As with a lot of the details of the crossing on December 25, 1776, there’s no record of the exact time General George Washington ventured across the Delaware River.
That’s not to say, however, that we can’t narrow the window.
Timing was critical to the plan, says Pat Seabright, a historical interpreter at Washington Crossing Historic Park.
The troops were to arrive by sunset at one of three assembly areas: McConkey’s Ferry Inn (in the park’s Historic Village); Trenton Ferry (near Yardley); and Bristol.
Sunset was at 4:41 PM, which would put the soldiers on pace to cross by midnight.
But a storm approached as the troops began making their way from their respective camps, and conditions deteriorated rapidly. “Right from the onset, their schedule fell apart,” Seabright says.
We can at least pinpoint Washington’s location at 6 PM.
“He wrote a letter to his commander in Bristol, Gen. John Cadwalader, expressing his determination to cross the river and attack Trenton in the morning,” Seabright says. “It’s significant because it’s dated McConkey’s Ferry, December 25, 1776, 6 PM. So that tells us that he was still on the Pennsylvania side at 6 PM.”
Another clue: Several historians have noted that Brig. Gen. Adam Stephen’s brigade was the first to cross and that it arrived on the New Jersey bank around 7 PM.
It’s presumed that Washington did not cross with him. But author David Hackett Fischer recounts a story where, sometime after Stephen’s brigade crossed, Washington crossed with Capt. William Blacker and then sat on the riverbank and watched in despair as his troops struggled to navigate the river and fall further behind schedule.
The entire operation ran about three hours behind, according to Seabright, with the last of the troops, artillery, equipment and horses finally arriving on the New Jersey side of the river around 3 AM.
“The bottom line: Washington crossed after 6 PM. That much is certain,” Seabright says. “And there’s some evidence that he crossed after 7 PM. But we’re not certain how long after.”