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“The Miraculous Care Of Providence”
George Washington’s Narrow Escapes
February/march 1982 | Volume 33, Issue 2
Upon at least five occasions when in great danger from gunfire George Washington remained unscathed. His hat was shot off his head; his clothes were torn; horses were killed beneath him, but the hero was never so much as scratched by a bullet. For this immunity he thanked “Providence.” He also wrote himself down as lucky.
On the 250th anniversary of his birth, Washington’s foremost biographer recalls the series of supremely lucky breaks that allowed him to become our first President
The problem was never the modern one of attempted assassination. When in the spring of 1791 the first President undertook an official tour through the Southern states (Washington had never been south of Virginia), Secretary of State Jefferson was, it is true, worried for his safety. The President planned to travel in a light carriage drawn by four horses, and Jefferson knew that the roads were very bad. The President should lower the hang of his carriage and replace a coachman, who sat some distance behind the horses, with postillions riding on one of each pair.
Washington brushed these suggestions aside and had no other worries about his safety. Except for servants to attend to the nine horses he took with him, the entourage of the President of the United States on a 1,887-mile journey consisted only of a secretary and a valet.
The close escapes Washington experienced all belong to the military part of his career. The first happened when he was nineteen. A militia officer with important connections and considerable wilderness experience, Washington was appointed official representative of the British Crown to warn French invaders off land claimed by George II. His mission required that he travel from backwoods. Virginia through primeval wilderness to French forts close to Lake Erie and then back again—some five hundred miles. Moving at the head of his little party to the forts proved neither particularly arduous nor hazardous; the conference during which the French denied the British claim was carried out with scrupulous protocol and courtesy; the problem was that by the time Washington was ready to return, it was midwinter. All watercourses were frozen beyond hope of navigation. Along the trail, the legs of Washington’s horses sank deep in snowdrifts to be cut at the ankles by crusts of ice. Progress slowed almost to a standstill, and Washington felt urgency in carrying to the Virginia governor warnings of France’s bellicose intentions. Finally he left the slow-moving cavalcade behind and advanced on foot. This was also proving torturously slow when, at an Indian village named Murthering Town, a strange Indian offered to lead him along a shortcut. Despite misgivings, the eager young man agreed.
Turning off all trails, they advanced through the icecovered wilderness which glowed in daytime like a hall of mirrors—but dimly, since the tremendous trees shut out the sun. Suddenly they emerged into a clearing where sunlight dazzled. The Indian ran ahead a few paces, raised his gun, and fired at Washington. The bullet moved through emptiness without changing the history of the world.
Washington’s next—and almost miraculous—escape took place in the full eye of history. The French and Indian War was under way, and the British Crown had sent to America two regular regiments under the command of General Edward Braddock. Braddock’s mission was to march from Virginia through the wilderness to the falls of the Ohio (now Pittsburgh) and capture the French Fort Duquesne from which Indian raids on the Virginia and Maryland frontiers were being staged. As a volunteer aide to Braddock, Washington contended that it would be madness to fight Indians who skulked behind trees with the wide and deep blocks of soldiers that moved ponderously but effectively on the open fields of Europe. Braddock enjoyed arguing with the bumptious young provincial (Washington was now twentytwo) but paid no attention to what the youth advised.
The British engineers cut a continuous twelve-foot-wide clearing through the wilderness down which the troops could march in formation. They had penetrated to within a few miles of Fort Duquesne when multiple shots sounded from the flanking woods. No enemy could be seen, but in bloody contortions the redcoats were falling. The British regulars could conceive of no way to fight except in formation, and thus the officers tried desperately to keep their men lined up under the rain of fire. Indignantly, Braddock refused Washington’s request that he be allowed to lead the provincial troops into the woods “and engage the enemy in their own way.”
The slaughter was terrific, and the officers, towering on horseback above the melee, were for the Indians the best targets. One after another they went down. Washington’s horse was shot from under him. He leaped on another. Bullets tore his coat. Braddock toppled over, Washington’s second horse crumbled. His hat was shot off. However, as he wrote later, “The miraculous care of Providence … protected me beyond all human expectations.” He survived unscratched to lead the remnant of Braddock’s army away from the pile of bloody bodies and into comparative safety.
The next effort to capture Fort Duquesne was made three years later under the command of the British general, John Forbes. He was to lead between six and seven thousand men, three times Braddock’s force. Much had been learned since the great defeat; diplomatic efforts were undertaken with the Indians, and the value of provincial troops, fighting in the Indian manner, was recognized. Temporarily designated a brigadier general, Washington was given command of the advanced brigade, made up of local troops.
