Scottish soldier and inventor Patrick Ferguson (1744–1780) invented the breech-loading rifle that still bears his name, and he eventually met his end on the battlefield. After venturing deep into Carolina territory to rally supporters to the British Loyalist cause during the American Revolutionary War, Ferguson encountered instead Appalachian militia units armed with rifles and bearing longstanding grievances against British colonial authority. He died during the Battle of Kings Mountain in October of 1780.
Born into a well-connected Scottish family, Patrick Ferguson became a veteran military leader with a taste for adventure. According to military historians, the combat-ready Scot once spotted American general George Washington while out on a patrol but decided against taking a sniper shot at the future first president of the United States. Ferguson's untimely end at the Battle of Kings Mountain was lamented by his men as well as the British Army soldiers who carried the improved breechloading rifle that bore Ferguson's name under patent.
Ferguson was born on June 4, 1744, as the fourth of six children and the second-oldest son in the family of Anne Murray Ferguson and James Ferguson. Anne was the daughter of Alexander Murray, the 4th Lord Elibank, and James was a well-known Edinburgh solicitor who defended those accused of crimes by crown prosecutors. Although the Ferguson family resided at Pitfour, an estate in Buchan, Aberdeenshire, some research suggests that Patrick was born in Edinburgh, where his father's thriving career as a member of the Faculty of Advocates placed the family in the 1740s. Archival documents list their Edinburgh home as 333 High Street, a location in the heart of the Scottish capital and near St. Giles' Cathedral, the seat of the Church of Scotland.
On his mother's side, Ferguson was descended from a notably prolific branch of the Murray family, whose male members were elevated to the peerage of Scotland as the hereditary lords of Elibank. Among his namesake forebears was Patrick Murray, the second Lord Elibank, a botanist who assembled an impressive collection of plant species in Edinburgh before his death in 1671. During Ferguson's younger years, his family members included associates of philosopher David Hume, one of the leading figures of the Scottish Enlightenment, and a Murray uncle who served as governor of Quebec in the 1760s.
At age 15, James Ferguson arranged that Patrick receive an officer's commission with the Royal North British Dragoons, a mounted infantry unit. Ferguson spent two years training at the Royal Military Academy in Woolwich, England, and in the spring of 1761 he sailed for Flanders to take part in the Seven Years' War. A knee ailment grounded him in a hospital in Osnabruck, Germany, for several months, and he was back in Edinburgh by the summer of 1762.
By mid-1763, Ferguson was again wearing the uniform of the Royal North British Dragoons, also known as the Royal Scots Greys. This time he was assigned to a cavalry unit that served as a type of roving militia and was deployed at various trouble spots across England. In 1768, he purchased an officer's commission with the 70th Regiment of Foot, a unit commanded by one of his Murray cousins. Government ministers dispatched the 70th Regiment to the West Indies when a series of slave revolts threatened British trade interests in the Caribbean. While there, in 1770, Ferguson purchased a plantation on the island of Tobago and then sailed to Canada to serve with other British Army units at a garrison in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
The arduous military campaigns were detrimental to Ferguson's troublesome knee, and he was forced to return to the British Isles once again in 1772. While he was in London the following year, he began working on an idea for a new type of rifle he envisioned as a potential replacement for “Brown Bess,” the ten-pound long gun that had been the standard-issue musket used by infantry troops since the 1720s. Brown Bess was a remarkably effective firearm, but reloading it in the heat of battle was a constant source of frustration for infantry soldiers. Ferguson worked on his rifle design while stationed at an infantry training camp run by Sir William Howe. The American Revolutionary War erupted in April of 1775, and Howe was appointed commander-in-chief of the British forces that would travel to the New England colonies.
Ferguson carried out tests of his new rifle at his alma mater, the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich, on June 1, 1776. Under fantastically uncooperative weather conditions—a steady rain pelleting the firing range in conjunction with strong winds that buffeted onlookers—he demonstrated a rifle that did not require the use of a ramrod. A traditional musket accessory, the ramrod was a wooden or iron attachment used to prep the weapon, unjam it, and clean the barrel. “Ferguson's rifle did away with awkward manipulation of the ramrod, the exercise that brought on so many casualties among troops using the Brown Bess,” explained Ernest B. Furgurson in an article for American History. “The key to its success was a screw-type breech lock, operated by simply rotating the trigger guard. It could be loaded safely and quickly in four steps …. A rifled barrel made the weapon vastly more accurate. As a bonus, the Ferguson weighed only seven-and-a-half pounds, nearly three pounds less than the Brown Bess.”
Ferguson was granted a patent for his rifle, worked with armament manufacturers in Birmingham to put it into production, and trained a hundred or so men in his new role as commander of the newly formed Ferguson's Rifle Corps. They sailed for the American colonies in May of 1777 with Howe and an even larger force. Landing in the Chesapeake Bay area, they then set off to capture Philadelphia, the center of political dissent in the American colonies.
