Friday, Apr 1, 2022
The 1947 reenactment of Washington’s crossing of the Delaware is on the cover of a new book
by Adam Grybowski
It is one of the most recognizable images in the world — Gen. George Washington standing atop a skiff as it navigates through the icy waters of the Delaware River.
Brought to popular imagination by Emanuel Leutze’s famous painting, the scene has been commemorated countless times, including, memorably, by a group of Rider fraternity brothers in 1947. At that time, the brothers of Phi Sigma Nu staged a reenactment of Washington crossing the Delaware to initiate new pledges. The gag garnered a four-page spread in Life magazine. Seventy-five years later, it’s still receiving coverage.
A photo of Phi Sigma Nu’s reenactment graces the cover of a new book. Part of Arcadia Publishing’s Image of America series of books, which celebrates local history, Washington Crossing illustrates the many ways people have commemorated Washington's 1776 crossing, especially at Washington Crossing State Park in New Jersey and Washington Crossing Historic Park in Pennsylvania.
Published in April, the book was written by Robert W. Sands Jr., who has written three previous books in the Image of America series, and Patricia E. Millen, a founding board member of the Washington Crossing Park Association. The authors secured the cover photo and others from Rider’s archive.
"When we both saw the image, we knew instinctively that it should be the cover of Washington Crossing," Millen says. "It was so intriguing! The Rider students captured the spirit of the crossing with enthusiasm in a photograph most people hadn’t seen before."
The origin of the reenactment is credited to an idea by Frank Ewart '47 and Don Reynolds ‘48, who were casting about for an initiation ritual that steered clear of hazing. All told, about 40 pledges crossed the Delaware in three rowboats. In one of the boats, students attempted to recreate the inspiring, if historically inaccurate, image Leutze immortalized in “Washington Crossing the Delaware.” Among them were student George Chafey portraying Washington, William Clark '49 portraying Gen. Nathaniel Greene and Theodore Genola Sr. '50 dressed in a buckskin uniform.
Washington’s surprise attack against unsuspecting British and Hessian soldiers on Christmas Day marked a turning point in the American Revolution. After suffering a series of defeats against the robust British military, Washington chose an audacious tactic that would trigger a series of key victories.
After crossing the Delaware in 1947, the students traced the footsteps of Washington’s army on a nine-mile hike to Trenton. Some pledges rode horses, but Chafey, who was “fearful of horses and nursing a bad cold,” according to the new book, led on bicycle.
A 1987 New York Times article about the reenactment reported that Reynolds portrayed the commander of the Hessian soldiers, who were defeated in Trenton by Washington. The article also noted that, like many Rider students at the time, Reynolds, Genola and Chafey were all veterans of World War II.
Rider’s involvement in the crossing wasn’t limited to one fraternity. Dean J. Goodner Gill, the namesake of Gill Memorial Chapel, ended classes early that day so that students could attend. A rival fraternity, Phi Sigma, apparently couldn’t stand by as mere witnesses. Members greeted the reenactors rowing toward the New Jersey shoreline with volleys of tomatoes, oranges and firecrackers.
Unlike the bloody events of 1776, skirmishes only became more gentle as the day wore on. After Phi Sigma Nu reached Trenton, the mock battle drew to a close, and entered the history books, with a pillow fight.