John Godzieba not only looks like the Washington in Princeton University Art Museum’s 1784 painting of “George Washington at the Battle of Princeton,” but he is standing in for him.
Godzieba, recently reappointed by the Friends of Washington Crossing Historic Park to perform Washington, will lead the Revolutionary Army across the Delaware River for the park’s 60th Christmas Day re-enactment of the event that changed the tides of America’s War for Independence. A rehearsal for the crossing re-enactment is set for this Sunday, December 9 (see details below).
While the 53-year-old lieutenant with the Bristol Township Police Department calls re-enacting history a hobby, his involvement and dedication suggests more.
“I was a terrible history student. But I developed an interest in the 18th century,” says Godzieba who attended the now closed Marist Prep in Penndel, PA, before studying at Drexel and Temple universities. Initially a chemistry student, he changed to criminal justice and has served with the Bristol police for 33 years.
Then in 1992 a chance advertisement in a local newspaper brought the man who would be Washington into living history. The ad was for volunteers for the Fifth Pennsylvania Regiment. That group commemorates the one formed by Pennsylvania Revolutionary War hero “Mad” Anthony Wayne and involved fighters from Bucks County. Its contemporary patriots recreate military life, customs, and events to inform the public about colonial soldiery and the war.
“I went to an initial meeting that ironically was held at Washington Crossing Historic Park. I liked what I heard,” says the Philadelphia native whose father worked as a welder for the historic Baldwin Locomotive Company.
The historic re-enactor entered the regiment as a private. His wife, Joanne, soon joined as a camp follower. “A lot of soldiers would bring their wives along,” says Godzieba, adding that it “bothered Washington because women and children were riding on the wagons and slowing them down and using rations.”
But this Washington enjoys his wife’s participation in regiment activities that have taken them as far north as Quebec City, where the regiment enacted the Battle of Quebec for 60,000 spectators.
Godzieba says that through dedication and experience he was promoted to an officer who oversaw troop movements during re-enactments. Eventually he thought that he could do a credible job of performing Washington for the public and decided to enter the auditions that the park hosts every three years.
The audition process involves an application letter stating why the applicant should be selected, a resume of re-enactment experiences, and a 4 x 6 inch photograph of the candidate dressed as Washington. Then each person meets with a panel of seven judges who will evaluate each applicant on his ability to look the part and evaluate his knowledge of both the American Revolution and Washington.
“The panel gives you a list of questions that deal with his life and battles in 1776. They can ask you any of those questions. Some people were interested in just the battles. Some were just interested in Washington’s life,” says Godzieba who successfully competed against 14 other applicants and secured his second term as the general.
His first three-year term started in 2009, a year that he recalls well, “It was my third audition and thought if I didn’t get it I would forget it. But it was also the same year that the state closed the park.”
Understanding that the state was beset by financial problems, the park’s friends group decided to continue the Christmas tradition and Godzieba was able to lead the crossing.
To help him enliven the past, Godzieba credits two factors. “I was a voracious reader of 18th-century revolution, which involved a lot of research of uniforms and battles. Then there’s the military drill. To be more period-correct you train with other soldiers to drill properly, which was no different than what happened in the 18th century. I learned how to handle a musket. I learned from repetition,” he says.
About his uniform (and he’s quick to say that it is not a costume), Godzieba says, “Everything that I have is handmade. You can’t get it off the rack.” His wardrobe includes the 19th-century-styled clothing fitted for him by a member of the Fifth Regiment, hats specially made by a Maryland milliner, boots fashioned in Canada, and wigs by a woman at Colonial Williamsburg.
“You take on a lot of expense when you do Washington, if you do it right. You want to give a quality impression for people who are coming out to see you. You want to give the best you can give them,” says Godzieba, who adds that Washington did not wear a wig. Yet for the police officer who needs to keep hair short on duty but long on the battlefield, a wig is a necessity.
While the hair is a minor problem, Godzieba credits his experience in law enforcement as a big contribution to his success. “From being a police officer for 33 years you learn how to talk to a lot of people. If you were 100 percent in period it would make people uncomfortable. I try to adjust myself to the audience,” he says.
As may be expected by a man with a career, duties as General Washington, and the responsibilities of being the president of the Friends of Washington Crossing Historic Park, there is a demand on time. “Many years ago when you performed Washington you were responsible to be here four days a year. When the friends group took over in 2009, the time involved became greater. You are always asked to do talks and meet people. It has become more involved. I became the face of the park. It was needed because the state was no longer supporting the park; we needed to step up and do our own fundraising,” says Godzieba.
Currently the park’s friends association partners with the Pennsylvania Historic Museum Commission to keep the 500-acre park open. With the state having a handful of people to provide maintenance, the friends pay for repairs and provide staff for programs, including the crossing that annually attracts 5,000 spectators.
The friends also raise money for special projects, such as the creation of a replica of Washington’s sword that will be handed over to each successive Washington and be a feature in park re-enactments. The sword replication required sending an artist in the regiment to the Smithsonian to measure and make drawings.
Godzieba says that the community can join in a variety of ways. People can come to the events, including the dress rehearsal that serves as a fundraiser. Or they can get physically involved. “We’re looking for people who want to learn more about history. We offer a variety of volunteer opportunities. We’re looking for people who will give tours and will provide the training. There’s always something that needs to be done.” This will be especially true when the park opens a new visitors’ center in the spring.
Yet for this poor history student keeping history alive is important. Godzieba says, “People from around the world come here to see this place. When you talk about famous places in the American Revolution, you’re talking about Washington’s Crossing. We take it for granted, but after 20 years I am still excited to be here.”
After 236 years, so is General Washington.
The Annual Christmas Day Crossing commences at 1 p.m. on Christmas Day, but visitors can arrive early to inspect historical buildings and watch the period dress troops assemble hours.
For those unable to make the event on Christmas, a dress rehearsal that serves as a fundraiser for the Friends of Washington Crossing Park is set for Sunday, December 9, at 1 p.m. Admission $8, $4 for children five to 11, and free for youngsters under age five.
Both events are at Washington Crossing Historic Park, located at the intersection of routes 32 and 532, Washington Crossing, PA, across the river from New Jersey’s Washington Crossing State Park, Route 29, Titusville.
215-493-4076 or www.ushistory.org/washingtoncrossing/index.htm.