Corrections or additions?
This article by Pat Summers was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper
dated Wednesday, December 23, 1998. All rights reserved.
New View of the Crossing
It would have been a dream trade for George Washington
and artist Bob Beck: swap the cold, sleety weather the general
on the Delaware River in 1776 for the balmy, spring-like conditions
Beck experienced at the same site earlier this month — but hold
the full moon and low water mark.
More than a year ago, after deciding to do "Washington Crossing
the Delaware" his way, Beck applied his considerable painterly
and intuitive skills to the task. The result, "Second
a 40-inch high by 60-inch wide oil on board, was unveiled December
3 at the visitors center of Washington Crossing Historic Park, where
it remains on view through Wednesday, December 30. It’s not your
idea of this famous scene, largely because it’s so far from the now
ubiquitous vision of 19th-century painter Emmanuel Gottlieb Leutze,
long associated with both the event and the Washington Crossing
center. (A digital copy of his famous history painting has now
the painted reproduction that was removed, amid much acrimony, from
the center’s auditorium about a year ago.)
Observing that Leutze’s version of history includes the wrong flag,
the wrong time of day, the wrong position of Washington in the boat
— and the wrong boat (but who’s counting?) — Beck, who doesn’t
usually tackle history paintings, says his "Second Crossing"
sprang from his impulse to "put you there." He regards the
Leutze painting as "theater," noting that even modern-day
re-enactors seem more interested in re-creating this potent painting
than the event.
Now headquartered in Lumberville, the artist also lived in Bristol
for a while. Day and night, sun and snow, he knows the Delaware. About
Washington’s trip, he says, "We’re talking dead of night in a
sleet storm. Not a lot of available light. I know what I’d see —
if you could see anything."
Beck’s preparation for taking on this iconic scene included reading,
measuring, and drawing the 40-foot Durham boat replicas housed at
Washington Crossing, and witnessing last year’s re-enactment. Within
days of that event, he had made a 5-inch high by 10-inch wide oil
sketch of his painting-to-be. "This is black cat in the coal bin
stuff," he says. "Real dark. You’re not going to see the
and bullets. You have to imagine a lot."
In a few weeks last summer, Beck completed the bigger picture,
with "dry painting" the scene in his head, figuring out how
to handle different parts. Depicting the sleet may have been the most
hazardous part of his own crossing. First, he moved his thumb over
the bristles of a big brush to dust the panel surface with a spray
of cool-gray dots, suggesting a veil of sleet behind the boat, down
to the horizon line. His very last step was a second "sleet"
dusting from top to bottom of the painting, this time with a warmer
gray tone, to suggest the sleet in front of the boat. "If I’d
had a drop the size of a dime, there’d be no fixing it," he says.
"It would have been all over."
Now completed, the picture "shows" a blurry boatload of (we
assume) soldiers, a flag, and, somewhere there in the dark, General
George Washington — probably in a coast guard-approved position.
In the foreground are sharply-defined ice floes; in the background,
glowing orange campfires on the Jersey shore. Sleet combines with
the dark of night to make individuals indistinguishable.
Which goes right along with what has been called the "obscuring
veil of myth" long shrouding Washington. In fact, Beck’s sidestep
away from distinguishing the general in his picture may be well timed,
given the current flap about Washington (yes, it’s his turn now),
DNA tests that are being sought, a slave named "Venus," and
reputed illegitimate offspring. (He had no legitimate children.) In
"Second Crossing," Washington is neither "father of the
country" nor demigod solely, just one of the boys in Beck’s boat.
And adding injury to insult, there may not even be a boat for this
year’s Washington Crossing re-enactment. The area’s near-drought
have so lowered the Delaware’s water level that Vinson says
may be forced to make a symbolic crossing taking the bridge. But the
real capper came with the widely published photo of the
(who has declined to ride a horse) posed in military uniform with
saber drawn, astride his 1100 c.c. Kawasaki motorcycle.
Now, that’s de-mythologizing with a vengeance. Bob Beck has done it
— Pat Summers
Visitors Center, Routes 32 and 532, Washington Crossing, 215-493-4076.
Bob Beck’s new look at an old image, on exhibit through December 30.
Park , Routes 32 and 532, Washington Crossing, 215-493-4076. The
222nd anniversary of George Washington’s Crossing of the Delaware
is observed with a full-scale reenactment. Visitors Center opens at
11 a.m. where a documentary film is shown, and Colonial soldiers in
uniform will be in the historic village of Taylorsville. Beginning
at 1 p.m., the revolutionary troops will assemble along the banks
of the Delaware to be addressed by General Washington before the
by Durham boats or bridge, depending on river conditions. $1 parking
In the 1980s, in the course of researching the book
that would become, "The Day is Ours! An Inside View of the Battles
of Trenton and Princeton, November 1776 – January 1777" (newly
in paperback from Rutgers University Press), historian and journalist
William Dwyer found himself spending time with a whole new group of
folks. For many of the participants of the war — from American,
British, and Hessian soldiers to myriad fearful and ambivalent
— kept a record of their experiences during the revolution, and
Dwyer became their avid collector and listener. And it is through
the diaries, journals, letters and memoirs of these men and women
that Dwyer lets them tell the story, in their own words, of the events
that made a nation. Writes one critic, "Dwyer has put together
a wonderful, lively account that reflects a reporter’s respect for
quotes from eyewitnesses. He presents the facts and lets history speak
Dwyer is a veteran journalist in both senses of the word. During World
War II he was correspondent for the Stars and Stripes, the armed
newspaper, for which he covered the Fourth Infantry Division. Now
82, Dwyer is a columnist for the Times of Trenton, a job he has held
since the early 1960s. He was press secretary to Governor Richard
Hughes for four years. He has also taught adult education at Rider
College and written for the New York Times, Commonweal, Christian
Science Monitor, and New Jersey Monthly. Married to Marjorie Wright
Dwyer, they are the parents of Suzanna, Princeton Class of ’93 and
captain of the ice hockey team, now teaching at St. Mark’s School
in Boston. He dedicates "The Day is Ours!" to his "kid
brother," First Lieutenant Edward Thomas Dwyer Jr., a pilot who
died in service in October 1944 on a mission from India to China.
