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When Washington Crossed the Delaware, a Diverse Regiment Led the Way. Who Were the ‘Marbleheaders?’

Our most recent blog was authored by the Friends of Washington Crossing Park and discussed how the Delaware River Basin’s waters helped feed/support George Washington's soldiers and so many others during the American Revolution. The history was so interesting that we asked them to author another blog about Washington Crossing the Delaware – quite appropriate as the Christmas Crossing reenactments are fast approaching. We hope you enjoy this piece about the Marbleheaders and how a diverse regiment bore the brunt of this historic and successful effort.



By June 1775, the Intolerable Acts, also known as the Coercive Acts, had pushed a port town a little more than 300 miles north of (what is now known as) Washington Crossing to the brink.


Rendered unemployed and angry by the strict trade measures imposed by British Parliament, virtually every able-bodied man in Marblehead, Massachusetts, rallied to fight against their common enemy.

THE ORIGINS OF THE MARBLEHEADERS

By the next year, this modest militia had become the 14th Continental Regiment of George Washington’s army—and one of the few racially integrated regiments in the entire army.


Slavery existed in New England in the late 18th Century, but it looked different than it did in the south. Maritime culture, in particular, tended to be much more tolerant of racial diversity than the rest of the country, according to Frank Lyons, who portrays Col. John Glover, the regiment’s leader, at Washington Crossing Historic Park reenactments. This made Marblehead an attractive place to settle for Black sailors, who often joined the crews sailing back and forth between the port town and the Caribbean.

Washington, who was a slave owner and initially opposed enlisting Black men in the Continental Army, accepted the Marbleheaders. Early on, the regiment developed a reputation as undaunted, dependable soldiers who were uniquely qualified to deal with the adverse conditions that would factor into some of the most pivotal battles in the months ahead.


KEY MARBLEHEADERS’ BATTLES AND THE CHRISTMAS CROSSING

In August 1776, Washington and the Continental Army were in tatters after a furious siege by the British in New York. But they lived to fight another day largely because the Marbleheaders rowed 9,000 soldiers, along with their horses and artillery, across the East River to the relative safety of Manhattan under the cover of darkness.


In October, British General William Howe and 4,000 soldiers landed at Throg’s Neck, five miles from King’s Bridge, the major crossing from Manhattan, with the intent to trap Washington and his men. After a week of bad weather, the British relocated to Pell’s Point, three miles north of Throg’s Neck. But Glover and the Marbleheaders were waiting for them. While they engaged the British, Washington withdrew his troops and regrouped in White Plains.


When the Marbleheaders arrived in Bucks County around December 22, 1776, Washington asked Glover if his regiment would help take the lead in getting him and his troops across the Delaware River on Christmas night. Glover accepted, even though he was likely wary of the challenge, Lyons says.


On December 24, the Marbleheaders began collecting all the Durham boats and ferries that had been docked up and down the river’s Pennsylvania banks to prevent the British from crossing. And on Christmas night, the Marbleheaders began shuttling soldiers, artillery and horses across the river into New Jersey. The process would continue into the early morning, much of it in the face of a relentless Nor’easter.


The Marbleheaders helped General John Sullivan attack Trenton, and after the battle, led a significant portion of the return crossing, which was even slower-going with about 900 Hessian prisoners in tow.


“In all likelihood, the Marbleheaders didn’t sleep for at least three nights,” Lyons says. “They truly bore the brunt of that historic effort.”


Join the Friends of Washington Crossing Park in Washington Crossing, Pa. to see the Marbleheaders, General Washington and the army cross the Delaware River! Guests of the park can witness the Annual Christmas Crossing Reenactments on Sunday, December 11, 2022, from 11 a.m. – 3 p.m. & on Sunday, December 25, from 12 p.m. – 3 p.m. (Actual Crossing is at 1 p.m.).


For more information, please visit www.washingtoncrossingpark.org.


This article was written by the Friends of Washington Crossing Park.

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