American Portraits

Washington’s Choice: The Crossing of the Delaware

In this lesson, students will review George Washington’s courageous actions in leading his troops to cross the Delaware River against overwhelming obstacles in order to attack and defeat the British army’s Hessian forces at Trenton, New Jersey. They will achieve the following objectives.

Founding Principles

Individual Responsibility image

Individual Responsibility

Individuals must take care of themselves and their families and be vigilant to preserve their liberty.

Narrative

The winter of 1776 was a miserable one. The wet and frozen ground over which the ill-equipped men of America’s army marched left summer as a distant memory. Washington’s troops were mostly made up of farmers, merchants, and laborers—not professional soldiers. Even his generals were novices. Many, like Nathaniel Greene of Rhode Island, had no military experience at all. Even Washington himself had only experienced combat as a British militia commander during the French and Indian War, which had ended thirteen years before….

Narrative PDF

Compelling Question

Why does courage make a difference when faced with a seemingly impossible task?

Virtue Defined

Courage is the capacity to overcome fear in order to do good.

Lesson Overview

In this lesson, students will review George Washington’s courageous actions in leading his troops to cross the Delaware River against overwhelming obstacles in order to attack and defeat the British army’s Hessian forces at Trenton, New Jersey. They will achieve the following objectives.

Objectives

  • Students will analyze George Washington’s character as a military commander and his courageous actions in leading his troops against overwhelming obstacles to cross the Delaware River in order to attack British troops at Trenton, New Jersey.
  • Students will examine Washington’s demonstration of courage.
  • Students will understand why courage is an essential virtue in their own lives.
  • Students will act courageously in their own lives to protect freedom.

Background

After the American militia’s guerilla success at the Battle of Concord in April 1775, the colonists set their sights on ousting the British from their occupation of Boston. Minutemen besieged the city for eleven months and finally forced the British to withdraw. During the siege of Boston, George Washington took command of the American troops—more an armed mob than an army. In skirmishes and battles throughout winter and spring of 1775-76, American forces alternated with the British in victory and defeat, but in July 1776, the Declaration of Independence gave the United States of America its identity. It was up to George Washington to lead his troops to secure it.

The aptly named Continental Army was tested and resoundingly defeated at the Battle of Long Island in August. After several more battles, Washington was forced to retreat out of New York into New Jersey and eventually across the Delaware River and into Pennsylvania.

The re-crossing of the Delaware River by George Washington and the Continental Army on the night of December 24, 1776, has become iconic in American history. However, the colorful and symbolic images we have of the event gloss over the cold and bleak reality in which the action took place. The nation was on the edge of defeat, needing the hope that could only come from a victory. The courage of George Washington and his men restored hope that against all odds, the young nation could survive.

Vocabulary

  • Militia
  • Guerilla
  • Ousting
  • Minutemen
  • Siege
  • Iconic
  • Novice
  • Demoralized
  • Destitute
  • Morale
  • Daunting
  • Hessian
  • Mercenaries
  • Renowned
  • Intimidating
  • Resounding
  • Exhorting
  • Arduous

Introduce Text

Have students read the background and narrative, keeping the Compelling Question in mind as they read. Then have them answer the remaining questions below.

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Questions

Walk-In-The-Shoes Questions
As you read, imagine you are the protagonist.

  • What challenges are you facing?
  • What fears or concerns might you have?
  • What may prevent you from acting in the way you ought?

Observation Questions

  • In what ways did George Washington exercise courage to enhance life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for himself and others? What other virtues did Washington demonstrate?
  • What is George Washington’s identity during this time?
  • What did George Washington understand his purpose to be in the events of late December 1776?

Discussion Questions
Discuss the following questions with your students.

  • What is the historical context of the narrative?
  • What historical circumstances presented a challenge to the protagonist?
  • How and why did the individual exhibit a moral and/or civic virtue in facing and overcoming the challenge?
  • How did the exercise of the virtue benefit civil society?
  • How might exercise of the virtue benefit the protagonist?
  • What might the exercise of the virtue cost the protagonist?
  • Would you react the same under similar circumstances? Why or why not?
  • How can you act similarly in your own life? What obstacles must you overcome in order to do so?

Additional Resources

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