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Originally built to carry heavy cargo on colonial waterways, Durham boats became General George Washington’s landing craft of choice in late 1776.

For the most renowned river crossing in American history— General George Washington’s surprise attack across the Delaware River on the Hessians in Trenton, New Jersey, on December 26, 1776—the logistical key had been attained by an earlier crossing of that same river. Driven back from the coastal areas by British lieutenant general William Howe and lacking the manpower to make a stand in New Jersey, Washington led his dwindling and dispirited army (down to about 3,000 effectives) across New Jersey to the Delaware River. The river was a useful barrier, especially with winter approaching. Washington needed to cross into Pennsylvania, and he was concerned about the possibility of Howe’s pursuing his army and the importance of controlling the boats on the Delaware River. On December 1, 1776, he wrote to Colonel Richard Humpton, commander of the 11th Pennsylvania Regiment:

You are to proceed to The Two ferry’s near Trentown and to see all the boats there put in the best Order with a sufficiency of Oars and poles and at the same time to Collect all the Additional Boats you [can] from both above and below and have them brought to those ferry’s and Secured for the purpose of Carrying over the Troops & Baggage in most expeditious Manner: & for this purpose you will get every Assistance in the power of the Quarter Master General & any person in his Department. [Y]ou will particularly attend to the Durham Boats which are very proper for the purpose. The Baggage & Stores of the Army should be got over the River as soon as possible and placed at some Convenient place a little back from it. I am Sir Yr Most Obt Servt

On the same day, Washington wrote to William Livingston, the recently elected governor of New Jersey:

The Boats and Craft all along the Delaware Side should be secured, particularly the Durham Boats used for the Transportation of produce down the River, parties should be sent to all the landings to have them removed to the other Side, hauled up and put under proper Guards. One such Boat would transport a Regiment of Men.

It was a canny move, and Washington clearly recognized that among the craft gathered along the river, the most useful boats—militarily speaking—were the Durham boats. A kind of waterborne equivalent of a stout freight wagon, a Durham boat was a sturdy cargo carrier, ranging from 25 to 65 feet long with an eight-foot beam. It was a double- ender, shallow-draft hauler, drawing less than two feet when fully loaded, with a flat bottom for use in shallow waters. It could be fitted with sails and could be rowed, but it was designed for poling, with a narrow walkway along the gunwales on both sides and decked at both ends. Using sharp pointed shafts up to 20 feet long, crewmen—two or three on each side—would face downriver, plant their poles on the bottom, brace a shoulder against the top of the pole, and walk to the stern, thus propelling the boat upstream. Then repeat. It was tedious, back-straining work. Where the current was too strong or there were rapids, iron rings were fixed in convenient boulders on shore; a rope was made fast to the ring, and the boat was drawn upstream by winching.

Before railroads, commercial traffic in North America was dependent on waterborne transport, and Durham boats were capacious and durable, used mostly for transporting heavy, bulky cargo like iron ore, grain, or timber. They were especially useful for transporting iron products manufactured at the Durham Furnace on the Pennsylvania side and other ironworks along the river, including the Mount Holly Furnace in New Jersey. On the downriver ride to market in Philadelphia, a Durham boat carrying up to 20 tons of cargo could be rowed and steered with a long sweep in the stern.

The origins of the Durham boat are shrouded in uncertainty. The name suggests that the boats had an early association with the Durham Furnace, which was located just a few miles west of the Delaware River, southeast of Bethlehem. Durham Furnace was started as a stock company in 1727, and in that same year the first iron furnace began operating on the site in the village of Durham; at least one charcoal-fueled furnace operated there until 1791. (Coincidentally, Daniel Morgan, later a Continental brigadier general, worked in his teen years at Durham Furnace, where his father was a charcoal burner).

Some 19th-century interviews and other sources indicate that the first Durham boat was built by a Robert Durham on the Delaware riverbank circa 1757. Oddly there seems to be little or no evidence that Durham worked at the ironworks or, despite the name, had any connection with it.

Other historians have pointed out that similar boats were widely used on other rivers in the colonies, and that the Durham boats bore a resemblance to boats used in the 18th century on waterways in Scandinavia. This suggests that Swedish settlers along the lower Delaware and in nearby areas of the Mid-Atlantic might have brought along ideas for such boats and built them earlier in the century.

In any case, Durham boats proved popular, and historians have noted that they were, by the time of the Revolution, a common sight along the Delaware, where scores of them were in regular use, as they were on shallow rivers such as the Susquehanna and the Mohawk. Many of the Durham boats on the Delaware reportedly were built at Easton, Pennsylvania.