The army was encamped along the route when scouts reported that a large enemy force was within three miles. Forbes ordered Washington to send out five hundred of his Virginians. Listening to “hot firing” and judging that the Americans were falling back, Washington received Forbes’s permission to go to the rescue with a group of volunteers. As they advanced through thick woods in deepening twilight, they saw facing them armed men lurking behind trees. The two groups were quick to fire at each other. Finally, the cacophony of gunshots sank to a moment of silence and Washington could hear an order being shouted to the opposing force. It was in a familiar voice! Washington’s men were firing at each other.
Washington, as he remembered, ran between the lines of firing men, “knocking up with his sword the presented pieces.” Bullets sped around him. Before the two bloodied groups could be made to understand, fourteen had been killed and twenty-six wounded. Washington commented when the Revolutionary War was behind him that his life had been “in as much jeopardy as it has ever been before or since. ” He was not touched.
After Forbes had successfully captured Fort Duquesne, Virginia’s role in the French and Indian War, and with it Washington’s active participation, came to an end. Our narrative must thus jump ahead twelve years to what took place on September 15, 1776, within sight of the hilltop where the New York Public Library now stands.
Washington was trying to hold Manhattan Island, and with it New York City, against a greatly superior British military and naval force. He had hoped to seal off the rivers that surrounded Manhattan. However, the Battle of Brooklyn Heights, the first confrontation between the Continental Army and true British power, had been a humiliating defeat. Brooklyn and with it the power to operate on the East River fell into British hands. The now endangered Manhattan shore was flatly inviting and too extensive to be held in force. Washington’s strategy was to line the river front with troops and trenches just strong enough to delay an invasion until powerful reserves could be brought to bear. Saving New York City depended on preventing the British from establishing a beachhead.
After a terrifying naval barrage, the British landed at Kip’s Bay, an indentation between the present Thirty-second and Thirty-eighth streets that penetrated almost to Second Avenue. The raw militia who were stationed there were too frightened by the banging of the naval guns to make a stand. Arriving at a gallop, Washington, “to [his] surprise and mortification,” found himself surrounded with fleeing men. Then to his relief he saw reserves coming up: two brigades marching in good order. But when a small British force appeared over the crest of the slope, the reserves took one look, jettisoned their guns, and ran.
Washington threw his hat on the ground and cried out. “Are these the men with whom I am to defend America?” And again, “Good God, have I got such troops as these?”
By now, he was alone. He saw some fifty of the enemy only about eighty yards away and advancing at a run. He stared at them blankly. The enemy were preparing to fire when some of Washington’s aides appeared, grabbed his horse’s bridle, and pulled him back. According to General Nathanael Greene, Washington was “so vexed at the infamous conduct of his troops that he sought death rather than life.” But death was otherwise engaged.
The following year saw the nadir of the American cause. New York City had become a British base. The Continental Army was defeated at White Plains. Forts Washington and Lee fell with great losses of men and supplies. Washington’s Continental Army fled ignominiously across New Jersey, while the terrified inhabitants scrambled to swear renewed allegiance to the crown. Then, during a blizzard, Washington made a midnight crossing of the Delaware to overwhelm the Hessians at Trenton. This might have been considered no more than an audacious raid had it not been followed by the beating up of three British regiments at Princeton.
At the outskirts of the town, the British regulars had drawn up in their famous line, against which Washington’s soldiers had never been able to stand. The Americans who faced them were wavering in confusion when a big man on a white horse appeared at a gallop. “Parade with us, my brave fellows!” Washington shouted. “There is but a handful of enemy and we shall have them directly.” His troops obediently got into a line of their own, facing the enemy. Then Washington galloped in front of his troops, to the very center. He waved his men forward, and as they advanced, he continued to move before them. The enemy were ever closer. Now Washington and his followers were mounting a rise and came within musket range. Although most of the enemy held their fire, a few bullets zinged around the tall target on horseback. Within thirty yards of the British line, Washington shouted, “Halt,” and gave the order to fire. Both sides fired simultaneously, with Washington between them.
His aide, Colonel Edward Fitzgerald, covered his face with his hat, for he could not bear to see the commander in chief killed. When all the guns had been emptied, the firing ceased. Fitzgerald lowered his hat. Around him, many men lay writhing. But Washington sat on his horse, untouched.
The enemy broke and fled. Now, at long last, Washington had a chance to chase regulars across an open field. Shouting, “It’s a fine fox chase, my boys!” he started after the enemy on his powerful charger so unexpectedly and so quickly that no one followed him before he disappeared from sight. As time passed and he did not return, anxiety mounted among his fellow generals and his aides. It is hardly prudent military practice to have your commander chasing around after the enemy all by himself on a battlefield. Had Washington been hit? But of course not. The general was preserved, then as always, to serve his two terms as President and to die in bed.