William Ferguson’s Walk on the Ice


April 19, 2016
by Don N. Hagist Also by this Author


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On Saturday, December 17, 1774, the 10th Regiment of Foot marched out of Boston and into the Massachusetts countryside “to give the men a little exercise.”[1] The British government’s response to the Boston Tea Party had included sending ten British army regiments, elements of two others, a contingent of artillery and a battalion of Marines to garrison Boston, crowding some 6000 troops into the peninsular city by the end of 1774. The 10th and 52nd Regiments had been among the last to arrive; they had been in Canada since 1767 and had been preparing to return to Great Britain when they were ordered instead to Boston, landing in that city at the beginning of November. To keep these men fit for service, regiments took frequent marches of several miles into the country “with Arms, Knapsacks, &c.”[2] The local inhabitants watched these movements closely, ever wary that the troops might be on some sort of enforcement mission, but nothing remarkable occurred that year.

Nothing remarkable, that is, for the citizens of Massachusetts. The December 17 march did have serious consequences for one soldier of the 10th Regiment, a man who did not even participate. While his comrades got their exercise, William Ferguson remained in barracks recovering from an illness.[3]

After the regiment had returned from its march, the roll was called at 8 p. m., well after dark at that time of year. William Ferguson was missing. This was unusual for him, a tailor who never been absent since enlisting in Great Britain and joining the regiment in Canada as a recruit in April 1772. Two corporals found Ferguson’s knapsack in the barracks and examined it, typical protocol when a man went missing for it was important to determine whether he’d taken his spare clothing with him, as men who planned to desert often did. They found “only the Stiffening of an old Stock” in the knapsack,[4] and reported Ferguson’s absence to his company sergeant.

At about the same time as the roll call, a sentry on the neck that connected Boston to the mainland raised the alarm because he saw someone on the ice. The guard turned out and manned the redoubts that covered the neck, and parties were sent along the beaches. A private soldier in the 4th Regiment, a grenadier named Samuel Lewis, stooped down to get a view along the water’s edge in the moonlight and perceived a man near the water. Lewis moved towards the man and called for him to stop, upon which the man instead tried to make his way past Lewis towards Boston.

Lewis, a thirty-three year old Somersetshire native who had been in the army for a dozen years,[5] pushed the man down with the muzzle of his firelock and asked why he had not stopped. The man, an intoxicated William Ferguson, claimed not to have heard Lewis. Lewis asked “what brought him there & if he had an intention to Desert for a parcel of Rascals,” referring to the rebellious colonists. Ferguson responded that he had merely lost his way in the darkness. Capt. Charles Cochrane of the 4th Regiment, coming up to them, heard this discourse took Ferguson into custody.

Ferguson was brought first to the officer commanding the lines, Maj. Roger Spendlove of the 43rd Regiment, then to the guard room where he was turned over to Lt. Poole England of the 47th Regiment and Ens. James Goddard Butler of the 4th. They asked Ferguson where he had been going, and he said to visit a townsman (apparently meaning another soldier from the same town in Ireland as him) but had lost his way because he was unfamiliar with the area. Ensign Butler searched Ferguson’s pockets and found them to be quite full, containing “two Shirts, one clean, the other dirty,” “two white Stocks, two pair of thread Stockings, one pair & a half of Yarn or Worsted Stockings” which “appeared clean but not ironed,” “one pair of unmade black Cloth Leggins with binding” (typical winter wear for British soldiers), “thread and a Taylor’s Thimble.” The officers wryly asked Ferguson if he was going for a long visit, to which Ferguson replied that he was taking his shirts and stockings to a soldier’s wife who worked as a washerwoman.

Ferguson was put on trial for desertion in Boston on December 20, 1774. After testimony from nine officers and soldiers, including those named above, the court adjourned until the 22nd, at which time Ferguson delivered his own defense. He had been caught at night, carrying his spare clothing, adjacent to the road that led out of town, and it looked like he was trying to get around the sentries by crossing the ice. Things did not look good for him, not when the army had seen all too much desertion recently. He nonetheless gave an eloquent explanation for his actions:

