WASHINGTON CROSSING, N.J. – After taking part in every re-enactment 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 was ready for the role of a lifetime.
But a strong current on Tuesday kept Rinaldi from completing his mission.
Rinaldi played Washington in the 55th annual re-enactment 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.
"Tonight we cross back into Jersey," said Rinaldi, speaking in the role of Washington to troops assembled along the shores of the Delaware. "The fate of unborn millions will now depend, under God, on the courage and conduct that you show ... I am resolved that by dawn both Trenton and victory shall be ours."
After boarding the boats, Rinaldi and the crews of two other boats waited to cross, and watched as the first boat attempting the short voyage got carried downstream. A rescue craft stationed in the river snared the boat and returned it to the Pennsylvania shore. About 25 re-enactors were aboard.
The rowing portion of the event is scrapped if the river is running too fast or it is too windy, but the current apparently caught organizers by surprise.
Hilary Krueger, director of Pennsylvania's Washington Crossing Historic Park which hosts the re-enactment, said safety is usually the first priority in determining whether the crossing can go forward.
"We're kind of at the mercy of the river," she said.
Three boats trained to cross the river this year, and dozens of re-enactors took part. Usually about 5,000 spectators line the shores to watch the spectacle, in what has become a Christmas Day tradition for many families.
"It wouldn't be a Christmas Day without going down there," said Rinaldi.
Peter Tucci, 47, of New Hope, Pa., attended the re-enactment with his two daughters and two friends visiting from France — which threw their support to the Revolutionary forces partly based on Washington's success at Trenton.
"I'm a big history buff, and I wanted to show it to my daughters and friends," Tucci said. "I think it's under-appreciated how important this victory was."
In the Dec. 25, 1776 crossing some 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 to the troops they were about to face, then marched eight miles downriver.
The re-enactors Tuesday wore an assortment of uniforms reflecting the ragtag feel of Washington's troops, and a number had wrapped rags around their feet — as the actual soldiers had done to protect themselves against the blizzard-like conditions.
Washington's troops soundly beat the German mercenary soldiers based in Trenton, capturing 1,000 prisoners, killing 30 troops and only losing 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," Krueger said.
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.
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 an 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 was to 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.