On September 7, 1777, Ferguson was patrolling with a few of his trained marksmen in a heavily forested approach to Brandywine Creek, near present-day Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania. They spotted two men on horseback, one wearing the distinctive Hussar uniform of cavalry officers from mercenary armies shipped from Central Europe; the other was a less elaborately kitted out officer who sported a tricorn hat. Although Ferguson signaled to his snipers to take aim, he had a change of heart when he realized they were about to shoot two enemies at an unguarded moment. He shouted, at which the American turned and looked toward the foliage. After Ferguson yelled again in warning, the Hussar and the American cantered away on their horses. “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,” Ferguson later reported, according to Furguson in American History. “So I let him alone.” Military historians have surmised that the Hussar-wearing officer was Polish war hero Count Casimir Pulaski, who was serving as an aide-de-camp to General George Washington, the man wearing the tricorn hat.
Just five days later, during the Battle of Brandywine, Ferguson suffered a grievous musket wound to his right elbow. He spent months recuperating and endured several surgeries without anesthesia to remove bone splinters. While doctors were adamant that the injury could prove fatal and that his arm should be amputated, Ferguson resisted and taught himself to write and even wield a weapon with his left hand. By the spring of 1778, he was once again in the field and later that year participated in the Battle of Chestnut Neck, which included a particularly egregious attack on a colonial army encampment at Little Egg Harbor (near present-day Atlantic City, New Jersey). In October of 1779, he was assigned as a major with the 71st Foot Regiment and led raids and missions along the Hudson River. When he suffered a battlefield wound to his good arm, Ferguson famously rode for three weeks to make it back to camp, with his left arm bandaged and holding his horse's reins in his mouth.
In 1780 Ferguson was selected as one of a handful of trusted officers dispatched to carry out a new plan by the wartime advisors of King George III. Living in the Carolinas were plantation owners with strong ties to Britain, and they could aid in raising local militia units in the area. Deeper inland were small-scale farmers, trappers, and laborers who could be pressed into service with the British army. Ferguson and fellow officer Banastre Tarleton of Liverpool, England, ventured into remote areas of the Carolinas at the behest of Lord Cornwallis, one of the top British commanders, who had taken the city of Charlotte, North Carolina, in May of 1780.
While journeying deep in the woods of the Carolinas and adjacent Tennessee, Ferguson, Cornwallis, and Tarleton were surprised to discover that the locals were organizing militia units to fend off the British and support the American patriots in their war for independence. This roughhewn force was largely comprised of Scotch-Irish settlers with a historical enmity to the British crown and a similar dislike of the Carolina plantation owners known as the Southern Tories. In fact, these independent-minded woodsmen and their equally fierce wives had defied a 1763 decree to maintain residence within a certain boundary and not move up into the Appalachian Mountains, where the king's tax collectors had difficulty locating them.
The direst tactical error of Ferguson's long and illustrious military career came when he sent one of the Patriot resisters in his custody over the mountains as an emissary to the main camp. If those Overmountain units “did not desist from their opposition to the British arms,” he warned, according to Thomas B. Allen in Military History, Ferguson promised to “march his army over the mountains, hang their leaders and lay their country waste with fire and sword.” Fearful of a major British assault, Overmountain commanders Isaac Shelby, John Sevier, and others decided to attack Ferguson first as he led his pro-British force toward Cornwallis's forces. The two sides chased one another across this remote section of the Carolinas and on October 1 Ferguson sent word to Cornwallis asking for reinforcements to extinguish the Overmountain rebels.
In planning his strategy, Ferguson failed to take into account the broad knowledge the Carolina Patriots had gleaned from the region's original Cherokee inhabitants. One hunting tactic, for example, was to clear trees at the crest of a hill or mountain and wait for deer to venture out and into range. While waiting for reinforcements from Cornwallis, Ferguson and roughly 1,100 of his men camped out at one such treeless locale, Kings Mountain, and found themselves as helpless as deer when some 900 Overmountain attacked them in a bloody fight on October 7, 1780. Ferguson suffered a fatal wound during the battle and was buried in a shallow grave. Interred with him was a female companion known only as Virginia Sal. About 700 of his men were taken prisoner, and some of them were summarily executed by the Overmountain band before other Patriot officers ordered a halt to the bloodshed. “The reality of the Revolution played out on that Carolina ridge,” wrote Allen in Military History 230 years later. “The only British national in the battle was Ferguson. Everyone else was an American, and those who chose to fight for King George III had chosen the losing side.”
Dunkerly, Robert M., The Battle of Kings Mountain: Eyewitness Accounts, The History Press, 2007.
American History, April 2009, Ernest B. Furguson, “The Marksman Who Refused to Shoot Washington,” pp. 48–53.
Loyalist Gazette, spring 2001, Marianne McLeod Gilchrist, “‘Gallant Ferguson’: Major Patrick Ferguson (1744–80),” pp. 30–33.
Military History, November 2010, Thomas B. Allen, “The Overmountain Men,” pp. 34–39. □