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Monday, October 5, 2015

Patrick Ferguson: The British Officer Who Refused To Shoot George Washington

Washington and Ferguson at the Battle of Brandywine Creek in 1777.

The story about the battle that took place at Kings Mountain on the afternoon of Saturday, October 7, 1780, is perhaps one of the most interesting of the entire American Revolutionary War largely because it was fought on the slopes and top of a large hill surrounded by woods rather than rolling hills and open fields as with most 18th century battles.  

The battlefield is located near the town of Blacksburg in Cherokee County, just a few miles south of the North Carolina border. This place is not to be confused with a nearby town by a similar name a few miles north on SC 161 in North Carolina. Today there is an outstanding National Military Park on the site where the battle was fought and an adjacent South Carolina State Park located respectively on nearby land. The battlefield itself - unique among other Revolutionary War battlefields - is well preserved by the National Park Service. 

Of all the monuments at the Kings Mountain National Military Park and it's mile and a half long scenic walking trail, perhaps the most popular spot sits about halfway down the large knobby hill near the end of the trail where a cairn - a mound of stones and rocks - rest behind a six foot granite marker honoring the final resting place of Patrick Ferguson, the British commander of the American Loyalist forces in South Carolina during the Southern Campaign of the American Revolutionary War (1780-1781). 

This British officer, buried thousands of miles from his home country, is one of the most interesting individuals in the Southern Campaign of the war. While he is best known for his actions leading up to the tide turning battle that cost him his life, he is also well remembered by some historians for another act that could well have turned the tide of the war for the British three years before.

Soldier And Inventor

On September 11, 1777, an invading army of 12,500 British and Hessian soldiers under the command of General William Howe engaged the Continental Army of General George Washington along Brandywine Creek, near modern-day Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania in what was the longest single day battle of the American Revolutionary War (1775-1783). The battle would last almost eleven hours and end in a major defeat for the Continental Army, and open the American capital of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to invasion and occupation by British forces. 

Covering the wooded flank of the British Army along Brandywine Creek were a special detachment of green-clad marksman commanded by then thirty-three year old captain Patrick Ferguson. 

Major Patrick Ferguson, 71st Regiment Foot
(Frazier's Highlanders).

A native of Aberdeen, Scotland, Ferguson was the second son and fourth child of judge advocate James Ferguson of Pitfour and Anne Murray, a sister of the literary patron Patrick Murray, 5th Lord Elibank - a son of the Scottish Enlightenment.

Ferguson began his military career at the age of fourteen when his father bought a commission for him as a cornet (junior lieutenant) in the Royal North British Dragoons (Royal Scots Greys). He proved himself in battle in Flanders and Germany during the Seven Years' War (1754-1763), and sustained an leg ailment that suspended his military career for nearly six years, where he served garrison duty with his regiment. 

In 1768 he returned to military service after purchasing a command as a captain in the 70th Regiment of Foot and served with them putting down slave uprisings in the British West Indies. It was here that Ferguson would come to understand small-unit warfare and militia tactics. Again his lame leg would trouble him and shorten his active service.

In the early 1770s, Ferguson was sent to the garrison of Halifax, Nova Scotia, a quiet duty that soon bored him. He returned to Britain in 1772 as the disputes between the American colonies and the mother country heightened and took part in light infantry training. During this time, he invented and patented the Ferguson Rifle, a breech-loading flinklock weapon based on an earlier 1720 system designed by Isaac de la Chaumette - the first practical breech-loading rifle in the history of warfare. 

The Ferguson Rifle, which had a rifled barrel and weighed two-thirds that of the standard smooth-bore British Brown Bess flintlock muskets issued to British infantry soldiers, could shoot straighter with more accuracy. Unlike the Brown Bess musket, which required a ramrod to push a powder and musket ball charge down the length of the barrel in a standing, or kneeling position; the Ferguson Rifle could be loaded faster with a screw-type breech lock that operated by simply rotating the trigger guard. 

The Ferguson Rifle with bayonet.
Demonstrating the breech-loading mechanism of the Ferguson Rifle.

