Crossing the Delaware: General George Washington and Primary Sources

George Washington crossing the Delaware River, c. 1912

This guest post is from the Library of Congress Teacher in Residence, Earnestine Sweeting.

When I’ve asked my students, “Would anyone be interested in a trip on a ferry?” they’ve all cheered with excitement.  But I wonder how many of us would be brave enough to take a night voyage through an ice-clogged river on a boat battered by snow and high winds.

Primary sources from the Library of Congress can let students explore this momentous–and shivery–event.

On the evening of December 25, 1776, General George Washington and his Continental Army crossed the Delaware River.  For many of us, Washington’s crossing is known as one of many daring events of the American Revolution. In his papers, Washington described the passing of his Continental Army as one of difficulty due to a violent storm of snow and hail. Although their mission was a success, he explained how ice made the passage tedious.

Washington crossing the Delaware, c. 1898

Emanuel Leutze’s famous painting depicts the severity of the night while this print titled George Washington Crossing the Delaware River provides another version. What did each artist emphasize? Take a look at the bibliographic information for these sources.  Considering both pieces were created after the events, what does that suggest about their accuracy?

Teachers can have students:

  •  Create a multi-sensory narrative writing piece.  First, have the students draw on their five senses to describe what Emanuel Leutze reveals.  Use the Primary Source Analysis Tool as a prewriting plan to help students organize their thoughts.
  • Compare this print of Leutze’s iconic painting with Thomas Sully’s or another artist’s depiction of Washington’s crossing.
  • Examine how Washington describes the victories at Trenton and Princeton.
  • Evaluate the historical accuracy portrayed in Leutze’s depiction of the crossing. Have students consider the time of the passage and weather conditions of the Delaware River, research the Durham boats Washington secured for the trip, and raise questions around the men in the boat – Who do you suppose was on the boat with Washington? Was it realistic to have the so many men on the boat? What thoughts come to mind about the flag they carried?

For background information, browse The American Revolution, 1763 – 1783 for more details.

Tell us how you might use images and descriptions of Washington’s crossing to deepen your students’ understanding of this event?



  1. Shelley Sanderson
    November 29, 2012 at 4:35 pm

    Great idea Earnestine!! Many are not aware that more than one version of this key event in our history exist. The students get to look at the moment from a different perspective. I love to stir up the hornets nest, Brava!

  2. Mary E. Haas
    November 29, 2012 at 5:08 pm

    I like the focus of this lesson because it helps us consider the interpretive nature of art work. Often in the textbook there is only room for one version by an artist and students can get the impression that these are accurate depictions. Of course, there are a number of positives from having pictures and works of art in a textbook to help learners to understand events. Your lesson suggestions here are a helpful in bringing to students multiple interpretations as well as considering in this example elements of geography and its possible impact on historical decisions.

    November 30, 2012 at 12:54 pm

    you can give many homework for students about delaware and george Washington.for example you can to want all students macking research about the role of George Washington in political us and whrer is Delaware

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