Probably no historical painting is as familiar to the American public as Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze's dramatic Washington Crossing the Delaware. Painted in 1851, seventy-five years after the event, it may not be true to the facts, but it catches the spirit of dauntless courage exhibited by General George Washington and his soldiers on Christmas Eve 1776.
Among the men to whom Leutze grants a place in the rowboat is the fifth American president, James Monroe, who did not actually make the crossing. Another is a man who, in most reproductions, is hard to make out. He is shown pulling the stroke oar just behind General Washington's forward-thrusting kneecap. He is a black man, and he did make the crossing. His name was Prince Whipple.
According to the earliest account of Whipple's remarkable life, he was born in Africa "of comparatively wealthy parents" and, when about ten, was sent by his parents "in company with a cousin, to America to be educated." Instead, both young men were sold into slavery in Baltimore and purchased by William Whipple of Portsmouth, New Hampshire. During the Revolution, William Whipple served as an aide to Washington and rose to the rank of general. Prince Whipple served at his master's side throughout the Revolution and, according to historian William C. Nell, "was emancipated during the war."
On July 4, 1908, 125 years after the close of the American Revolution, a band of Portsmouth, NH veterans placed a marker in the North Cemetery. It was dedicated to Prince Whipple. A local newspaper account called him, "New Hampshire's foremost, if not only colored representative of the war for Independence."
Research for the Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail now suggests that as many as 180 New Hampshire blacks served in the Revolutionary War, either in the militia, even though this was against the law. The served in the Continental Army, or on privateer ships or in the fledgling navy. Prince Whipple's story, like most blacks of his era, is all but lost to history. Yet a symbol of his service endures in one of the nation's best known historical paintings. One black face is visible in both famous renderings of "Washington Crossing the Delaware." That one face represents thousands of African-Americans who fought diligently for freedoms they themselves would never enjoy.
For a time local historians believed that the black man in the hat was our own Prince Whipple. The facts, as it turns out, now indicate otherwise.
Prince Whipple's Story
He may have been an African prince, but that too seems unlikely. Scholars now know that many enslaved Africans were called "Prince". The use of noble titles and names from classical history %u2013 Cicero, Caesar, Pompey and others -- was more likely a way of separating slaves from the standard "Christian" names of members of the household. As in the case of Prince, the enslaved African was often given the surname of the household.
The few details known about Prince Whipple's life come from a passage in a breakthrough 1851 book entitled "Colored Patriots of the American Revolution," by William C. Nell. Nell documented the presence of blacks in the Revolution and helped prevent those stories from being lost. Nells information, however, was often anecdotal and subject to rumor, distortion and error. But in many cases, Nell is the only source we have. Of Prince Whipple he wrote:
Prince Whipple was born in Amabou, Africa, of comparatively wealthy parents. When about ten years of age, he was sent by them, in company with a cousin, to America to be educated. An elder brother had returned four years before, and his parents were anxious that their child should receive the same benefits. The captain who brought the two boys over proved a treacherous villain, and carried them to Baltimore, where he exposed them for sale, and they were both purchased by Portsmouth men, Prince falling to Gen. Whipple. He was emancipated during the [Revolutionary] war, was much esteemed, and was once entrusted by the General with a large sum of money to carry from Salem to Portsmouth. He was attacked on the road, near Newburyport, by two ruffians; one was struck with a loaded whip, the other he shot...Prince was beloved by all who knew him. He was the "Caleb Quotom" of Portsmouth. where he died at the age of thirty-two leaving a widow and children.
As was customary, Prince took the surname of his owner, William Whipple, who would later represent NH by signing the Declaration of Independence. Like many prominent whites, north and south, William Whipple was a slave owner. He married Catherine Moffatt and they lived in her father's mansion on the river in downtown Portsmouth, today one of the city's surviving historic houses. The slave quarters, where Prince, his cousin (or brother) Cuffy, and others likely lived, can still be seen.
When William Whipple joined the Revolution, Prince was forced to accompany him. According to a popular legend, William and Prince were in with General Washington on Christmas night 1776 during the legendary and arduous crossing of the Delaware. The surprise attack on the British forces was a badly needed victory for America, and for Washington's sagging military reputation.
In 1777 William Whipple was summoned to Exeter, promoted to Brigadier General. and ordered to drive British General Burgoyne out of Vermont. According to the story popularized by Portsmouth reporter Charles Brewster in the mid-1800s, Prince Whipple protested. "You are going to fight for your liberty," he reportedly said to William Whipple, "but I have none to fight for." General Whipple agreed to free Prince after the military campaign. The story, according to historian Valerie Cunningham, is likely imagined, created in the 19th century to make signer William Whipple look more sympathetic to blacks than he really was. Cunningham point oout that Prince was actually kept in service to the Whipple family for another seven years before his eventual release.
Prince married an emancipated woman from New Castle named Dinah in 1781. They and their children (including Ester Mollenoux, well known in 19th century Portsmouth) and relations eventually lived in a renovated two-story house on a lot just behind the Moffatt mansion. Prince's popularity may have come from being a jack-of-all-trades and master of ceremonies at local social functions where Cuffy Whipple, also enslaved by the Whipple family, was a popular musician.
In 1789, then President, George Washington toured Seacoast, New Hampshire and attended a party on his final night in Portsmouth. Brewster speculates that Cuffee Whipple performed on his fiddle and that Prince probably was in attendance. Washington, one of the nation's largest slave-holders at the time, made no mention of such details in his voluminous journals. He would not have recognized Prince, not because he was among 2,000 men in his command during the famous crossing of the Delaware. But Prince, even if he was attending on General Whipple during the time of the battle, would have been 130 miles away with General Whipple in Baltimore