The Man Who Didn’t Shoot Washington

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In the ensuing British victory, Ferguson took a prominent part, and while skirmishing fell victim to an enemy bullet, which shattered his right elbow. Soon he was on the road to recovery, although it was obvious that he would never regain the use of his right arm. It was during his early days in the hospital that proof was forthcoming that his guess as to the identity of the man in the remarkable large cocked hat had been well on the target. For one morning, after he had been retailing the story of the encounter to some of his companions in the improvised hospital, “one of our surgeons,” as he wrote painfully with his left hand, “who had been dressing the wounded rebel Officers, came in and told us that they had been informing him that General Washington was all that day with the light troops, and only attended by a French Officer in Hussar dress, he himself dressed and mounted in every point as described.”

Ferguson was fit for duty again in time to play his part in the battle of Monmouth Court House, and so skillfully had he trained himself to manipulate both rifle and sword with his one sound hand, that his opponents called him “the one-armed devil.”

In the late autumn of 1779, the Scot was given the temporary rank of lieutenant colonel and placed in command of a contingent of New York and New Jersey Loyalists, armed with the new rifle and known officially as the American Volunteers, but more colloquially as Ferguson’s sharpshooters. The corps was in action at Charleston--where Ferguson was again wounded, this time in the left arm--and at Biggin’s Bridge, where Huger’s cavalry was surprised by the American Volunteers and the Horse of Tarleton’s Legion. As usual with Tarleton’s scallywag troopers, a house was broken into and some of its womenfolk molested. Attracted by their cries for help, Ferguson rushed instantly to their protection. Arresting the ringleaders in the mischief, he was about to string them upon the nearest tree when a senior officer intervened to insist on the delinquents’ right to formal trial.

Disaster at length smote this remarkable man at the famous battle of King’s Mountain in 1780 where Ferguson, commanding a body of Loyalist militia, was attacked by a determined force of mountain men under such leaders as the Virginian, Colonel William Campbell; the North Carolinian, Benjamin Cleveland; Isaac Shelby and John Sevier.

Ferguson had appointed King’s Mountain, on the boundary of North and South Carolina, as the rallying point for the Loyalists; and despite the fact that there had been virtually no response to his proclamation, it was at this place of rendezvous that he decided to stand and give battle. For once in his life he had chosen a defensive position with less than prudence; the wooded acclivities being “more assailable by rifle,” as Light-Horse Harry Lee was subsequently to comment, “than defensible by bayonet.” Furthermore, the downhill angle of fire was to prove a tremendous handicap.

Making the utmost use of the cover afforded by the timber, the Americans in three columns slowly and purposefully worked their way up the tumbled, rocky ascent, despite the fact that furious bayonet charges twice dislodged them and drove them halfway down the hill. Rut the exposed position of the defense proved a serious disadvantage. Loosing off at opponents they could only glimpse occasionally through the tangle of trees, they themselves were conspicuous targets to men whose accuracy of aim was already proverbial. “In this manner,” a survivor recorded, “the engagement was maintained near an hour, the mountaineers flying when there was danger of being charged with the bayonet, and returning again as soon as the British had faced about to repel another of their parties. Colonel Ferguson was at last recognized by his gallantry … and fell pierced by seven balls.”

In one of his early letters home, Ferguson had affirmed, simply and without affectation, “I thank God more for this than for all His other blessings, that in every call of danger or honour, I have felt myself collected and equal to the occasion.”

Certainly in the hour of danger on King’s Mountain he did not fail in courage or in leadership. Nor did he in that chivalrous hour in the woodlands beyond Brandywine, when American history hung by a thread and the call was that of honor.