American iconoclasts made the painting a favorite target. They studied it with a skeptical eye and asked, "Is this the way that American history happened? Is it the way that history ever happens? Are people capable of acting in such a heroic manner?" Some answered all of those questions in the negative. Postmodernists deconstructed the painting in a different spirit, and insisted that it was a figment of the artist's imagination rather than a representation of objective historical reality, in which they deeply disbelieved. Debunkers attacked the painting in its details with high enthusiasm. Leutze's work, they argued, was riddled with historical error. The flag was inaccurate (the Stars and Stripes were not adopted until 1777). The boat was not correct (a ship's longboat, rather than the rivercraft that the army used). The river was wrong (more like the Rhine than the Delaware). The light was mistaken (the crossing took place at night). The ice was not right (jagged blue bergs rather than rounded white river floes). Washington was too old, and James Monroe was not young enough. The debunkers' favorite complaint was about the same detail that had inspired young Henry James: George Washington was not only standing in the boat, but standing on one leg, which they regarded as utterly ridiculous.
The debunkers were right about some of the details in the painting, but they were wrong about others, and they rarely asked about the accuracy of its major themes. To do so is to discover that the larger ideas in Emanuel Leutze's art are true to the history that inspired it. The artist was right in creating an atmosphere of high drama around the event, and a feeling of desperation among the soldiers in the boats. To search the writings of the men and women who were there (hundreds of firsthand accounts survive) is to find that they believed the American cause was very near collapse on Christmas night in 1776. In five months of heavy fighting after the Declaration of Independence, George Washington's army had suffered many disastrous defeats and gained no major victories. It had lost 90 percent of its strength. The small remnant who crossed the Delaware River were near the end of their resources, and they believed that another defeat could destroy the Cause, as they called it. The artist captured very accurately their sense of urgency, in what was truly a pivotal moment for American history.
Further, the painting is true to the scale of that event, which was small by the measure of other great happenings in American history. At Trenton on December 26, 1776, 2,400 Americans fought 1,500 Hessians in a battle that lasted about two hours. By contrast, at Antietam in the American Civil War, 115,000 men fought a great and terrible battle that continued for a day. The Battle of the Bulge, in the Second World War, involved more than a million men in fighting that went on for more than a month. By those comparisons, Washington's Crossing was indeed a very small event, and the artist was true to its dimensions.