TRENTON - After taking part in every reenactment of George Washington's Delaware River crossing since 1976, amassing more than 500 books on the American Revolution, and completing a degree in American military history, Ronald Rinaldi III is ready for the role of a lifetime.

Rinaldi will be playing Washington in the 55th annual reenactment of the military leader's daring Christmas crossing, which led to a rout of British-led forces in Trenton and is credited with reviving the downtrodden Continental forces.

"It wouldn't be a Christmas Day without going down there," said Rinaldi.

The reenactment of the crossing is scheduled to begin at 1 p.m.

In the Dec. 25, 1776, crossing about 2,400 soldiers, 200 horses and 18 cannons ferried across the cold Delaware River. The Continental soldiers, many ill-prepared for the cold weather and poorly trained compared with the troops they were about to face, then marched eight miles downriver.

They soundly beat the German mercenary soldiers based there, capturing 1,000 prisoners, killing 30 troops, and losing only two Continental soldiers - and both of them froze to death.

The event was a turning point for the bedraggled Revolutionary forces, showing the mighty British that they were a military force to be reckoned with, giving hope to civilians, and boosting morale with Continental soldiers readying to go home.

"If they didn't win this battle, that would have been the end of the American Revolution," said Hilary Krueger, director of Pennsylvania's Washington Crossing Historic Park, which hosts the reenactment.

Three boats are expected to cross the river during this year's event, and dozens of reenactors are to take part, Krueger said. An average of at least 5,000 spectators line the shores yearly to watch the spectacle, in what has become a Christmas Day tradition for many families.

The actual crossing bears little resemblance to the painting by Emanuel Leutze, a glorified depiction of the event that hangs in New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Leutze's painting shows a daytime crossing. In truth, the bulk of the troops were moved at night. A majestic Washington stands at the bow of a boat, an unlikely occurrence, considering the freezing temperatures should he fall in the water.

Unlike the original crossing, water safety crews will be at hand Christmas Day.

If the river is running too fast or it is too windy, the crossing is usually called off, and the reenactors simply march down to the water's edge, Krueger said.

"We're kind of at the mercy of the river," she said.

Rinaldi, 45, of Branchburg, was chosen by a panel of three experts on the crossing and will serve for two years. Prospective George Washingtons are judged on their knowledge of the military leader and the crossing, must possess a uniform resembling Washington's and be able to recite the first two passages from Thomas Paine's stirring tract calling for independence.

Rinaldi, who works as a Middlesex County crime scene investigator, became interested in Revolutionary War history after taking part in the 1976 crossing when he was 14.

"I remember I was fascinated by the muskets and the rifles and the uniforms that the soldiers had," he said.

Rinaldi volunteered as a guide at the park, worked at the Valley Forge National Historical Park, earned a bachelor's degree in American history from George Washington University in Washington and a master's in military history from Duke University.

Over the years, Rinaldi been joined by his father, and his 10-year-old son, Ronald, who will be in his boat this year as a drummer boy.

"I never thought when I was growing up that I'd be doing this with my son, much less doing Washington," Rinaldi said.

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