Category Archives: Near Misses In History

Washington’s Providence Part 2

In part 1, we talked about George Washington’s near miss with a point-blank shot fired at him by an Indian guide.

In 1754, Virginia Governor Dinwiddie again sent Washington to confront the French and tell them to leave, this time with orders to “restrain all such Offenders, & in Case of resistance to make Prisoners of or kill & destroy them.” Washington led his men through the wilderness toward present-day Pittsburgh where the French had begun construction of Fort Duquesne. Washington’s scouts reported locating a French advance party and Washington decided to attack. Washington’s men surprised the French camp and slaughtered the French––inadvertently sparking the French and Indian War.

The following spring, Washington was invited to be a member of British General Edward Braddock’s military “family” as an aide de camp. This meant he was an officer on Braddock’s staff, but had very limited power and no command. Washington accepted the post because he felt it would pave the way for his earning a regular commission in the British army––his dream job. Braddock’s mission was to lead his army back through the same wilderness Washington had navigated the previous year and force the French out of Fort Duquesne. The English underestimated the French and Indian forces and were routed at the Battle of the Monongahela––just a few miles from Fort Duquesne.

During the battle, George Washington had two horses shot out from under him. He had four musket-ball holes tear through his jacket. Another musket-ball hole pierced his hat. Musket-ball fragments were scattered through his hair.

And he never had a scratch.

Out of the 86 officers in the British army, 63 were either killed or wounded during the battle.

Fifteen years later, an Indian chief told Washington he specifically ordered his warriors to target him during the battle, but to no avail. The chief concluded Washington was being protected by a spirit so he could do something important in the future.

Washington as Captain in the French and Indian War by Junius Brutus Stearns

Washington as Captain in the French and Indian War by Junius Brutus Stearns

Maybe Indians just weren’t good shots when it came to shooting Washington.

But what about the British?

Over twenty years later, during the American Revolution, a British marksman, Captain Patrick Ferguson, hid in the woods along the Brandywine Creek. The British were making a push toward the American capital of Philadelphia and Ferguson and his men were scouting ahead for American forces. In the clearing, two officers appeared––one wearing the uniform of a European cavalry officer–– the other, the uniform of a senior American officer. Ferguson was about to pull the trigger, but decided it was bad form to shoot unsuspecting victims in the back. He called out to the men in an effort to warn them. The American glanced his way and then casually rode off. Ferguson held his fire feeling it was not “pleasant to fire at the back of an unoffending individual, who was acquitting himself very coolly of his duty…”

The next day, Ferguson learned that the American officer was most likely General George Washington. The European was probably Polish Count Casimir Pulaski. Ferguson lamented he was “sorry that I did not know at the time who it was.”

Interestingly, the seemingly noble Ferguson became infamous to the Americans as the war turned to the southern theater. Ferguson was transferred south and rode with Banastre Tarleton (made famous as the bad guy in the movie The Patriot). You can read more here.

Next time, we will take a look at the possibilities of what might have happened if George Washington was not alive to lead the American Revolution or if he had been killed during the Revolution.

As always, your comments and questions are encouraged.

Washington’s Providence Part 1

“I can with truth assure you, I heard bullets whistle and believe me there was something charming in the sound.” – George Washington in a letter to his brother, 1754

When we think of George Washington, we think of the stoic, chiseled in marble images on our money and adorning the walls of classrooms and museums. We have heard the stories of how he improbably took an undersupplied collection of volunteers and turned them into a fighting force that defeated the best army in the world. After the war, he presided over the Constitutional Convention and became the first President of the United States. We correctly place him on a pedestal. After all, he is the father of our country.

But what if Washington had not survived to lead the American Revolution or what if he had been killed during the Revolution? What would our world look like and how would American history have been shaped?

Many authors and historians have tackled these questions. They’re fun to think about because the danger has passed. I even attempt to answer some of these questions in my upcoming novel, Washington’s Providence (yes, shameless plug). Being a history geek, I’ve always been fascinated by the numerous near misses that came to shape Washington’s life. I would like to examine three of Washington’s near misses and try to make sense of what could have happened if any of them came true.

Today, let’s look at one.

In 1753, a twenty-one year old George Washington was appointed by Virginia Governor Robert Dinwiddie to deliver a message from King George II of England to the French garrison at Fort Le Boeuf near Lake Erie. The message was simple: The French were building forts on English soil and they had to leave. The area of contention was in present-day Ohio, and both the English and French had laid claims to it. Interestingly enough (and not surprising), Governor Dinwiddie was also a stock holder in the Ohio Company, a Virginia-based land speculation company interested in the profitable fur trade and real estate of Ohio.

Why would a twenty-one year old be sent to negotiate with the French army? There are a few reasons. First, Washington was a trained surveyor and seasoned traveler through the western wilderness of Pennsylvania and Ohio (lands claimed by Virginia in those days). He had already made similar journeys and was young and healthy enough to survive the harsh conditions of an Ohio winter. He was also known for being a mature and model youth. Most likely, he was appointed for the same reason most political appointments happen––he was well-connected. Two of his brothers also happened to be members of the Ohio Company.

Washington led his eight-man party to meet the French and deliver the message. The French garrison commander politely received the message, refused to leave, and sent Washington on his way. During the return trip to Virginia, Washington and one of his guides, Christopher Gist, went ahead of the others to return to Virginia as fast as possible and alert the governor of the French response. After losing their canoe to icy river rapids, Washington and Gist trudged along until they arrived at Murdering Town* (near Evans City, about thirty miles north of Pittsburgh). There, they met an Indian guide who agreed to show them the fastest route to the forks of the Ohio River.

The Indian led the weary travelers for a few miles. Suddenly, the Indian guide scrambled ahead to a small clearing, turned and fired his musket at Washington at point-blank range (about 15 feet)––and Missed. Gist apprehended the Indian and was about to kill him when Washington stopped him. After dark, they released the Indian, but fearing his return with reinforcements, they traveled through the night hoping to find safety.

“George Washington and Christopher Gist on the Allegheny River”
Daniel Huntington

Had the Indian not been such a poor shot, the name George Washington might only be a small footnote in our history books––but what would “our” history books look like? Would there even be a United States if it wasn’t for George Washington? How important was he to the American cause?

Next Week: We’ll look into two more of Washington’s near misses. In the meantime, what are your thoughts on Washington? What do you think would have happened if Washington didn’t lead the American Revolution?

* Note to self: If I’m ever traveling and come across a place called, Murdering Town, move on.