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The Man Who Didn’t Shoot Washington
December 1955 | Volume 7, Issue 1
In the upshot, this turned out to be a matter in which “good-natured Billy” Howe elected to exhibit a good deal less than his usual bonhomie. Deeming himself the leading expert in all matters relating to marksmanship and scouting, he was scarcely prepared to have his thunder stolen by an upstart who had been no more than a scrubby whelp of a schoolboy when Colonel Howe and his light infantry had swarmed up the Anse-au-Foulon to surprise the Gallic outpost guarding the approaches to Quebec.
Ferguson was allowed to recruit a few aspiring shots and train them in the use of his admirable weapon; but his corps of specialists was never permitted to attain such strength as to render it a decisive element on the battlefield.
The first opportunity for Ferguson’s little band of riflemen to show their mettle came with Howe’s advance on Pennsylvania. Landing at the head of the Elk River, they were assigned to cover the deployment of Knyphausen’s division, probing for Washington’s main forces, which were thought to be in and about Wilmington, some forty miles to the northeast.
By September 7 the American Commander in Chief’s dispositions for barring the passage of Brandywine Creek at Chad’s Ford were very well advanced; with the British concentration, four miles away at Kennett Square, still to be completed. In the broken, wooded country between the rival outpost lines, scouts pressed cautiously forward, industriously seeking intelligence of their enemies’ activities.
Ferguson and three of his riflemen were ranging far forward of the British lines when they heard the sound of horses’ hooves approaching from the direction of Chad’s Ford. Sinking down in the undergrowth, they looked hastily to their priming as a mounted man in gay hussar dress rode into the open glade directly in front of them, followed a moment later by another rider in buff and blue, mounted on a bay horse and crowned by what Ferguson was afterwards to describe as “a remarkable large cocked hat.” Obviously, he was an officer of exceptional distinction, and there was, moreover, a look about him that seemed peculiarly familiar. The Scotsman, of course, had never seen General Washington in the flesh. But there were plenty of prints and cheap woodcuts of him in circulation. Furthermore, it had been rumored in the British camp that, a few days earlier, Washington had ridden out so far beyond his own lines that a sudden storm had forced him to take shelter for the night at a farm-house hard by Gray’s Hill—almost within cannon shot of British headquarters at Kennett Square. It was more than possible, therefore, that he had again ventured out on one of those personal reconnaissances by which he was always careful to inform himself of the nature of the ground over which he proposed to fight.∗
∗ It is certain that on September 7 Washington did go on reconnaissance, and we are indebted to Bernard Knollenberg, former librarian of Yale and author of Washington and the Revolution, for pointing out a letter written on that same date by the General’s aide, Robert Harrison, to John Hancock, President of Congress: “Sir—His Excellency being out reconnoitring and busily engaged in the Affairs of the Army, I have the honor to acknowledge his receipt of your letter of the 6th …” ( Bicentennial Edition of Washington’s Writings , 1933, Vol. IX, page 195)—E.D.
Ferguson’s first unthinking impulse was to shoot down the two horsemen without more ado; and he signed to his companions “to steal near to them and fire at them.”† But almost immediately he signaled them peremptorily to hold their fire. To an experienced gun, raised on the Highland grouse moors in the traditional sporting code, the very idea of taking a shot at a sitting bird was anathema. In his own phrase, even to entertain so shameful a notion was “disgusting.” Furthermore, Ferguson was a typical soldier; and the soldier’s mentality is such that he invariably feels a certain sympathy with the man against whom he is professionally opposed. To attack and overpower him in the heat of battle was all in the line of duty; to play the assassin and shoot him down, all unsuspecting, in cold blood, was not part of the tradition of arms in which he had been raised.
† Quoted from Ferguson’s own written narrative of the episode, now in the Public Record Office in London.
There remained the possibility of taking the enemy leader and his companion captive. Stepping from his place of concealment, Ferguson called to the hussar officer, who was the nearer to him, and signaled him to dismount. The only response was an excited cry of warning to the rider in the remarkable large cocked hat, who promptly wheeled his charger and made for the further edge of the clearing.
“As I was within that distance,” Ferguson subsequently recorded, “at which, in the quickest firing, I could have lodged halt a dozen of 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.”
Within a few moments cocked hat and hussar headdress had disappeared from view. Still puzzled and uncertain as to the actual identity of the distinguished Continental officer who had come under his sights, Ferguson made his slow way back to camp. A clash between the American troops and the British was obviously imminent, and it behooved the conscientious Scot to bend all his energies to the preparation of his riflemen.