By Oscar H. Blayton
We’ve all seen the painting.
Gen. George Washington strikes a heroic pose, standing in a boat being rowed through an icy river on his way to win the Battle of Trenton during the Revolutionary War. But take a close look at Emanuel Leutze’s iconic painting of Washington crossing the Delaware and you might wonder who is the Black man in the boat? He is third from the left, just to the left of Washington’s right knee, and seemingly straining at an oar.
For years, people have speculated that this “Brother in the Boat” may have been Washington’s slave, Billy Lee, or that he was Prince Whipple, the well-known slave of Gen. William Whipple of the New Hampshire militia.
The typical assumption is that the Black man in the boat had to be someone’s slave, the property of some noted white person.
But American history is like a jigsaw puzzle – there are many seemingly unrelated and disjointed pieces lying about and it is hard to make sense of them unless you look below the surface.
The mystery of the “Brother in the Boat” can be solved if we pull some of the seemingly disassociated pieces of this historical puzzle together. “Washington’s Crossing,” a 2009 book by David Hackett Fischer, helps with this.
Working backwards from Christmas evening 1776 when Washington made his famous river crossing, we learn that the military unit in charge of manning the boats was the 14th Continental Regiment. It’s often identified as Glover’s Regiment, or the Marblehead Regiment because most of its men hailed from the Atlantic coastal area around Marblehead, Massachusetts.
The majority of the men in this regiment, including their commander, John Glover, were also sailors. Because of this, the “Marbleheaders,” as they were called, were competent boatmen.
What we are rarely taught when we learn about the “Father of our Country” crossing the Delaware is that the Marblehead Regiment was a racially integrated regiment with many African Americans.
The New England Historical Society reports in an online article, “The Red, Black and White Men of Glover’s Regiment Take Washington Across the Delaware,” that “a Pennsylvania general was shocked by the 'number of negroes' ” in Glover's Regiment who were “treated as equals.”
Black and white seamen from Marblehead worked closely together when they went to sea. This ability to work together persisted as they enlisted in the Continental Army. However, this comradeship did not extend to the rest of Washington’s army. In 1775, the Marbleheaders were embroiled in a bitter brawl with newly arrived white soldiers from Virginia, some of whom were slaveholders. It is said that Washington himself had to intervene to stop the fighting.
But do not think that the slaveholding Washington was a champion of racial equality. A U.S. Army website reports that at the start of the Revolutionary War, “Washington had been a vocal opponent of recruiting black men…” and “shortly after his appointment as commander in chief, Washington signed an order forbidding the [further] recruitment of all blacks.”
However, despite Washington’s order, Black soldiers, like the Marbleheaders, continued to serve. And on more than one occasion, this turned out to be very fortunate for Washington. Not only did Glover’s Regiment ferry him and his army across the Delaware to attack the enemy on the day after Christmas in 1776, but they saved Washington’s army from annihilation on Long Island, New York, four months earlier.
On Aug. 27, the American forces had been defeated in the Battle of Long Island by the numerically superior British. In this, the first major battle of the war, Washington had allowed his forces to be trapped by the British at Brooklyn Heights. With their backs to New York’s East River, his defeated army was facing extinction. On the night of Aug. 29 – 30, the Marbleheaders silently and safely ferried Washington and 9,500 Continental soldiers, along with “all their baggage, nearly all their artillery, stores, horses and provisions,” across the East River, landing them safely on Manhattan Island.
There is no heroic painting of a defeated George Washington fleeing from Brooklyn Heights. But had it not been for the Marbleheaders, Washington likely would have been captured by the British and hanged.
In Fischer’s book, he states that while Prince Whipple and Billy Lee have been suggested as accompanying Washington across the Delaware, “a more likely model for the figure, given his dress and demeanor, would have been one of several seamen in Glover's 14th Massachusetts Regiment.”
Fischer’s book has been hailed for its comprehensive research, but it is a shame that it takes such a great research effort to unearth the truth about who we are and what we have done, instead of learning about it in elementary school.
Oscar H. Blayton is a former Marine Corps combat pilot and human rights activist who practices law in Virginia.