The Man Who Didn’t Shoot Washington

PrintPrintEmailEmailThe rather astounding narrative which appears here is contributed by a British historian who enjoys poking about in the vast Public Record Office in London. There, “in a dusty corner,” he recently found a mass of correspondence, and especially one letter, which casts new light on an almost forgotten episode in American history, yet one fraught with vast implications. John Andrews, an early historian of the Revolution, mentioned the Ferguson-Washington encounter in his History of the Late War (1786), Vol. IV, page 84, but stated that the English major had no idea of the American general’s identity. Ferguson’s letter gives the incident a far greater import.

Warfare which, in these days, has become a sordid by-product of the laboratory, the factory and the machine belt, in times gone by was at least redeemed by a certain quality of grandeur. Fighting within the limits of a strict code of chivalry, the medieval knight and man-at-arms sought earnestly, as Lecky put it, to “unite the force and fire of the ancient warrior with something of the tenderness and humility of the Christian Saint.”

Although the War of Independence was fought with rare intensity and sometimes with that ruthlessness that a quarrel between kith and kin invariably engenders, it was very far from lacking the saving grace of chivalry. Schuyler’s considerate reception of the forlorn British captives of Saratoga; Howe’s lenient treatment of the turncoat Charles Lee; “Light-Horse Harry” Lee’s unremitting concern for the welfare of his old antagonist, John Simcoe, injured and taken prisoner near South Amboy; the jaunty challenge of the Light Company of the British 32nd Regiment of Foot, who dyed their headdress leathers a blazing red to ensure that their opponents should never be in doubt as to the identity of the troops confronting them—all this was in the high tradition of chivalric warfare as it had been waged by the paladins of the past. And it was solely the instinct of chivalry which spared the American Commander in Chief when--all unconscious of his danger--he came within range of the rifle devised and wielded with such deadly skill by Major Patrick Ferguson.

Patrick Ferguson was born in 1744, the son of a Scottish jurist. Through the influence of his uncle, General James Murray—the defender of Quebec—he was entered at the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich, and subsequently gazetted to a cornetcy in the 2nd Dragoons (Royal Scots Greys). But the young soldier’s predilection was rather for the work of the jaeger and light infantry companies than for that of the Horse; and his transfer to the 70th Foot in 1758 speedily sent him on overseas service in what he was pleased to term “the Charibbee (Caribbean) Islands.”

In the West Indies Ferguson developed that intense interest in musketry and firearms which was to distinguish his whole career. It was a science which actually had made remarkably little progress for the best part of a hundred years. The British Army was still armed with the cumbersome “Brown Bess,” which had been the standard infantry weapon in the days of Marlborough. A smooth-bore, muzzle-loading, flint lock musket, three feet eight inches long in the barrel and weighing fourteen pounds, the piece had an effective range of little more than eighty yards; and it took considerable practice before a man could loose off as much as three rounds a minute. For the most part, steady volley firing was encouraged rather than individual marksmanship: a technique tremendously effective in the formalized conditions of European warfare, but of scant use in the sort of loose open-order fighting demanded by “bushwhacking” in a broken or heavily timbered countryside.

Such considerations set Ferguson to work to perfect a marksman’s lightweight rifle that could be fired speedily and accurately at the halt, while advancing, or even from the prone position. By 1776 the weapon, breech-loading and weighing a mere seven and a half pounds, was ready to be officially tested. The outcome was a triumph for its inventor. Beneath the astonished gaze of a board of senior generals, Ferguson maintained a steady fire of four rounds in sixty seconds, on a target 300 yards distant; eventually increasing the rate of fire to six shots a minute. He even hit the bull’s-eye at 100 yards lying flat on his back. Another and equally successful demonstration in the presence of King George HI set the seal on the Scot’s success; and on his departure for the seat of war in North America he carried especial instructions to the Commander in Chief, Sir William Howe, directing that volunteers should be recruited for a sharpshooter’s corps, to be placed under the rifle expert’s command.

Ferguson arrived in America determined to justify the confidence the home authorities had reposed in him. Devoted to his profession and particularly keen on that aspect of it which had been his especial study, he was confident that in the hands of carefully picked marksmen his novel weapon would furnish an effective reply to the dreaded Kentucky rifle with which so many of the backwoodsmen were armed. A small-bore weapon of great accuracy, in the hands of real shots it had drastically thinned the files of Redcoats and taken even heavier toll of the ranks of the officers. For if legend were to be believed, marksmen such as Daniel Morgan had recruited experienced no difficulty in severing a squirrel’s tail from the animal’s body at a range of 200 yards, “without damaging the creature in the slightest.” Ferguson, however, was sanguine enough to believe that a substantial body of men trained in the use of his handy breechloader would very quickly restore the balance.