Patrick J. Walsh: Washington's Crossing as Docudrama

Roundup: Talking About History

[Mr. Walsh is a writer in Quincy, Mass]

Thomas Sully is unique among American painters for the quiet yet theatrical intensity of his work and his ability to draw the viewer into the drama. His "Passage of the Delaware" (1819) masterfully and accurately captures a moment of supreme importance to the American Revolution. That moment comes at about 3 a.m. on Dec. 26, 1776. The sky is ominous, as it is snowing. A half-rooted, blighted tree well symbolizes America's predicament.

After a disastrous defeat in New York, Gen. George Washington, with the remains of his rag-tag army, has fled south. There is talk of replacing him as commander of the Continental army. Congress has evacuated Philadelphia and moved to Baltimore. Thomas Paine, in camp with the troops, has penned the words "These are the times that try men's souls."

Yet all is not lost. A staff officer with Washington on the morning of Dec. 26 records in his diary: "I have never seen Washington so determined as he is now.... He is calm and collected, but very determined."

In Sully's masterwork, Washington and his army are now on the move. Astride a horse, right hand on his hip, Washington looks confident and proud that his army of 2,400 men with 18 artillery pieces has almost completed the crossing of the treacherous ice-choked Delaware River from Philadelphia, and will soon be fully assembled on the New Jersey shore. A throng of anxious men surrounds him. Gen. Henry Knox is pointing his sword. Gen. Nathanial Greene is mounting his horse. Washington's servant, William Lee, and a figure who may be Gen. John Sullivan look on uneasily. But the 44-year-old Washington is tranquil and resolute, his face serene. He seems transfigured, as if communing with the gods of fortune. Sully has turned a crucial juncture in time and history into a timeless work of art....

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