Christmas Night 1776

“On the night of December 25, 1776, with the winter wind whipsawing the water, with waves ripping across the bows of their leaky boats, and sheets of ice impeding their path, American soldiers rowed across the merciless river, from Pennsylvania to New Jersey. The city of Trenton was their objective….”

Washington Crossing the Delaware by Emanuel Leutze

Emanuel Leutze’s massive painting of Washington Crossing the Delaware hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. It’s approximately 12½ feet high by 21 feet wide. My daughter and has seen it, and reading the dimensions doesn’t measure the impact of the art. It has been scoffed at by those who like to point out various historical inaccuracies or implausibilities, but like all art it is symbolic. David Hackett Fisher writes that the debunkers:

“…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 believe 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 believe 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.”1

For Christmas 2009 I was given a copy of Washington’s Crossing by David Hackett Fisher. Fisher’s story is a tale of courage and perseverance in the face of disaster. In the Editor’s Note at the beginning of the book, James McPherson writes:

“No single day in history was more decisive for the creation of the United States than Christmas 1776…Of all the pivotal events in American history, none was more important than what happened on those nine days from December 25, 1776, through January 3, 1777.”2

This providential span of victories stemmed not only from the character and leadership of George Washington, but also “from the acts and choices of ordinary people.” Fisher says for those Americans:

“…Their greatest advantage was the moral strength of a just cause. They were fighting on their own ground, in defense of homes and families, for ideas of liberty and freedom. They had a different test of success. Their opponents had to conquer; the Americans needed only to survive. After the occupation of New Jersey, and British maltreatment of prisoners, Americans became highly motivated by the cruel experience of oppression.

“Another strength was their religion. The Americans were a deeply spiritual people, with an abiding faith that sustained them in adversity….

“In the dark days of 1776, Americans reached deep into this reservoir of strength and improvised a new way of managing a war…”3

As Americans lived through those dark days of 1776, they had no future perspective of their times. Neither do we as we live through these days of coercion and usurpation of power. Do we have “the advantage of the moral strength of a just cause”? We do. Should we call on God to give us an abiding faith in Him that will sustain us in adversity? We should. Fisher writes, “This is a story of real choices that living people actually made.”4 We can make those choices.
__________
1,2,3,4David Hackett Fischer, Washington’s Crossing (Oxford University Press, New York) 4-5, ix, 368, 364.

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