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Our Favorite Posts: Crossing the Delaware: General George Washington and Primary Sources

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Summer is a perfect time to reflect on the school year gone by. This week, Anne Savage of the Library of Congress showcases one of her favorite posts from 2012-2013.

What image comes to mind when you think of Washington’s 1776 crossing of the Delaware River?  Once you have it pictured, have some fun by checking out one of my favorite blog posts, which comes to us from the Library’s outgoing Teacher in Residence, Earnestine Sweeting.  There’s nothing like primary sources to make you question your prior knowledge, and this blog post has several that surprise, spark interest, and make you want to learn more.  Along with the suggested teaching activities, which are useful across most grade levels, these primary sources can help your students explore a famous historical event from several different perspectives – including that of George Washington himself.

Crossing the Delaware: General George Washington and Primary Sources

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

George Washington crossing the Delaware River, c. 1912

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

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. I use this lesson every year with my fifth graders in library class. I love incorporating pieces of art into my lessons, because it expresses another’s point of view. We come up with adjectives to describe what the men on board the boat are feeling. After a period of close observation of the painting, students comment on the use of color and perspective, and why the artist employed these techniques. Students are then given background knowledge of the events in the American Revolution, leading up to this decision by General Washington.

    I love pairing this painting with a photo from Look Magazine of the March to Selma. We compare and contrast the two images. We focus on a discussion of what the American flag represents in both images. History comes alive!

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