The following day, Dec. 26, resulted in a successful crossing of the river for much of Washington’s force, and an effective sneak attack upon the Hessians, many of whom were asleep or otherwise distracted due to their reveling in Christmas joy.
Washington’s army defeated the flabbergasted Hessians, and escaped with armaments and gunpowder. Nine Americans were killed, while Hessian losses included 120 dead and wounded, and about 1,000 captured. Trenton suddenly became one of Washington’s greatest victories of the American Revolution.
Eight decades later, while visiting Trenton in 1861, President-elect Abraham Lincoln declared before the New Jersey State Senate that reading of Washington’s victory as a young boy had a profound effect on him.
Citing William Locke “Parson” Weems’ 1800 biography, “The Life of Washington,” Lincoln recalled that of “all accounts there given of the battle fields and struggles for the liberties of the country,” none had “fixed themselves upon my imagination so deeply as the struggle here at Trenton, New-Jersey. The crossing of the river; the contest with the Hessians; the great hardships endured at that time, all fixed themselves on my memory more than any single revolutionary event.”
In short time, Lincoln led a “revolutionary event” of his own—the American Civil War, which was effectively the Second American Revolution. During the war’s most famous battle at Gettysburg, Pa., in July 1863, a framed copy of Emanuel Leutze’s 1851 painting “Washington Crossing the Delaware” hung in the home of Catherine Mary White Foster at the northwest corner of Washington and High streets.
Though the image was only a dozen years old at Foster’s time, Leutze’s piece of art remains the single greatest form of immortalization of Washington’s crossing and the Battle of Trenton.
“The infantry were marching double quick, some on the street and others on different lines…through the fields to west of Seminary Ridge, whilst cavalry messengers flew over fences and fields like a shower of meteors,” wrote Foster of witnessing the consequential first day of battle. “Occupants of the seminary and other buildings on the ridge came running down the hill faster than ‘Double quick.’”
On July 2 and 3, the battle shifted to the fields south of Gettysburg. All the while, the Fosters remained in their basement. There, they harbored Pvt. Leander Wilcox of the 151st Pennsylvania, a soldier who had left his regiment following the July 1 retreat and “concealed his gun in a stovepipe…and his knapsack in the ashes of a fire place and himself under a potato bin,” wrote Foster. The ploy worked, and despite the Confederate occupation of Gettysburg and the Fosters’ home, Wilcox was never found.
During and after the battle, two captured surgeons—Dr. John Theodore Heard, medical director of the Union First Army Corps, and his assistant Dr. James Bache—operated on the upper floors of the Foster residence, where they also slept.
Shortly after awakening on the morning of July 3, as the doctors were eating breakfast, “a shell entered the room in which they had slept, demolished everything before it, tearing every particle of bedding from the bed on which they had lain,” wrote Foster.
Shortly thereafter, “another shell entered the breakfast room" and bursted "over the table...driving the weights of a clock across the table into the next partition,” she continued. “Everything upon the table, even the forks, with which they ate were broken.”
“It was said of George Washington that the bullet was never made to penetrate his body,” Foster reflected. “Perhaps the same might be said of his likeness.”
In a 1904 article published in the “Gettysburg Compiler,” Foster continued her explanation of what happened that day to the beloved artwork:
“A picture of George Washington crossing the Delaware painted on paper a foot and a half square, stood beneath the mantle of the room in which the surgeons referred to had lodged. The shell which entered through the jams of the fireplace, sending the mantle across the room, broke the frame and glass to ‘smithereens,’ but the picture was found in the rubbish unscathed. It is now in a private collection of antique relics in Pittsburg [sic], behind a new glass and frame, still dashing across the Delaware in original glory.”
After the Confederate retreat on July 4 and 5, the Fosters, like thousands of other Gettysburgians, rose out of their basement to the ground level, to a scene desolated by the effects of war.
In addition to the story of Catherine Foster’s painting of the Delaware River crossing, at least two other anecdotes connect George Washington to Gettysburg.
The first is the tale of Emma Yount, who, on June 30, 1863, met a Union cavalry trooper as she was playing with her mother outside their Gettysburg home. Before he left to fight in the battle the next day, the soldier told Emma she reminded him of his daughter, and likewise gave her his silk handkerchief, which featured two crossed American flags and a sketched image of George Washington, under a banner which proclaimed, “UNION FOREVER.”
Emma kept the piece until her death in 1946, at which time it was donated to the Adams County Historical Society (ACHS). Reproduction copies of the handkerchief are currently available via South Union Mills and ACHS.
As the men advanced toward the battlefield, these “iron-faced veterans were transformed to boys,” wrote Chamberlain, and patriotically “insisted on starting out with colors flying.” In addition to the “friendly people” who lined Pennsylvania roads and streets “to contemplate this martial array with a certain awe,” a strange presence was reported within the ranks.
“All things, even the most common, were magnified and made mysterious by the strange spell of night…,” Chamberlain recorded. “Now from a dark angle of the roadside came a whisper, whether from earthly or unearthly voice one cannot feel sure, that the august form of Washington had been seen that afternoon at sunset riding over the Gettysburg hills.”
Chamberlain admitted he was spooked, and found the event rather unexplainable.
“Let no one smile at me!” he professed. “I half believed it myself,—so did the powers of the other world draw nigh!”