As I reflect on Independence Day, I break into a sweat.
I’m not nervous, it just seems like every year on this day the sun bears down hard, like a revolutionary army against impossible odds.
How’s that for a segue to talk about this holiday’s history.
The further we drift from the roots of revolution, the harder it is to appreciate the price in blood and tears that purchased the freedoms we enjoy. Times of turmoil, risk and passion have slowly smoothed to times of fireworks, grilling and getaways.
For instance, I bet the name Patrick Ferguson means nothing to you. Right?
No, he wasn’t the almost great quarterback for the Buffalo Bills (that was Joe Ferguson);
No, he hasn’t won the World Series of Poker five times (that’s Chris Ferguson);
No, he doesn’t have his own late-night talk show (that’s Craig Ferguson);
No, he isn’t better known as Sheriff Jack Carter (that’s Colin Ferguson)
No, he isn’t a star on Modern Family (that’s Jesse Tyler Ferguson);
I’ll give you a hint: he was a Scottish gentleman with a rifle whose decision on another September 11th, changed the course of history. Here is the story you’ve probably never heard…
Let’s set the stage. The year is 1777. A long-time-coming revolt against Great Britain had peaked a year earlier. An activist named, Thomas Paine, was the first to openly challenge the authority of Great Britain and ask for independence. His political tract, Common Sense, was an instant best seller, channeling the growing resentment of colonists and tipping the scale toward outright rebellion.
Six months later, the Second Continental Congress issued a Declaration of Independence (many states had already done so), but it would be seven long, hard years of war before independence was a reality.
The Battle of Brandywine
The ink was barely dry on the Declaration, when the Battle of Brandywine took place on a road linking Baltimore and Philadelphia. It was Thursday, September 11th, when Generals Sir William Howe and Charles Cornwallis launched a full-scale assault on the Continental Army. A dense fog allowed the British to split in two divisions with the goal of surrounding them. Surprised and outnumbered by 7000 troops, General Washington ordered retreat.
Captain Patrick Ferguson, reputed to be the finest shot in the British army, scouted the American line with three of his Sharp Shooters. They were armed with fast-firing, breech-loading rifles designed by Ferguson himself. The innovative weapon replaced the cumbersome flintlock musket, “Brown Bess,” that required a ram rod to reload and was nearly twice as heavy.
A Twist of Fate
As they watched for enemy movement, two soldiers emerged from the fog; one a brilliantly clad cavalry rider and the other, an American officer in full-dress blue, on a bay horse with “a remarkably large cocked hat” and of “exceptional distinction.”
Ferguson whispered his orders, “Steal near to them and fire at them!” Shamed, however, by the idea of such an ambush, he ordered them to hold their fire. Stepping out of the fog, he ordered the two soldiers to dismount. Instead they whirled their horses and cantered away.
In the ensuing battle, Captain Ferguson took a musket ball to the elbow. While recovering in the field hospital a surgeon informed him that General George Washington had been present that day, accompanied by a rider fitting his exact description.
An Independence Day Decision
Ferguson later wrote, “I could have lodged a half dozen balls in or about him before he was out of my reach, I had only to determine, but it was not pleasant to fire at the back of an unoffending individual who was acquitting himself coolly of his duty, and so I let him alone.”
The Continental army lost 1100 souls in that battle, but Washington survived and led his army to eventual victory in the Battle of Yorktown on October 19th, 1781. Ferguson rose to the rank of Major before losing his life four years after sparing Washington’s in the Battle of King’s Mountain.
Such is the irony of war.
Time sometimes heals the wounds of war. The despised Redcoats of the Revolution have since become our closest ally. But there are other tyrants in our days who seek to deny us our freedoms. Join me this 4th of July in a moment of thanksgiving for the sovereign hand of God in the affairs of men.
Independence Day may well have been the result of a decision on one day of one man. But in every age, whenever enemy forces clash, “The horse if prepared for the day of battle, but the victory belongs to the Lord.” (Proverbs 21.31)
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