The big barge in the foreground, which stretches almost across the canvas, has twelve men in it. David Hackett Fischer, in Washington’s Crossing, claims there is a 13th, indicated by a gun barrel in the center rear, but he is as elusive as the second gunman at Dealey Plaza. The demeanor of the twelve we can see divides them into discrete groups. Five are tending the boat — three in the bow, one on the port gunwale, one aft. The foremost sailor is shoving at an ice block with a barge pole and jamming it with his foot. He looks as if he will walk the damned boat to Jersey. Another is androgynous, with long auburn hair, which has given rise to the legend that “he” is a woman: feminist projection, probably, though I know of at least one case of a woman who fought in the Revolution dressed as a man. Another sailor is black. This is unquestionably accurate: The 14th Continental Regiment, from Marblehead, Mass., which did much of the ferrying of Washington’s troops over the waters of New York and New Jersey in that grim half year, was filled with peacetime New England sailors, including blacks and Indians. Two officers in dark hats — rather fancy — peer over the sides anxiously: Will we make it? Two towards the aft — one wrapped in a blanket, another injured (he has a bandaged head) — are past looking, sunk in their own thoughts: “Well, here we are,” maybe, or “SNAFU.” Another pair of men — one of them is Lieutenant James Monroe — are grappling with the flag. It is not snapping in the breeze. This flag is heavy, off-balance; they grip their arms around the fabric and struggle to hold it up. The last man is George Washington, who has no one to talk to. He can communicate only by leading. All he can do is do the right thing.
The next boat behind the lead is having its own problems: Horses are rearing, two men appear to be in the water — overboard? pushing off? (pushing off from what?). The sky downstream just left of the center of the painting is brightening — a hopeful sign — but there is a dark patch farther ahead in the upper left corner. Mixed forecast.