In Chapter 31 of his highly readable 385-page history of the three
historic battles that took place so close to home, Dwyer invites his
readers to share the hours before Washington’s historic crossing
the thoughts and memories of some of its lowliest helpers:
Bill Dwyer’s View:
Boats in Readiness
It was Christmas afternoon and the Continentals under
General Washington’s direct command in Bucks County — many of
whom indeed had neither coat, show, nor stocking, nor scarce anything
else to cover their bodies — were either preparing to march or
already on the move. An hour or so before the sun would set at 4:35
o’clock, John Greenwood, the 16-year-old fifer from Massachusetts,
trudged out of Newtown in formation with his company and headed
toward the Delaware River. He was still suffering from "the camp
itch" and it showed in the way he gimped along. It was not as
painful as it had been on the march from Ticonderoga — ointment
had eased the pain considerable — but his thighs were still raw
and scabbed. Greenwood was not just a fifer now; he was carrying a
musket and about 60 rounds of ammunition stuffed into various pockets.
And three days’ cooked rations (heavily salted meat and hard bread).
This, he figured, must be it, the marching order they had been
But where were they going? Faithful to the enlisted man’s
credo, he was certain that anywhere at all would be better than where
he had been. But where would it be this time?
"None but the first officers knew where we were going or what
we were going about," Greenwood would later recall, "for it
was a secret expedition, and we, the bulk of the men coming from
knew not the disposition of the army we were then in, nor anything
about the country. This was not unusual, however, as I never heard
soldiers say anything, nor ever saw them trouble themselves, as to
where they were or where they were led. It was enough for them to
know that wherever the officers commanded they must go, be it through
fire and water, for it was all the same owing to the impossibility
of being in a worse condition than their present one, and therefore
the men always liked to be kept moving in expectation of bettering
In all, some 2,400 Continentals were on the way to the assembly area
centering on Samuel McKonkey’s ferry, eight miles up the Delaware
from Trenton (and thus also known as Eight-Mile Ferry) (note: now
Washington Crossing, Pennsylvania). "The regiments have had their
evening parade," one of Washington’s aides notes, "but instead
of returning to their quarters are marching toward the ferry. It is
fearfully cold and raw and a snowstorm settling in. The wind is
and beasts in the faces of the men. It will be a terrible night for
the soldiers who have no shoes. Some of them have tied old rags around
their feet; others are barefoot but I have not heard a man
It had been a mostly sunny day, with the thermometer around 32 degrees
and the wind light out of the north. In the afternoon, however, there
had been a shift of the wind and a falling barometer; a heavy storm
of snow and sleet from the south was on its way. Although
in," it would not arrive until about an hour before midnight.
Under orders, the Continentals marched in silence toward the ferry
house. "A profound silence to be enjoined," Washington had
ordered, "and not man to quit his ranks on the pain of death."
of the Battles of Trenton and Princeton, November 1776 – January
Rutgers University Press, 1998; 448 pages; paper, $20.
Barrack Street, Trenton, 609-396-1776. Saturday and Sunday,
26 and 27, noon to 5 p.m.
Trenton’s revolutionary history comes alive through guided tours of
the newly renovated Old Barracks Museum, the William Trent House,
the Friends Meeting House, St. Michael’s Church, and the Alexander
Douglass House. Both days, $7.50 adults; $3 children.
of the movie "Ten Crucial Days," each hour from 1 to 4 p.m.
From 5 to 6 p.m., fifers and drummers march through the streets.
British army, and their German Hessian mercenaries do battle in
Trenton at the 222nd Anniversary Celebration of the Battles of
Opening ceremony for the First Battle of Trenton begins at 12:30 p.m.
at the Old Barracks.
At 1 p.m. the cannons will boom in the First Battle of Trenton that
begins at Battle Monument and at the corner of Calhoun and West State
streets, proceeding to Mill Hill Park. At 3 p.m. the Second Battle
reenactment begins in front of the First Presbyterian Church and
to Mill Hill Park.
In other commemorative events, at 2:15 p.m., at Mill Hill Playhouse,
author James S. Pula speaks on the Polish contribution in training
Washington’s Army for battle, and autograph his book, "Thaddeus
Kosciuszko, the Purest Son of Liberty. At from 2:15 to 5 p.m. at Cafe
Ole, author Arthur Lefkowitz autographs his book, "The Long
the Calamitous American Defense of New Jersey, 1776."
At 2:45 p.m., at the First Presbyterian Church, there is a Memorial
Service for the Slain.
Free parking lots are located at South Warren and Lafayette Street,
and at the Trent House, with free shuttle bus service to the Old
Museum both days. Call for directions or visit website at
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