Did an illiterate Irish-American rifleman fire the shot that may have turned the tide of Battle of Saratoga, the key campaign of the American Revolution and thus change world history?
YES! Says the Ancient Order of Hibernians, an Irish-American fraternal organization which has erected not one but two memorials to the marksman at Saratoga National Historical Park. The National Rifle Association agrees that Tim Murphy is a prime example of the citizen rifleman, and a good reason for the Second Amendment, and yes, of course he shot General Fraser.
WELL, GEE! MAYBE, says the National Park Service. Now the NPS isn’t anti-Irish, and it CERTAINLY is not anti-NRA or anti-Second Amendment; it just isn’t sure.
That’s the problem with history. It doesn’t change, but our knowledge and interpretation of it does, through access to archaeological, archival, and other scientific tools, that help us get closer to what really happened.
The problem is that we like our heroes quickly: a man or woman of the hour.
Readers of a certain age will remember the World War II story of Captain Colin Kelly, who, in the early days of the Pacific War, allegedly guided his damaged bomber into the Japanese battleship HARUNA, sinking it and encouraging a nation shaken by Pearl Harbor.
Turned out that the HARUNA was a thousand miles away from where Captain Kelly was shot down. However, we needed a hero.
Readers of any age will recall the story of Private Jessica Lynch in the Iraq War, who, according to early reports, was surrounded by hordes of Iraqis, of whom she killed many, until her ammo was exhausted and she was wounded and taken prisoner, but was then rescued by Special Forces Troops. Investigation by more skeptical reporters revealed a more mundane adventure for Private Lynch. However, we needed a heroine.
Now according to The Legend of Tim Murphy’s Famous Shot, it happened this way:
It was the second engagement, Bemis Heights, October 7, 1777, of The Battle of Saratoga; the British under General Burgoyne had won the first engagement, Freeman’s Farm, September 19 albeit at considerable cost.
This day, however, things appeared to be going well for the Americans, the British were low on men and supplies; one of their lines began to waver; here was an opportunity. However, the charismatic British General Simon Fraser rode forward fearlessly to rally his men.
“That man is a host unto himself! He must be disposed of!” said General Arnold (He was still one of the good guys) to General Morgan, commander of Morgan’s Rifles. Morgan turned to one of his enlisted men and said, “Murphy! Do your duty!”
Timothy Murphy then climbed a tree (to what height is not given) with rifle, selected a stout branch for a rest and fired four shots. One was a near miss, one creased the mane of Fraser’s horse, the third struck Fraser in the abdomen, fatally wounding him. The fourth shot was collected in the head of Sir Francis Clerke, Burgoyne’s aide de camp who had just arrived with an important message (Timing in life is everything!) Clerke was killed instantly.
Now we have two indisputable facts: Fraser and Clerke are lying dead or dying on the battlefield. Everything else is conjecture; including the conversation between Arnold and Morgan.
According to legend, the range of the shooting was “about a quarter of a mile” or around 400 yards.
It was said that an expert Revolutionary War rifleman could hit a man-sized target at 300 yards.
In order to join Morgan’s Rifles, one had to hit a seven-inch target at 250 yards.
However, 400 yards would be pushing probability.
So where did we get the “quarter of a mile” bit?
Mainly off a powder horn: the only “written” record of the event. As is well-known, sailors passed the time engraving whale ivory with “scrimshaw.” Less well-known is that talented and bored soldiers personalized their powder horns with “scrimshaw” engravings, listing dates or important happenings.
A Massachusetts Continental Army sergeant who inscribed the word that Timothy Murphy had “plugged” General Fraser at a distance of a quarter mile allegedly owned one such powder horn.
The Saratoga National Historical Park historian Eric Schnitzer tells me that some experts in the arcane field of powder horn collecting doubt the authenticity of the powder horn. (One also wonders if “plug” was in use in the 18th century as a term for shooting someone.) Eric goes on to say that, “Apart from this (questionable) artifact, we have no real proof that Murphy shot Fraser, and even less that he shot Clerke.”
On the other hand, according to Eric, we are not exactly sure where everyone was during the drama. Humorously it was discovered that the Fraser and Murphy monuments were placed to make visitation by early 20th century automobile drivers more convenient. It seems we have a fair idea of where Fraser was shot, but no idea of where Tim Murphy was positioned, if indeed he was positioned.
According to Ranger Joe Craig, there are no Witness trees, since all the historic trees have died or were cut down. So we don’t have a choice there.
It is possible that, skipping the quarter-mile bit, that Murphy got considerably closer to Fraser before climbing a tree, and thus was within doable range.
Whether or not Murphy fired the fatal shots, or Fraser and Clerke were simply cut down by the mindless vagaries of war, Murphy does deserve honor as being one of the “Everymen” of the Revolutionary War, serving almost from start to finish, starting at the siege of Boston, The Battle of Long Island, Trenton, Princeton, Saratoga, Indian fighting at Middle Fort and ending up with George Washington at Yorktown.
It was not all war and no play for Tim. While on patrol in the Hudson Valley, he met, secretly courted, and eloped with the daughter of a prosperous farmer. She would fight side by side with him at the Middle Fort fight and bear them nine children.
In 1929, at the dedication of the memorial to Murphy, the governor of New York, Franklin Delano Roosevelt said:
“This country has been made by the Timothy Murphys, the men in the ranks. Conditions here called for qualities of heart and hand that Tim Murphy had in abundance. Our histories should tell us more about the men in the ranks, for it was to them, more than to the generals that we were indebted for our military victories."