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.

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.

 

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.