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3-generation crossing

Today's Washington will take his father and son along.

Ronald Rinaldi II as George Washington will be joined by his father and son during the annual crossing. Story, B3.
Ronald Rinaldi II as George Washington will be joined by his father and son during the annual crossing. Story, B3.Read moreAssociated Press

WASHINGTON CROSSING, N.J. - Having been denied last year, George Washington is optimistic he'll make it this time across the frigid Delaware River.

And for his portrayer, Ronald Rinaldi II, it will truly be a family affair.

Rinaldi is set today to again play the role of the military leader whose daring Christmas 1776 crossing led to a rout of British-led forces in Trenton and revived the downtrodden Continental Army.

Among those with him on the boat will be his father, Ronald Sr., and his 11-year-old son, Ronald III.

"There have been times when fathers and sons made the crossings, but we believe this is the first time we will have a father, son and grandson doing it, so obviously that's a special thing for me," the 46-year-old Rinaldi said. His father will play a soldier; his son, a drummer boy.

"I always thought it would be neat to play Washington, but I never thought it would happen," Rinaldi said. "And to have my family with me while I do it, that's wonderful."

Whether the weather will cooperate is uncertain.

The rowing portion of the re-enactment has always been at the mercy of the river. Some crossings, including last year's, were scrapped when the river was running too fast or it was too windy.

As many as three boats have been prepared to cross the river this year in the 56th annual re-enactment, and dozens of others are to participate.

The decision is usually made before any boats go out, but there have been times when a boat had to be rescued, according to Hilary Krueger, director of Pennsylvania's Washington Crossing Historic Park, which hosts the re-enactment.

Rinaldi, 46, of Branchburg, was chosen by a panel of three crossing experts to portray the general for two years.

A history buff - he has more than 500 books on the American Revolution and earned a degree in U.S. military strategy from Duke University - he has taken part in every re-enactment of Washington's crossing of the Delaware since he was 14.

"At the time, my mother was working for the Trentonian, and she did a story on the Bicentennial-year crossing," Rinaldi said. "Mom interviewed the Washington portrayer, and as they talked he eventually asked whether I would be interested in being involved with the crossing.

"I wasn't really interested in history at the time, but I ended up on a river bank as one of Washington's soldiers," he added. "I became enthralled with the rifles and muskets, their authentic uniforms. I really thought it was interesting. Pretty soon, I started reading many books about the Revolution, and within a year I ended up joining a re-enactment group."

Prospective Washingtons are judged on their knowledge of the general and the crossing, and must have a uniform resembling his. They must also recite the first two passages from Thomas Paine's "The Crisis," which advocated a fight for independence from the British.

The reality of the crossing bears little resemblance to the heroic image in Emanuel Leutze's famous painting, which portrayed a daytime crossing in fine weather. The painting, which hangs in New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, shows Washington standing on a boat in front of Old Glory, a flag that would not be created for another seven months.

In the event, boatmen ferried 2,400 soldiers, 200 horses, and 18 cannons across the river. The sentries' password: "Victory or death."

The troops marched eight miles downriver, where they routed Hessian mercenaries. Two Continental soldiers froze to death on the march but none died in the battle, which cost 30 Hessians their lives. Washington captured 1,000 prisoners and six cannons.

The exploit led to key victories in Trenton and Princeton.

View Crossing

The crossing, weather permitting, begins about 1 p.m. in Washington Crossing Historic Park, on Route 32 at Route 532 in Bucks County. The Visitor Center will be open from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. For details call, 215-493-4076. The crossing also may be viewed from Washington Crossing State Park in Titusville, N.J.