You might think history class is a snooze fest, but the story of George Washington, Patrick Ferguson and the Battle of Brandywine is anything but boring. The way that Washington and Ferguson’s paths crossed—in a single moment—could have changed history.
The Battle of Brandywine
Philadelphia, PA, was the goal of British Gen. Howe during the campaign of 1777. The city was the capital of the newly formed nation and home to Congress. That made it a prime target.
The British approach would be from the Chesapeake. Believing they could be stopped, Gen. George Washington sought to engage them from the high ground at Chadds Ford, a safe passage across Brandywine River and en route to Philadelphia.
Just in case the British tried to cross the river north or south of his position, Washington sent detachments of troops south to Pyle’s Ford and Wistar’s Ford, to the north. Positive there were no unguarded fords closer than 12 miles upriver, Washington and his troops set in for a fight.
Washington didn’t know that north of Wistar’s Ford was another spot the British could use to cross the river. After grouping at Kennett Square, part of the British forces marched to Chadds Ford, as if they were prepared to fight at that location. The remainder of the British army headed north, crossed the Brandywine River, and headed south to flank Washington’s Army.
Washington had conflicting reports, so he maintained that the entire British army would meet him at Chadds Ford. By mid-afternoon, Sep. 11, 1777, the British has crossed the river and gained a position near Birmingham Friends Meeting House. After realizing the British had flanked him, Washington ordered his troops to take the high ground around the same location. But, confusion among the Americans hampered any attempts to successfully engage the British. At nightfall the Americans retreated to Chester, suffering yet another defeat.
With little opposition, the British marched toward Philadelphia. Knowing of the British advance, Congress fled first to Lancaster, PA, then to York, PA. Military supplies were moved to Reading, PA. Congress managed to secure the dwindling Army supplies and reinforcements to mount an offensive, but it was too late, and on Sep. 26 the British captured the former capital.
A Closer Look at Brandywine
The Battle at Brandywine signaled the fall of Philadelphia into British hands, but a single event at the location could have changed not only the outcome of the war, but of the entire country’s future as well. As with much of history, experts differ about the event, but the overall story seems factual.
According to one source, Patrick Ferguson, a British captain at the time, along with three members of his Sharp Shooters Corps, were scouting the American lines near Chadds Ford when the soldiers heard approaching horses. The first horseman was a French officer, while the second—wearing a traditional blue and buff uniform—appeared to be an American senior officer.
Ferguson knew the officer was of high distinction, but couldn’t identify him. Initially Ferguson ordered his men to shoot the riders, but then quickly signaled to ignore the command. Thinking his initial command was“disgusting,” Ferguson made himself visible, at which point the French officer alerted his fellow American rider.
At the signal the American rider galloped off. Ferguson, being a crack shot, admitted he could have easily put several round balls in the soldier’s back before he was out of range. Ferguson, as a gentleman, decided not to shoot. The thought of shooting a non-threatening soldier in the back was “disgusting.”
Other accounts have Ferguson getting the opportunity to shoot the high-ranking officer on Sep. 11, 1777, during the Battle of Brandywine, when the “rebel” leader and escort were out riding. In both accounts the story ends with the officer safely retreating.
Moments or days later (depending on the account you believe) Ferguson was struck in the right elbow by a musket ball, landing him in a field hospital. While there, Ferguson learned the officer he could have shot was none other than George Washington. Even after being told this, Ferguson reaffirmed his gentlemanly decision not to shoot.
Ferguson, After the Fact
After his injury in Brandywine, Ferguson spent eight months in a Philadelphia hospital. Although he didn’t lose his right arm, it was crippled. Refusing to give up the activities he loved, he learned to shoot and fence left handed. By late 1778, Ferguson began leading raids against privateer bases.
Later he worked to improve fortifications and fought to end raiding against civilians. Late in 1779 he was sent south in the campaign for the Carolinas. In March 1780, on a plantation near Charleston, Ferguson was bayoneted through his left arm. He continued to ride, learning to control the reins with his mouth. Soon after the capture
of Charleston, he was appointed Inspector of Militia, with duties to recruit and train local loyalists. On Oct. 7, 1780, the “Overmountain” men—considered rebels to the British—attacked Ferguson and his loyalist followers. Ferguson was shot from his horse and died within minutes.