Ferguson devoted himself to producing his rifle and presenting it as a weapon that would enable the British troops to match the vaunted marksmanship of the American rebels. In June 1776, Ferguson demonstrated his rifle to a party of generals and lords at the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich, across the Thames from London. Already renowned as "the best shot in the British army" Ferguson fired a series of rounds at different distances, sometimes averaging six aimed shots a minute (the Brown Bess could in theory average four shots a minute, but the musket was designed to be a mass-firing weapon and its accuracy past 25 yards was virtually non-existent). He managed to impress several high ranking British officers, including General William Howe, the man who would soon be tasked to command the British expeditionary force that would sail to America to reclaim the colonies from colonial rebels who would shortly declare the independence of their newly declared sovereign states from the British Empire. 

The Ferguson Rifle met with a combination of conservative army bureaucracy that was skeptical of any improvement on traditional arms that might require new thinking and more money. Also in the 1700s, there was no practical way to mass produce a new weapon. The Ferguson Rifle could not be made in sufficient quantities at the high cost it would take to equip even a full regiment of soldiers in the time they would be needed to put down the American rebels. The weapon also had some design flaws with the breech mechanism that made it more fragile than the standard Brown Bess musket. 

Regardless, when Ferguson joined Howe's army in America in the summer of 1777, he was given command of a single company of 100 recruited marksmen from different regiments, all of whom he rigorously trained to become experts with his rifle. The test of their abilities combat would be at the Battle of Brandywine Creek. 

It would also prove to be a moment that could well have changed American history.

Ferguson And Washington

Leading his detachment of green-coated sharpshooters through the woods along Brandywine Creek covering the flank of Howe's British Expeditionary Forces, Ferguson kept his keen marksman's eyes open for any sign of Continental forces trying to pick their way through the dense woods. 

Suddenly a cavalry officer dressed in a flamboyant European uniform rode into view, followed by a senior American officer wearing a high cocked hat and riding a bay horse. 

Ferguson whispered to three of his best riflemen to move forward and pick off the unsuspecting officers. But before the men were in place, he ordered them not to fire, feeling a sense of disgust at the idea of ambushing the men. He shouted to the American officer, who turned and looked his way for a moment before calmly turning and riding on. Ferguson called again, this time raising his rifle to his shoulder and taking aim. The officer glanced back before slowly moving away. 

Though he was considered the best marksman in the British army and his Ferguson Rifle could easily have hit the American officer and shot him off his horse, Ferguson paused a moment, then lowered his rifle. His sense of personal honor rebelled against the idea of shooting a man in the back - particularly a brave officer who conducted himself so calmly under threat. 

It is also important to note that in eighteenth century warfare, the practice of targeting officers in battle was against the accepted rules of combat in Europe. Ferguson strictly followed this code of chivalry.

Ferguson recalled the event later on in his own words: "I could have lodged half a dozen balls in or about him, before he was out of my reach, but it was not pleasant to fire at the back of an unoffending individual, who was acquitting himself very coolly of his duty - so I let him alone." 

A day later, Ferguson would be seriously wounded in action, having been shot in right arm through the elbow joint, a would that would end up crippling him in that arm and sadly end his career as a marksman. It would also end up losing him his special detachment of sharpshooters - the men returned to their former regiments - and put his excellent rifle into storage. 

A surgeon at the field hospital who had been attending wounded American officers informed him that captured rebel prisoners reported that General George Washington had been seen in the area with light troops, escorted only by an officer in hussar dress and wearing the exact same uniform Ferguson had seen. The American officer he let ride off was most likely the commanding general of the Continental Army. 

The revelation promoted Ferguson to consider his actions. His own sense of honor and duty warred with one another. This is reflected when he wrote of the incident later: "I am not sorry that I did not know at the time who it was." 

Still, if Ferguson had taken aim and fired at the American general who turned his back to him, the final outcome of the American Revolutionary War would almost certainly have turned out quite differently.

Washington would lose the Battle of Brandywine Creek and the then American capitol of Philadelphia, but live on to win the American War For Independence. 
 
