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Black Man with Washington Crossing the Delaware

Washington and African man corssing the Delaware in 1851 painting

 

HISTORY MATTERS 

Sometimes the wrong facts tell the right story. It seems that way with Prince Whipple of POrtsmouth, NH.. Although Prince , historians now say, is not the African soldier crossing the Delaware with Washington, he still symbolizes black patriots in the American Revolution.

 

 

Getting Prince Whipple Right

Look carefully at the most famous painting in American history. In "Washington Crossing the Delaware", just beside General Washington’s right knee, is one African American soldier among a sea of white faces. He is wearing a large hat and red shirt and rowing frantically in the icy river from Valley Forge towards Washington’s critical victory against the British at Trenton.

It has been suggested that the black man in the red shirt represents Prince Whipple, an enslaved African from Portsmouth, NH. And for a while local historians, myself included, believed that might be true. I heard it a dozen years ago from Valerie Cunningham, who discovered it in the writings of historian William C. Nell. Nell heard about Prince Whipple while writing his breakthrough book Colored Patriots of the American Revolution that was published in 1855, just four years after the famous painting of Washington was put on display to the American public.

Nell’s amazing volume chronicles the lives of black revolutionaries who fought and died in the war that freed Americans from the shackles of British tyranny – white Americans, at least. Enslaved black veterans who fought in the Revolution remained slaves in a system of bondage that survived another century, and continues to impact American society today.

Who was Prince?

Prince Whipple did accompany William Whipple of Portsmouth during the Revolution. William was one of three New Hampshire men to sign the Declaration of Independence. As a founding father, he has been elevated to a position of honor in American history. Like most founders, he was also a slave owner. The Whipples, who lived for a time at the historic Moffatt-Ladd House on Market Street, purchased Prince at auction when he was a child. Nell suggests that the boy was descended from royalty, but there is no way to verify that Prince was really a "prince" from Amabou, Africa. Prince was a name commonly given to slaves who were stripped of their African or Caribbean identity and assigned the owner’s surname. Classical names like Pompey, Caesar, Venus and Prince may have been a means of further segregating blacks in the household from their white "family" members.

Nell placed William and Prince Whipple with Washington in the famous camp at Valley Forge. As everyone knows, Washington crossed the icy Delaware River secretly at night in 1776 and surprised and defeated the Hessian forces encamped at Trenton in a turning point in the Revolution. The dramatic painting "Washington Crossing the Delaware" by Emmanuel Leutze has been hanging in the Metropolitan Museum of Art for more than a century. It measures over 12 by 21 feet and is a copy of an earlier painting by Leutze that was damaged by fire. Critics point out that Leutze shows the wrong flag and the wrong type of boat in his painting. Washington could not have been standing dramatically in the boat, the floating blocks of ice are inaccurate and the crossing was at night, not in daylight. Defenders point out that it is a symbolic representation, a work of art, not history.

Detail of Washington Crossing the Delaware painting

Spreading the wrong word

I never actually said Prince was in the painting. I simply suggested in a 1997 essay that the black man in the hat might be Prince. Although the melodramatic painting is not a factual depiction of the event, German artist Emmanuel Leutze was very concerned with the figures he placed in the boat. He chose to include a black figure because there were African Americans at Valley Forge. Although Leutze likely never heard the Prince Whipple story, there have been art critics and historians since who made the connection. Other slave names from other states have been suggested, but Prince Whipple has been the most popular.

I simply jumped on the bandwagon back in ’97 and began waving the New Hampshire flag. My article ran in a local newspaper and I posted the story on the Internet among hundreds of other essays. A few months later I got an email from historian Blaine Whipple who explained that, according to his exhaustive research, William Whipple was 130 miles away in Baltimore while Washington and his ragged, starving troops crossed the Delaware. I posted Blaine’s letter on my web site with a promise to correct my original story. I didn’t get around to it for nine years.

A lot happened in that decade. The Web grew up. What was a slow clunky operation is now quick and ubiquitous. America was seeking black heroes, and as millions of people visited my web site, word about Prince Whipple got around, thanks largely to a search engine called Google that appeared in 1998. As years passed, the Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail grew in status. Most of the stops on the walking tour are now marked by exquisite brass plaques. Valerie Cunningham wrote a resource guide for the trail, then expanded the information into the book Black Portsmouth. In it, she and co-author Mark Sammons state clearly that Prince was probably not at Valley Forge. William Whipple would not likely have sent Prince 130 miles on his own to serve with Washington.

Portsmouth legend "wrongly claims" that Prince is the figure in the famous painting, the authors note in Black Portsmouth. But, they added, Prince was very likely with William Whipple in battles at Saratoga and in Rhode Island. And they remind us that there were at least 180 African Americans from New Hampshire serving in the Revolution, at a time when only 630 enslaved blacks – men, women and children – were living in the state.

Although another legend says that William Whipple freed Prince after the war – he did not. Prince and others petitioned for their freedom. His came seven years later. Prince married, lived in Portsmouth and died in his mid-30s. He is buried in the Old North Cemetery. His little wooden cross was placed not far from the granite sarcophagus of William Whipple and the large tomb of revolutionary John Langdon. In 1905 Prince Whipple was recognized inaccurately by local veterans as "New Hampshire's foremost, if not only colored representative of the war for Independence."

African American Revolutionary

Blaine Whipple has also written a book that brings the often underrated Gen. William Whipple to life. In it he politely disputes the Prince Whipple legend. David Hackett Fischer, author of the popular book Washington’s Crossing says that many have attempted to identify figures in the famous painting with historical names, but without success. Fischer points to WC Nell’s reference to Prince Whipple, and dismisses the idea. Some suggest the black figure is William Lee, Washington’s trusted and enslaved valet. Washington was, after all, among the largest slaveholders in the new nation. 

While most accounts now dispute the Prince Whipple story, other scholars didn’t get the memo. In his lively account of George Washington and his slaves, An Imperfect God, author Henry Wiencek clearly identifies the black soldier in the Leutze painting as Prince Whipple. Perhaps he read my web site. Tourists who visit the historic park where Washington crossed the Delaware are told that Prince is "widely accepted" as the man in the painting. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of school children have since written essays about Prince. I know because they still write to me.

Thanks to the unstoppable and often incorrect Internet, the Prince Whipple legend is now more deeply embedded in history than ever. His appearance in "Washington Crossing the Delaware" is noted in scholarly papers, on history web sites, in Wikipedia and on PBS. Often I am listed as the source of the information and often the articles note definitively that Prince Whipple is the man in the painting.

This is, after all, how history really works. It is a flawed process. We study all the facts we can lay our hands on, then we take a flying leap at the truth. One historian relies on the work of another, then the next generation feeds on the work of the former. The real professionals track the story back to its roots. But most historians and journalists take the word of others as fact, recycle it, and move on. The Internet merely speeds up the process.

Nell was technically wrong, it seems, about Prince Whipple’s appearance in Leutze’s painted boat. But he was right about the big picture. African Americans, estimates run as high as 5,000, fought in the American Revolution, and in every American war since.

Maybe no one in the boat is real. George Washington symbolizes the indomitable human spirit. The boat symbolizes America. Critics point out that the people rowing seem to be immigrants from different nations. One looks like a Native American. Another appears to be a woman. If so, the black man represents all colored patriots. He may not be Prince Whipple with the historic accuracy required to place him in an encyclopedia or textbook. But he is Prince in a simpler purer way that every human heart can understand.

 Copyright © 2009 by J. Dennis Robinson. All rights reserved. Robinson is editor and owner of the popular history web site SeacoastNH.com and a former trustee of the Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail.

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