FERGUSON, PATRICK. (1744–1780). British army officer. Born of Scots parents, Ferguson was educated at a private military academy in London before taking up a cornetcy in the Royal North British Dragoons (the Scots Greys) on 12 July 1759. He served in one German campaign before being struck down by an illness that kept him out of the service until he became a captain in the Seventieth Foot on 1 September 1768. His career in the 1770s is still obscure, although he is said to have served in the West Indies in 1772–1773. In March 1776 he submitted to the adjutant general a design for a breech-loading rifle that he was allowed to patent on 2 December, even though his proposal contained nothing new and his particular mechanism had been patented in England as early as 1721. One hundred breech-loaders were made in Birmingham for a trial corps of picked men under Ferguson's command.
The new unit reached New York on 24 May 1777 and on 26 June fought in its first action at Short Hills (later Metuchen), New Jersey. Having adopted the green uniform usual for rifle companies, they took part in the Philadelphia campaign, landing at Turkey Point, Maryland, on 24 August. Working alongside British and Hessian light infantry, Ferguson's men ejected Maxwell's light infantry from its delaying position at Cooch's Bridge (later Iron Hill) on 3 September. Other skirmishes and hard marching followed, so that by the time Ferguson reached the Brandywine Creek he had only twenty-eight effectives. At about this time, according to his own account, he declined to shoot an American officer in the back and expressed no regrets when the officer turned out to be Washington. Ferguson's men then took part in the secondary British assault at Chadd's Ford late in the afternoon of 11 September. During this action a ball shattered his right elbow and permanently crippled his arm.
On the next day, Howe judged the Ferguson rifle to have failed and disbanded the corps. Despite its initial accuracy and high rate of fire and dependability in wet weather, the weapon could rarely get away ten shots before fouling jammed its breech mechanism. Fouling also quickly and progressively affected the weapon's accuracy, and the positioning of the mechanism made the wooden stock hopelessly fragile. All the known surviving Fergusons have crudely repaired stocks, suggesting that most broke before they were withdrawn and stored in New York in the summer of 1778. Howe could hardly have been jealous of such an invention, as is sometimes alleged. While he may have been piqued by the way Ferguson's unit was foisted upon him in the first place, his decision had irrefutable military justification.
While his arm healed, Ferguson was switched to military intelligence, a role in which Clinton valued him as highly as John André. From time to time Ferguson led raiding parties against isolated rebel targets, the best known of which was at Little Egg Harbor, New Jersey, on 4-5 October 1778. From July to November 1779 he was governor of Stony Point, and his appointment as major in the Seventy-first was officially announced on 25 October. While at Stony Point he began to recruit his own unit of 150 Loyalist rangers known as Ferguson's Scottish Corps or the American Volunteers. On 1 December he was made lieutenant colonel in America, but news of this promotion reached the colonies only after his death.
His new corps, brigaded with other light infantry units, went on the Carolina campaign of 1780, joining the army outside Charleston on 11 January. Sent with Banastre Tarleton to cut the rebel communications with the city, Ferguson took part in the successful action at Monck's Corner on 14 April. Thereafter, he operated independently on the north bank of the Cooper River until Charleston fell on 12 May. On 22 May, Ferguson was made inspector of militia for both Carolinas, raised over four thousand men near Ninety Six, and formed his own southern militia corps of about three hundred out of them. These men fought a series of skirmishes with rebel militia, with some success.
When Cornwallis began his northern march in September 1780, Ferguson—perhaps overconfident, perhaps wrongly thinking that support was at hand—allowed his force of Loyalist militia to become dangerously isolated. He seems to have underestimated, or simply not known, the size of the rebel forces in the vicinity. Cornwallis, ill and resentful of Clinton's favoritism towards Ferguson, had only Tarleton's force available, and Tarleton was down with malaria and unable to move for days. Whatever the exact truth, Ferguson decided to fight on an open hilltop at Kings Mountain, South Carolina, on 5 October 1780. It was a curious and fatal choice for the master of irregular warfare. The sides of the mountain were steep and tree-clad, giving excellent cover to the attackers, and Ferguson failed to build field fortifications. Despite three heroic bayonet charges, his 1,018 Loyalists were rapidly shot to pieces and Ferguson himself was killed. He was just thirty-six years old.
Patrick Ferguson was an intelligent, humane, and dedicated officer. Although his famous rifle turned out to have fatal defects, his interest in new weapons was at one with his keen and inventive use of light infantry and irregular tactics. He was one of the most able officers on either side in the War of American Independence.
Mackesy, Piers. The War for America, 1775–1783. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1964.
Wickwire, F. B., and M. B. Wickwire. Cornwallis and the War of Independence. London: Faber and Faber, 1971.
revised by John Oliphant