For me this year’s crossing at McConkey’s Ferry was special.  I have done the Crossing many times but always as an infantryman.  This year, several of the 14th Continental Regiment failed to show, and the organizers asked for volunteers to join Col Glover’s famed Marbleheaders.  I stepped up and was a rower, ferrying the army across the river.  It was a completely different event for me than any of the previous ten crossings I have done and one I am looking forward to Christmas Day to repeat.

Every year, there are two reenactments as Washington’s Crossing.  Last Sunday was the “First Crossing” but those of us who have been doing this for longer than a year know it as “Dress Rehearsal” because despite the huge crowds and the invited dignitaries, this is the event when we work out all the details for the Christmas Crossing.  That’s what happened this year.  For a myriad of reasons, people back out of attending re-enactments and for 90% of us it does not matter but the Marbleheaders need 11 men per boat or that boat doesn’t cross.  When we were told they were shorthanded, three of us abandoned our infantry units and stepped up thinking it couldn’t be hard…  Well, it’s not easy!

The 14th Continental Regiment is called the Marbleheaders because most of their ranks were enlisted fishermen and whalers from Marblehead, Massachusetts.  These men joined the army during the siege of Boston and served for the duration, making the miraculous evacuations in Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Trenton possible, but they are most well known for Christmas Day 1776 when they fought a snowstorm and icy river to ferry 1200 retreat weary soldiers across the Delaware for the assault on General Rahl’s hated Hessian forces in Trenton.  This is the event we commemorate today.

You get a very different perspective on the Crossing as part of the boat crew than you get as an infantryman or as these watermen call them – cargo.  As infantry, the crossing is a serene event, quite peaceful.  Sure, it’s cold, the boat lurches a bit, and its crowded but it really is an easy crossing.  The river is not so wide ad it feels smooth and placid.  As an oarsman, I found none of this to be true.  The river is SHALLOW, very shallow, and filled with rocks and other impediments that can overturn the boat.  Its also swift and if we don’t work hard at it, the current will carry us far downstream before we reach land. Furthermore, these Durham Boats are heavy, especially when filled with troops.  I can’t imagine what it was like to row horses and cannon across.

Rowing the army across the river is a physical work-out.  Despite their size, the Druham boats are nimble and responsive to the oars and poles but it still requires the coordinated effort of eight oarsmen (2 per oar) and two polemen (fore and aft) plus the careful navigation of our expert cockswain (manning the rudder and commanding the vessel) to get us across the river but the challenges begin on shore.

When you come to Washington’s Crossing, we parade the troops and you will see the Marbleheaders standing at attention in the vanguard with their oars perfectly vertical like pikes but consider that each of those oars is a four inch round, sixteen foot ash pole, its heavy and long and getting it up, keeping it up is far more challenging than shouldering a musket.  Just getting these oars to the boat is an elegant dance as the path to the river and the dock narrow and crowded.  So, you are hopping from deck to deck, in period shoes, while carrying a tabor.  Fortunately, no one got wet!  Oh, did I mention that once onboard, those oars need to be held vertical again…

Finally, there is the rowing.  The river is swift and the boats are heavy so rowing requires you to put your back into the cadence.  When the infantry marches, we pride ourselves on being in step but in reality, if someone is out of step it’s a minor problem.  Not so in the Durham boat!  Those oars need to pull together or else the boat doesn’t go straight.  If you are out of cadence your work cancels out the work of others and the boats doesn’t go where we want to go.  So, two oarsmen per oar (one pulling and one pushing) trying to get the same amount of paddle blade in the water each time (and the same amount as the other oars) and pulling on the same cadence.  We need to sing:

<< insert Sam’s going away on a man-o-war>>

One comment I frequently hear, especially from spectators or new crossers is “Why doesn’t the boat go straight across?”  Well the short answer is you can’t.  There is a strong current and if we tried to go straight across, we would land downstream quite a distance. So we turn upstream in the slower water near the shore then turn into the current so that we can arrive back downstream at the disembarking point.  Thank God for an experienced cockswain!  There are also sandbars and rocks near shore, so we start out going downstream to avoid these.  Thank God for expert polemen!  The whole path looks a bit serpentine but to the rower, its just long.  Lots of oar strokes.  By the time we reached shore, my back ached.  Of course if this were 1776, we would still have 20-30 more trips, a march to Trenton and an extra 900 Hessian prisoners to row back across.  These Marbleheaders were made of iron!

Repeating the whole thing on Christmas Day!  Please come.

P.S.  If anyone does come, please send me photos.  I will be busy rowing the boat not standing around enjoying the scenery and taking snapshots.

Published by Michael Carver

My goal is to bring history alive through interactive portrayal of ordinary American life in the late 18th Century (1750—1799) My persona are: Journeyman Brewer; Cordwainer (leather tradesman but not cobbler), Statesman and Orator; Chandler (candle and soap maker); Gentleman Scientist; and, Soldier in either the British Regular Army, the Centennial Army, or one of the various Militia. Let me help you experience history 1st hand!

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  1. Danette and I were lucky enough to see the dress rehearsal a couple of years ago. It was great. Thanks Michael, for the first-hand account of being a Marbleheader.

    Steve Griffith

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