This article is an expansion of the Rider College Reenactment mentioned in last month’s article, “Early Reenactments of Washington Crossing the Delaware”, written by Denis J. Cooke.
As we all look forward to another exciting reenactment of General George Washington’s daring crossing on Christmas night in 1776, it would do us well to understand and appreciate just how critically important it was.
The six-month long struggle to achieve independence from Great Britain was not going well. Even after driving the British from Boston in early 1776, Washington’s army was having a terrible time. The defense of New York resulted in crushing defeats. Washington lost almost 90% of his army and was on the run through New Jersey, finally finding safety on the banks of the Delaware River in Pennsylvania.
The army was in dire straits, their uniforms were falling off and rags were wrapped around their feet, as many were barefoot. Disease was taking ten soldiers for each one who died in combat. Desertions shrunk Washington’s army from 20,000 to approximately 4,000. The status quo was absolutely unacceptable and the war needed a dramatic shot in the arm.
General Washington’s bold night crossing and ultimate defeat of the Hessians at the battle of Trenton provided that spark. Over the next several days Washington and his men would go on to achieve two more victories at the Second Battle of Trenton and Battle of Princeton. These “Ten Crucial Days” are generally accepted as the turning point of the American Revolution.
The first major reenactment of the famous Christmas Crossing was actually organized and executed by pledges from several Rider College fraternities on January 23, 1947. Using reproduction clothing and four or five homemade boats, they marched through Washington Crossing Park then rowed across the Delaware River. Several of the senior officers were on horseback, but George Chaffee (aka George Washington) was afraid of horses, so he resorted to borrowing a bicycle from a local native. George, on his borrowed bike, was featured in the crossing’s coverage in the February 17 issue of Life Magazine. The whole event is still in my memory bank because the bike that Washington borrowed belonged to my brother. What I do not remember is whether he ever got his bike back. The crossing, beers at Bear Tavern, and subsequent battle of Trenton was a grand and glorious affair. A fun time was had by all.
As a matter of history, they never tried it again. It is worthy to consider whether the Rider reenactment provided the impetus to St. John Terrill, who six years later executed the first formal reenactment of the Crossing. Nicknamed “Sinjin”, he paid for a half sized Durham boat. With a crew of five or six of his buddies, including Grace Kelly’s brother- Jack, he initiated a wonderful and well attended tradition.
This year’s crossings will take place on December 10th and Christmas Day, so mark your calendar. We are inching ever closer to the 250th anniversary of the Crossing. Plan to join us in making new memories later this year and in 2026!
Thomas Maddock grew up in a residential home that was once part of Washington Crossing Historic Park. He is a retired sales and marketing executive who has served as a Historical Interpreter for the Friends of Washington Crossing Park since 2010.