During the late summer of 1777, Major Patrick Ferguson was, by common consent, the best marksman in the formidable British army bent upon breaking the back of American rebellion against King George III. Early on the morning of September 11, while observing the rebel forces arrayed in a defensive position along Brandywine Creek, southwest of the revolutionaries’ capital of Philadelphia, Ferguson identified a tempting pair of targets. Some 100 yards off, in clear sight, were two horsemen. One wore the flamboyant uniform of a French hussar officer. The other, who rode a fine bay, was far more soberly dressed in a dark coat and an unusually large and high cocked hat. Like Ferguson himself, both riders were plainly engaged in reconnoitering their enemy’s dispositions.
Against individual targets, 100 yards was long range for the muzzle-loading smooth bore muskets carried by most of the soldiers assembling along either side of the creek. Yet the major was not squinting down the barrel of a simple “firelock,” but over the sights of a sophisticated breech-loading rifle of his own invention. Its seven- grooved bore could spin a ball with far greater accuracy than a common musket and over a longer distance. A year before, at the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich, London, Ferguson had demonstrated that fact before a panel of skeptical high- ranking officers, fi ring off four shots a minute to pepper a target set 200 yards away: the riders he now contemplated were sitting ducks.
The dark-clad horseman was obviously a general officer, the dashing hussar his aide-de-camp. The hussar turned back, but his companion lingered. Moving out from the trees that sheltered him and a score of his corps of riflemen, Ferguson shouted a warning. The rider stopped, looked, and then calmly continued about his business. The major called again, this time drawing a bead upon the heedless horseman. The distance between them was, as Ferguson reported, one at which during even the most rapid firing he had “seldom missed a piece of paper,” and he “could have lodged a half a dozen of balls in or about him” before he could ride out of range. But something stopped him from squeezing the trigger. Ferguson was an officer and a gentleman. As he conceded with unconcealed admiration, his proposed target was conducting himself with such coolness that to have shot him in the back would have seemed an unsporting, “unpleasant” action. And so the major let him trot off unmolested.
Later that same day the rival armies clashed in earnest. After a stubborn fight, British discipline prevailed, pushing back the rebels and increasing the threat to Philadelphia. Ferguson, who had been badly wounded in the right hand during the fighting, spoke with a doctor busy treating the wounded of both sides. From the surgeon’s recent conversation with a group of enemy officers, it seemed that the two distinctively clad riders Ferguson had seen earlier were none other than General George Washington, the commander in chief of the revolutionaries’ Continental Army, and the French officer attending him that day. As Ferguson freely acknowledged, he was “not sorry” to have remained oblivious of their identity.
Had he known what the future held, both for him personally and for the cause in which he soldiered, the gallant major may have thought—and acted—differently. And if ever a single shot could have changed the course of history, an unwavering ball sped from Ferguson’s rifle would surely have done so.
“I am a warrior.” These were the uncompromising words that George Washington chose to describe himself in May 1779, at the height of the Revolutionary War. Washington was addressing the “Chief Men” of the Delaware nation of Indians, and his language was calculated to strike a chord with listeners who were themselves first and foremost tribal fighters—warriors in the purest sense. Yet even allowing for Washington’s deliberate use of the rhetoric and vocabulary of Indian diplomacy, his self- characterization is telling.
In 1779, George Washington was a warrior, “the commander in chief of all the armies in the United States of America,” as he put it. In his message, Washington made a point of distancing himself from the revolutionary movement’s political leaders while at the same time emphasizing what he shared with the Delawares: there were some matters about which he would not speak, “because they belong to Congress, and not to us warriors.”
Excerpted from George Washington: Gentleman Warrior by Stephen Brumwell. Copyright © 2013 by Stephen Brumwell. Excerpted by permission of Quercus, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.