's brush. One man wears the short tarpaulin jacket of a New England seaman; we look again and discover that he is of African descent. Another is a recent Scottish immigrant, still wearing his Balmoral bonnet. A third is an androgynous figure in a loose red shirt, maybe a woman in man's clothing, pulling at an oar.
At the bow and stern of the boat are hard-faced western riflemen in hunting shirts and deerskin leggings. Huddled between the thwarts are farmers from Pennsylvania and New Jersey, in blanket coats and broad-brimmed hats. One carries a countryman's double-barreled shotgun. The other looks very ill, and his head is swathed in a bandage. A soldier beside them is in full uniform, a rarity in this army; he wears the blue coat and red facings of Haslet's Delaware Regiment. Another figure wears a boat cloak and an oiled hat that a prosperous Baltimore merchant might have used on a West Indian voyage; his sleeve reveals the facings of Smallwood's silk-stocking Maryland Regiment. Hidden behind them is a mysterious thirteenth man. Only his weapon is visible; one wonders who he might have been.