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?


The Civil War in Songs and Song Sheets

As part of the continuing commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War, the Library of Congress just opened an exhibition The Civil War in America, displaying more than 200 items from the Library’s unmatched collections. Students may look at maps, letters, diaries, or photographs to learn about the experiences of those who fought in the war and those who were left behind to tend the homestead. While these sources are excellent, make sure to include music as a way to help students learn about life during the Civil War.

Edward S. Curtis and The North American Indian

Photographs offer a snapshot of a particular time and place, telling a careful viewer as much about the photographer as about the subjects of the pictures. That’s often particularly true when the photographer isn’t a member of the group being photographed. One example from the Library of Congress’s collections is Edward S. Curtis, who dedicated most of his career to photographing Native American cultures and traditions to publish in a multi-volume book titled The North American Indian.