Washington, After the Fact
Washington’s defeat at Brandywine was just one of many. In Oct. 1777, his Army unsuccessfully attacked a British garrison at Germantown. With winter settling in, Washington encamped at Valley Forge, staying there for six months. While there he lost approximately one third of his army, or 3,000 soldiers, to disease and exposure. In 1778 the British evacuated Philadelphia, returning to New York City with Washington fighting them along the way.
Washington remained outside New York until a French naval victory allowed French and American forces to trap the British in Yorktown. Washington then snuck out of the North and headed to Virginia to tighten the noose on Lord Cornwallis and the British army. The French fleet and army alongside the American Army forced Cornwallis to surrender, ending the Revolutionary War.
On Dec. 23, 1783, Washington resigned his commission as commander in chief to the Congress of the Confederation and returned to his home in Mount Vernon. In 1789 the Electoral College unanimously elected Washington president—a position he served from 1789 to1798. Within a year of his 1798 appointment, Washington fell ill with a cold, which worsened into acute laryngitis and pneumonia. He died on Dec. 14, 1799.
A Better Design
Captain Patrick Ferguson developed his own breech-loading rifle in the 1770s based upon the French Chaumette system. His rifle weighed 7.5 pounds, nearly half that of the Brown Bess musket used by the British military. The Ferguson rifle could be loaded from the prone position, which kept soldiers out of harm’s way, and fired at a rate of four to seven shots per minute. The gun so impressed his Majesty, King George III, that Ferguson was sent with orders for William Howe to establish a “Sharp Shooter Corps” to be headed by Ferguson. After the battle of Brandywine, where Ferguson was wounded, the Corps was disbanded and breech-loading rifles withdrawn from service—a good thing for the Americans. It would be a while before this rifle type was revisited. —AC
Timeline: Washington’s Military Career
1753: Appointed a major in the Virginia Militia.
1754: Commissioned a lieutenant colonel in the Virginia Regiment, becomes colonel after death of Colonel Joshua Fry and fights at Jumonville Glen and Fort Necessity.
1755: Accompanied the disastrous Braddock expedition, later promoted to commander in chief of all Virginia forces.
1758: Commands Virginia Regiment in the Forbes expedition
1759-1775: Retired from active military service.
June 1775: Commissoned general and commander in chief of the Continental Army.
1775-1781: Commanded the Continental Army in more than seven major battles with the British.
December 1783: Resigned commission as commander
July 1798: Appointed lieutenant general and commander of the Provisional Army to be raised in the event of a war with France.
Dec. 14, 1799: Died and was listed as a lieutenant general on the U.S. Army rolls.
Jan. 19, 1976: Approved by the United States Congress for promotion to General of the Armies.
Oct. 11, 1976: Declared the seniormost U.S. military officer for all time by Presidential Order of Gerald Ford.
Mar. 13, 1978: Promoted by Army Order 31-3 to General of the Armies with effective date of rank Jul. 4, 1776.
Fast Facts about
*Washington was a cricket enthusiast and was known to have played the sport, which was popular at that time in the British colonies.
*Washington’s teeth were not made out of wood, as usually claimed. They were made from the teeth of different kinds of animals, specifically elk, hippopotamus and human. One set of false teeth that he had weighed almost 4 ounces and was made out of lead.
Public Offices Held by George Washington:
Surveyor for Culpeper County, VA
Distinguished himself as General Braddock’s aide-de-camp in the French and Indian War, 1755
Named commander in chief of the Virginia militia, 1755
Elected to the Virginia House of Burgess, 1759
Unanimously chosen commander in chief of the Continental Army, June 1775
Masterminded the American victory at Yorktown, October 1781
Unanimously elected president of the Constitutional Convention, 1787
Unanimously elected president of the United States twice, 1789 and 1792
Washington’s Revolutionary War exploits are well told in art, but things could have been very different if Ferguson had taken the shot.
Captain Patrick Ferguson’s breech-loading rifle could be loaded from the prone position, a major advantage since other rifles could only be loaded while standing. His rifle led to the development of the cartridges we have today.
Ferguson, being a crack shot, admitted he could have easily put several round
balls in the soldier’s back before he was out of range. Ferguson, as a gentleman, decided not to shoot. The thought of shooting a non-threatening soldier in the back was “disgusting.”