Only yesterday that I heard Gen. Georg...


December 24, 1992|By THEO LIPPMAN, JR.

IT SEEMS LIKE only yesterday that I heard Gen. Georg Washington utter those immortal Yuletide words, "These are the times that try men souls."

In fact it was only yesterday. I was talking to George on the telephone. He was telling me about the ceremonies to be held at Washington Crossing, Pa., tomorrow. Every year patriotic history buffs gather there to re-create the most important military victory in American history.

It was on Christmas night, 1776, that General Washington and his troops rowed across the Delaware River to rout the Hessian mercenaries at Trenton on Dec. 26. That was the beginning of the end for the Brits here and the beginning of the beginning for the United States. The war dragged on for six years, but barely a month after the battle, the British secretary of war told Parliament, "All our hopes were blasted by the unhappy affair at Trenton."

The "George Washington" I was talking to is actually James Gallagher. He's an American Legion official and a trustee of the Washington Crossing Foundation. There's a park at Washington Crossing, Pa., across from Trenton. Every Christmas Day

Gallagher, as General Washington, stands up in the boat and leads his troops over to New Jersey.

Gallagher begins the ceremonies by reading Thomas Paine's "The American Crisis" to the troops. He says he doesn't know what, if anything, Washington said in the form of a pep talk to his troops on that evening of Dec. 25, 1776. But reading Thomas Paine's words is certainly appropriate.

"The American Crisis" appeared as a pamphlet on Dec. 23, 1776, and was read in army camps "to every corporal's guard." Historian Crane Brinton wrote that Paine's "famous words probably did not win the Battle of Trenton, but [their] eloquence did hearten many." A Paine contemporary and critic bitterly observed, "in the army and out of it, [his words] had more than the intended effect."

This year seated next to Washington in the boat will be a congressman-elect. He is Jim Greenwood, a veteran re-enacter, who just won a seat in the House. He'll be at the ceremonies tomorrow in a Revolutionary War captain's uniform, portraying "Captain Morris." "Lt. James Monroe" will be on George's other side. All will be standing, Monroe holding the flag, as in the famous Emanuel Leutze symbolic painting.

Did Washington in fact stand up in the boat? No one knows. Some critics of Leutze say George could not have done it on a choppy, wintry river. But Jim Gallagher, who's done it eight times now, says standing is a piece of cake in the big, very stable, flat-bottomed Durham boats that transported most of the soldiers across the river in '76. Of course, as Gallagher also points out, the Delaware River is not as deep or as wide today as it was then.

There's a metaphor in that fact somewhere, but I'm out of space, so I'll discuss that here at the next appropriate time.

Dec. 23, 1993: Summer soldiers and sunshine patriots.

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