When General Washington planned his surprise raid on the Hessian garrison at Trenton in December 1776, the availability of the capacious Durham boats was a key element. General Howe, virtually declaring an end to the season’s campaigning, had divided his army into small garrisons in western New Jersey, scattered in a way that would make it difficult for them to support each other. His decision was a gift to the restive Washington, who was fed up with retreating and felt he and his army badly needed a win.

Washington could not wait: At the end of the year, many enlistments would expire, and his dispirited army—just then increased to nearly 6,000 by militias from New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Maryland, plus a 2,000-man contingent from Major General Charles Lee’s force in New Jersey—would shrink dramatically. Also, later in the winter when the Delaware River froze over, Howe’s army could readily attack across the ice. But for just those few weeks in late December,

Washington was holding the cards—and those all-important boats. Washington convened a council of war on December 22 to discuss the possibilities. Four British garrisons lay within striking distance in New Jersey— at Bordentown, Princeton, Burlington, and Trenton, the last directly across the Delaware. The council deliberated without reaching a decision, but Washington, perhaps realizing there was a British spy among them, convened a smaller group of officers later that evening, and with the coolness of a riverboat gambler, laid out his daring plan: to hit the 1,500-man Hessian brigade in Trenton commanded by veteran colonel Johann Rall with a three-pronged surprise attack at dawn on December 26.

Crossing the Delaware above Trenton, Washington himself was to lead a 2,400- man contingent of his most reliable regulars with 18 field guns and assault Trenton from the northeast one hour before dawn; Brigadier General James Ewing would cross with 600 militiamen to capture the lone bridge just south of Trenton, thus blocking the Hessians’ retreat route; Colonel John Cadwalader was to cross at Bristol with another 2,400 militiamen and Continentals and attack the enemy garrison at Bordentown and prevent its reinforcing Rall’s Hessians. Included in the attacking units were two men of future prominence, Lieutenant James Monroe and captain of artillery Alexander Hamilton.

Colonel Henry Knox was in charge of the artillery, which may have crossed on ferryboats, according to some sources. Other sources indicate that some artillery and horses were transported on Durham boats. The troops would cross on the Durham boats, 30 to 40 at a time, and on some smaller craft; all would be manned by local watermen and the veteran mariners of Colonel John Glover’s Marblehead Regiment—the same experienced hands who had saved Washington’s army in their overnight evacuation after the Battle of Brooklyn on September 29, 1776.

Surprise was essential: The units would have to cross the ice-laden river in utter darkness. And once across, they would have that same hazardous river at their backs. If their attack failed, there could be no retreat. Washington himself selected the password for the operation: “Victory or death.”

There was not much time. Christmas day was spent getting ready for the attack and moving into position for the crossings in subfreezing temperatures and a gathering winter storm that brought rain, hail, snow, and high winds. Washington’s careful plan was not fully carried out—his 2,400-man contingent was the only one of the three to succeed in crossing the Delaware on that dark and stormy night. It is not known how many Durham boats were employed or how many crossings each boat made. It is known that the crossing took longer than planned and that Washington’s units did not all reach the Trenton side until about 3 in the morning, meaning they had to attack in daylight.

Nonetheless, they did achieve surprise and their vigorous, artillery-supported attack overwhelmed the startled and confused Hessians, who failed to rally. The fighting was bloody and brief—less than an hour—and inflicted some 150 casualties on the Hessians. Once their commander, Colonel Rall, was shot from his horse and killed, the remainder of the garrison fled or surrendered. Washington’s daring had paid off with a victory.

The dramatic night crossing by Washington’s forces inspired one of the most iconic paintings of the American Revolution, Washington Crossing the Delaware, by German artist Emanuel Leutze, who completed two versions of the painting (the first was destroyed) in his studio in Düsseldorf in 1851. Inspiring and romantic though the painting is, it is rife with historical inaccuracies, as has been widely noted: Washington is standing up in a rowboat low in the water; the American flag shown did not exist in 1776; the crossing is depicted in daylight; the river resembles more the Rhine than the Delaware; the crew seems a fanciful mix of types unlikely to have been representative of Washington’s army; and so on. Nevertheless, it captures a moment of danger, high drama, and patriotic determination and remains quite popular.

As for the Durham boats, they are, in authentic reproductions, a mainstay of the annual reenactment of the crossing, which is staged annually at Washington Crossing, Pennsylvania.


Originally published in the January 2015 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here.