From Brandywine To Kings Mountain

For several months after Brandywine, and his encounter with George Washington, Ferguson managed to save his arm from amputation, though the arm itself would remain crippled for the rest of his short life. Ferguson worked to teach himself to wield a sword, pistol and write with his left hand. 

Patrick Ferguson was capable of both chivalry and ferocity in battle.

Ferguson returned to duty in May of 1778 under Howe's replacement, General Henry Clinton. One of his first duties in October of that year would be to lead a British raid of 400 men (300 British Regulars and 100 New Jersey Loyalists) against an American privateer hideout at Little Egg Harbor on the New Jersey coast. There on October 6, 1778 (nearly two years till his fateful day with destiny at Kings Mountain) destroyed a total of 10 privateer vessels, wrecked warehouses and shipyards, and burned the homes of known patriots in what became known as the Battle of Chestnut Neck.

In an ironic twist of fate General Washington dispatched a force of Continentals under the command of Count Casimir Pulaski - the same European officer believed to have been riding with Washington the day Ferguson uncounted him at Brandywine - to stop Ferguson from advancing and destroying any more privateer yards. Ferguson would learn from an American deserter where Pulaski's Legion was and that the security of his camp was virtually nonexistent. Ferguson, along with 250 men, would attack Pulaski's forces with the bayonet on the night of October 15, 1778. The one-sided results of the affair at Little Egg Harbor were later called a "massacre" by the Continentals: Pulaski's forces would lose 50 men killed and five captured while Ferguson lost only three men killed and another three wounded. 

By late 1779, Ferguson was promoted to major of the distinguished 71st Regiment Highlanders.

In May of 1780, General Clinton mounted his all-out offensive to crush resistance to the British Crown in the rebellious American South, and hoping to end the bloody stalemate with Washington in the north by catching him between two British forces. 

Ferguson was given command of an independent force of rangers who would strike inland and cut off American lines of supply. Those efforts helped end the Siege of Charleston with the surrender of Continental forces under General Benjamin Lincoln on May 12, 1780.

Now under the command of General Charles Cornwallis, Ferguson was appointed Inspector of Militia in South Carolina. He was tasked with recruiting British Loyalists that were key to the Southern Campaign strategy. 

Ferguson had a talent when it came to recruiting. He would go to the homes of Loyalists and men known to be neutral in the South Carolina backcountry and reason with them on the merits of staying loyal to the Crown. By August of 1780, Ferguson commanded a force of over a thousand Loyalist militia. 

However, in the summer of 1780, the South Carolina backcountry was embroiled in an ugly civil war marked by bitterness, violence and malevolence committed by men on both sides under the guise of patriotism to their respective causes. As word of his Loyalists plundering and brutality spread, local and state militia leaders raised regiments of partisans to face off against him. The most notable of these would be the "over-mountain men" from beyond the Blue Ridge. These partisans would deal Ferguson and his Loyalist forces a serious defeat on August 18, 1780 at the  Battle of Musgrove Mill in modern-day Laurens County, South Carolina where 200 Patriots defeated 500 of Ferguson's men, resulting in 63 Loyalists killed and another 50 captured. 

When reasoning with local Patriots did not work, Ferguson again showed the same ruthlessness towards backcountry Patriot militia that he displayed at Little Egg Harbor two years before, this time using fire, the sword, and sometimes the hangman's noose. This time the results would be vastly different resulting in another "massacre" on top of Kings Mountain on October 7, 1780 where the 36 year old Scottish-born aristocrat and a large number of his Loyalist militia would meet his end at the hands of vengeful Scots-Irish Patriot militiamen.

Honoring The Grave 

Every year on the anniversary of the Battle of Kings Mountain, members of the South Carolina Society Sons of the American Revolution (SCSSAR), the North Carolina Society Sons of the American Revolution (NCSSAR), the South Carolina Society Daughters of the American Revolution (SCDAR) and the Overmountain Victory Trail Association (OVTA) gather to lay wreaths on the large obelisk at the top of the mountain to honor the Patriot forces who defeated Ferguson's British Loyalists.  

There are no societies in South Carolina or North Carolina that honor the memories of British Loyalists. 

