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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.