Every history textbook has a paragraph or more devoted to Crispus Attucks, who, besides being half black and half Indian and one of those killed in the Boston Massacre, was of little historical significance. Nearly everything else said about him is a matter of speculation. In these same textbooks there is no mention of Timothy Murphy, a real hero who could be called the man who won the Revolution.
Timothy Murphy was born in Pennsylvania in 1751 shortly after his parents arrived from County Donegal, Ireland. The Murphys settled on the frontier, where land was cheap, but so was life. Indian raids were frequent and bloody. White families had to adapt quickly or be annihilated. By the time Timothy Murphy was in his mid-teens he had a widespread reputation for extraordinary marksmanship and fierceness in battle.
In June 1775, Murphy and his brother John enlisted in Capt. John Lowdon’s Company of Northumberland County Riflemen. To qualify for service with the company, a rifleman had to hit a seven-inch target repeatedly at 250 yards—remarkable shooting even with the finest Kentucky rifles. Lowdon’s company of crack riflemen was soon ordered north.
Murphy fought in the Siege of Boston, then in the battles of Long Island and Westchester. By 1776 he was a sergeant in the 12th Regiment of Pennsylvania Line and fought at Trenton, Princeton, and New Brunswick. In July 1777 he was transferred to Morgan’s Rifle Corps, led by the legendary Daniel Morgan. Colonel Morgan and his corps were ordered north to join the American forces opposing Gen. John “Gentleman Johnny” Burgoyne and his British army, which had invaded New York via Canada.
The armies clashed on September 19 in the First Battle of Saratoga, or the Battle of Freeman’s Farm. The British prevailed, but not decisively. The forces met again on October 7 in the Second Battle of Saratoga, or the Battle of Bemis Heights. Early in the afternoon, a British column led by Brig. Gen. Simon Fraser seemed ready to flank the Americans. Maj. Gen. Benedict Arnold, still on our side, rode up to Colonel Morgan and said that it was up to his corps of riflemen to thwart the British advance. Arnold then pointed to Fraser in the distance and said that the British general was worth an entire regiment.
Morgan called for Sgt. Timothy Murphy, his finest sharpshooter, and declared, “That gallant officer is General Fraser. I admire him, but it is necessary that he should die. Do your duty.” Murphy climbed a tree that afforded him a good view of Fraser, mounted on a horse more than 300 yards away—supposedly well beyond the range of even America’s frontier riflemen. While Fraser rallied his troops, Murphy rested his rifle in a notch on a branch, reckoned the distance, the wind’s direction and velocity, and the number of feet his bullet would drop. He adjusted his aim accordingly and fired. Fraser dropped to the ground, mortally wounded.
Francis Clerke, Burgoyne’s aide-de-camp, galloped onto the field to take command. Murphy fired again, and Clerke fell from his saddle, dead. Watching two commanding officers killed from an impossible distance caused the British troops to lose their nerve, and they began to break ranks. Seizing the initiative, the Americans attacked. Nearly 500 British soldiers were killed, and 700 wounded. Gentleman Johnny and 6,000 others were captured. Only 90 Americans were killed, and 240 wounded.
The unexpected American victory convinced the French that the American colonists could defeat the British and win independence, if aided by France. This was the moment that many in France had been waiting for: a chance to revenge the loss of their New World empire to Britain in the French and Indian War. Without the aid of France, it is highly unlikely that we could have won our independence. And without the marksmanship of Timothy Murphy, it is equally unlikely that we would have stopped the British flanking movement and won the battle.
Murphy fought heroically through the rest of the war and was even at Yorktown for the surrender of General Cornwallis. There was little that Murphy missed.
In 1929 the state of New York erected a monument at the Saratoga battlefield dedicated to Timothy Murphy. There to speak at the dedication was the New York governor, Franklin Roosevelt. He said,
This country has been made by Timothy Murphys, the men in the ranks. Conditions here called for the qualities of the heart and head that Tim Murphy had in abundance. Our histories should tell us more of the men in the ranks, for it was to them, more than to the generals, that we were indebted for our military victories.