Teaching history in South Jersey is great for the simple fact of its location. We are so close to Philadelphia, New York, and even Washington D.C. In addition, New Jersey has its own rich history being one of the original 13 colonies. It was the site of many battles during the American Revolution and has many historical sites preserved from local taverns that were built in colonial times to houses that were station along the Underground Railroad.
I am always looking for ways to “bring history to life” and many historical sites hold reenactments. A few years ago, before I was teaching, my husband and I went to the reenactment of Washington crossing the Delaware at Washington Crossing State Park. The park has many events all year but the reenactment of Washington Crossing the Delaware River is tradition. Even though the reenactment is during the day and it was a lot warmer the year I went, it was still exceptional to see. I knew I wanted to share this experience with my future students. My visit to the reenactment, complete with my pictures, is part of my lesson.
During the lesson, we also discuss the importance of the Delaware River to the history of Philadelphia and Camden and how it is still vital to the City of Camden today.
The Delaware River divides Camden and Philadelphia and the Camden Waterfront has many attractions including the Battleship New Jersey. The city my students call home is also home to the U.S. Navy’s most decorated battleship. Teaching the Battle of Trenton offers more than simply the battle. In my class, students first examine a map of New Jersey and Pennsylvania and trace the river from Camden to Trenton. They locate where George Washington and his army were camped on the Pennsylvania side, where they crossed, then follow the path they marched and locate the site of the battle. Imagine doing all that, in the winter of 1776. Then, the battle! I feel that when students learn this particular battle, it’s almost too good to be true.
First, there is something daring about doing this on Christmas. During World War I, soldiers had a Christmas Day truce, yet Washington was on the move. Next, the frozen water and moonless night both perfect for his plan. The element of surprise was critical to victory and the Hessians probably never expected the attack. The irony of the German general receiving a note written in English warning him about the attack but he couldn’t read English. The note was later read to him as he was dying. Finally, there is the significance of winning the Battle of Trenton because of what it meant for Washington and his soldiers. After losing many battles, Washington was able to turn the war in their favor.
When students see the pictures from the crossing reenactment, connect the Delaware River to their city, and feel the emotions of defeat and victory that Washington and his men may have felt, we have brought history to life. When we study history, we see it from a limited perspective. There are certain historical figures that are revered and others who are notorious. Washington had faults like any human, but he is still regarded as one of the best presidents. The painting by Emanuel Leutze in 1851 reflects how art and culture shaped Washington into an iconic figure. It is also a great primary and secondary source to help students see how the crossing is depicted and here is how it actually happened.
At the end of my first year of teaching, the art teacher assigned a final project where students had to create a mural for a “customer”. Each teacher was a customer. The two students assigned to me were in my US History I class that semester. They asked me what I wanted them to paint. I asked them what was their favorite thing from the class or what they thought was the most interesting. “Washington crossing the Delaware”, they replied. I told them it was ambitious but I loved it. They worked with the art teacher to create their own painting of Washington Crossing the Delaware. When I look at it, I am reminded of my first year teaching.