History’s Humor: 10 Funny and Often Overlooked Details from Historic Events

It is unfortunate that history often bores kids stiff, frequently conveyed to students as a dreary listing of dull dates and dusty factoids. Unfortunate because, if we scratch beneath the surface of many historical events, we often find overlooked details that bring history alive, transforming the uninteresting into the fascinating. Or at least into the not so boring that it causes eyes to glaze over. Take George Washington’s crossing of the Delaware: most have probably seen the famous painting commemorating the event, but have no clue why it was important, or interest in finding out. But toss in Washington’s attempts at standup comedy before getting into a boat, and you just might pique enough interest to make somebody want to find out more.

Or take the Union efforts to control the Mississippi River during the American Civil War – something of interest only to history buffs. And even then, interesting only to that subcategory of buffs who are into the Civil War. But open up with the time the Union hoaxed Confederates with a dummy warship into abandoning a captured prize, and you might grab the interest of the uninterested. In short, history can be fun, or flat out funny. Just depends on the angle of approach, and the details chosen as openers to segue into the heavier stuff.

A scale model of the Russian monitor Novgorod, a vessel with a round hull that is considered one of history’s worst ever ships. Wikimedia

Following are ten funny but often overlooked events from history.

‘Washington Crossing the Delaware’, by Emanuel Leutze. Philadelphia Encyclopedia

George Washington Turns Comedian While Crossing the Delaware

Washington Crossing the Delaware, painted by German -American artist Emanuel Gottleib Leutze in 1851, is one of the most iconic images of the American Revolution and of American history. It depicts George Washington and a flotilla of Patriots in boats crossing the Delaware River on the night of December 25 – 26, 1776, for a surprise attack against enemy forces.

The event was dramatic and worthy of commemoration. As 1776 drew to a close, the war and the Americans’ armed bid for independence had not been going well for Washington and his Revolutionary forces.  They had been outgeneralled, outfought, and soundly drubbed. Most notably in New York City, where they had only avoided annihilation via a near miraculous escape.

Morale was low, so Washington planned a daring raid to score a quick victory and restore some confidence to the Revolutionary cause. From his base in Pennsylvania, he would cross the nearly frozen Delaware River, to suddenly descend upon and destroy Hessian forces on the opposite bank, in Trenton, New Jersey. Leutze’s portrayal of Washington standing at the boat’s prow, staring determinedly at the enemy shore, while flanked by other Patriot-laden boats, captured imaginations then and since.

The painting’s portrayal of Washington is true to the essence of what is known of the man, whose style was heavy on projecting an aura of detached dignity and a wall of formality that separated him from subordinates. It was not true, however, to Washington’s actual conduct during the crossing: it was one of the rare occasions when the general let down the formality, and cracked jokes.

Washington’s cold, hungry, and demoralized trooped clambered into boats on a frigid winter night, made even more miserable by driving sleet. When it was Washington’s turn to get into a boat, he looked at Henry Knox, his overweight artillery chief, and said: “Shift your fat ass, Harry! But don’t swamp the damn boat!” All things considered, it was not a comedic gem. But any levity from George Washington in public, especially on such a serious occasion, was highly unusual.

At first, the men were stunned, and stood looking at each other in shocked disbelief. Then somebody chuckled, and before long, contagious laughter rippled throughout the attacking force, as Washington’s comment was spread and repeated. With their spirits lifted, the Revolutionaries crossed the river, and fell upon the enemy in Trenton, killing, wounding, and capturing about a thousand men, for the loss of only two dead and five wounded.