One year when this blogger attended the Kings Mountain commemoration and asked if the Loyalist men mentioned on the large obelisk that honored the men on both sides would get a wreath in their memory, I got a look as if I'd just profaned the Virgin Mary herself in a Catholic Church. I pointed out that both the Sons of Confederate Veterans and the Sons of Union Veterans Civil War put flags on the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers respectively at their memorial events; and argued that the civil war in the South Carolina backcountry in 1780 was as much a brother against brother affair as the later War Between The States. 


I got the strong sense the representative of the SAR believed I was being deliberately difficult with him - in spite of the fact I did not raise my voice once during the "discussion" although the other guy got a bit red-faced himself. One DAR lady did mention smiling that a couple of the two dozen lain wreaths honored both sides.  

Regardless of this, I did notice that the grave of Patrick Ferguson, buried a little ways down the hill from where he was shot from his horse, was honored by several of the living history reenactors passing back down the mountain trail by placing new stones on his cairn, a sign of respect in Celtic customs. A miniature Kings Colors sat near the base of the cairn, fluttering in the October breeze. 

When I inquired about this, one of the reenactors - a member of the Overmountain Victory Trail Association that marched to Kings Mountain from eastern Tennessee - told me the story about Ferguson and Washington. Many of those people knew this story and out of respect for his act of honor that fateful day in Pennsylvania honored the man their own ancestors defeated over 235 years before in their own small way.

I make it a point to place a stone on the cairn every time I visit Kings Mountain National Military Park, out of respect for an old foe who could have changed the course of history, save for a single act of chivalry.


Patriot Militia Reenactor placing a stone on the cairn of Major Patrick Ferguson. 
It should be noted that the monument reads: "Colonel Patrick Ferguson"
because he was promoted by General Cornwallis about the time the
Battle of Kings Mountain took place, although Ferguson himself was killed
in the battle before the official word of his promotion got to him.

3 comments:

  1. Wow, that's an interesting post, Carl. I don't know as much about the revolutionary era as I should.

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    Replies
    1. The American Revolutionary War's Southern Campaign was fought almost exclusively in South Carolina in 1780. Over 200 battles and skirmishes of that war took place here, more than any other single State, much of it brutal partisan warfare between Patriot (Whigs) and Loyalist (Tories) militia. The summer of 1780 in SC under British occupation was the scene of a brutal civil war of the type that would not be repeated until the Missouri-Kansas border wars.

      Chester County, where I live in the SC upcountry, was the center of a great deal of activity in resistance to the British and Loyalist rule - a fact that I take great pride in. Being a history junkie, I make it a point to learn all the details I could about it, and the Battle of Kings Mountain was considered one of two major turning points in the Southern Campaign that ultimately led to the surrender of Cornwallas at Yorktown, VA a year later.

      I actually plan to post some great details about that battle and the events leading up to it this week in honor of US Veteran's Day - I actually planned to post it closer to the 235th anniversary of the event (Oct. 7) but lots of things kept coming up, including a cold.

      This story was one of those stories that many dispute as a legend (much like certain bloggers we are acquainted with - against our better judgment - who claim that Kirkland didn't really preform his mission of mercy at Fredericksburg in Dec. 1862) although the evidence for it's validity is enough that the National Parks Service accepts that it could be true. Ferguson was in the same area as Washington at Brandywine, and Washington was known to go off on his own without escort on occasion to personally scout out enemy positions. The story does as a ring of validity to it.

      Also, there is another legend about Patrick Ferguson that turned out to be true. When he was at Kings Mountain, there was a woman with him named Virginia Sal who was struck by rifle fire and killed (she had red hair that probably drew fire in the smoke while she was trying to help the wounded Loyalists). The legend said that she was buried with Ferguson after the battle. Archaeological testing done several years back using ground penetrating radar, similar to an x-ray machine, has produced an image showing two anomalies under the cairn, proving the story to be true.

      It is all pretty fascinating stuff, and why I absolutely love American history with all of its various legends and quirks of fate.

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  2. Thanks for the history. As a resident of South Carolina, it is especially interesting to me. Keep up the good work!

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