Last Saturday Morning the Regiment being Ordered to march some Miles into the Country, I was left at home, being in the sick reports, tho not so bad, but I could work at the Regimental Leggins which I was ordered to work at after the Regt was marched from the Barracks. I sent out for some Liquor of which I drank pretty freely, & which made me incline to have more. In some time after a Townsman of mine came to my room to see me, & asked me to go and drink a Dram, on which I went & then returned to my work, but finding myself incapable of working I proposed to myself to take my linen & stockings to a namesake’s wife in the 52d Regt who washed for me in Quebec, & pleased me much better than she who washes for me at present, & I imagine in my hurry in putting up my Linnen & Stockings, together with being intoxicated with Liquor, I likewise put the Leggins I was working on into my Pockets. The reason of my having the clean Linnen and Stockings with me was to have them done over again to my liking. I went in search of the 52d Barracks & in my way met with two Sailors, they asked me if I wou’d have a dram & to which I unluckily consented. They had a bottle of Rum which they gave me & of which I drank out of the Bottle, they pressed me to drink again, which I did & got entirely insensible of what I was about or where I was a going to, so staggered along, sometimes falling, sometimes walking, until stopped by the Sentries at the advanced Lines, & was taken Prisoner to the Guard, where the Field Officer on seeing me, told me I would pay for what I had done, for I should be either hanged or shot, which put me in such a Panic that I found myself got quite sober. I was searched for Necessaries and Ordered Prisoner to our Own Barrack Guard Room.

I sincerely believed my missing my way was occasioned by my being a stranger & so much in Liquor, as I am not acquainted in the Town not having mounted at any other Place but the Barrack Guard.

It’s very well known in the Regiment I never made the least attempt to Desert and I solemnly declare to God, a notion of the kind never entered my Breast, as I always have been well used, & payed by the Regiment I serve in, & never had any other inclination but to serve his Majesty in any part of the World, where called upon.

An elaborate story? Perhaps, but Ferguson had corroboration. He called upon James Berry, a fellow soldier and tailor in the 10th Regiment who deposed “that last Saturday the 17 inst about four o’Clock in the Afternoon the Prisoner came to Deponent for a pair of Scissors & that the Prisoner appeared to be very much in Liquor.” Francis Menzies of the 23rd Regiment, who was on guard when Ferguson was caught, deposed “that the Prisoner appeared to be very drunk when he was brought into the Guard Room at the Lines on Saturday Evening the 17th Inst Staggering too & again being scarcely able to make a walk of it.”

The “namesake” that William Ferguson mentioned was Alexander Ferguson of the 52nd Regiment.[6] He testified that his wife had indeed done laundry for William Ferguson when the two regiments were quartered together in Quebec, and added “that on the Prisoner’s being ordered to some of the Forts [that is, outposts on the Great Lakes] and owing Deponent a trifle of money, he promised to pay him when he returned & when he did not return he told Deponent that as the two Regiments were going to the same place, Viz Boston, he would pay him when they got there, & that he would again employ Deponents Wife to wash for him.” The court also heard the adjutant of the 10th Regiment confirm that Ferguson had done duty only at the regiment’s barracks since arriving in Boston the previous month; the 10th had never mounted guard at Boston Neck or the lines, so it was plausible that he was unfamiliar with the area.

William Ferguson had presented plausible and verifiable reasons for his behavior: he had been excused from the march, he’d had too much to drink, he wanted Mrs. Ferguson in the 52nd Regiment to do his washing, and he didn’t know the area around Boston Neck. It was a well-constructed defense. The thirteen officers who composed the court nonetheless found him guilty. Regardless of his reasons, he had in fact missed the roll call and had been caught near the lines with much of his spare clothing. And it was a bad time to be drunk and acting suspiciously: drunkenness had been a major problem among the thousands of soldiers jammed into a small city where liquor was cheap, of poor quality, and sometimes fatal. The region’s population was fiercely resentful of the army that was enforcing laws they could not abide, and made it a practice to inveigle soldiers to desert. The basic facts of the case, combined with the circumstances of the times, were enough to warrant harsh measures.

Ferguson was found guilty and sentenced to death. General orders on December 23 presented the commander in chief’s approval of the sentence and directed that it “be put in execution, to morrow at nine o’Clock, by shooting said William Ferguson to death, by a platoon of the Regiment, to which he belongs. The picquets of the several Regiments, Commanded by the field Officer of the day, will attend the Execution which will be performed on some proper spot at the back part of the common near the water.”[7] Lt. John Barker of the 4th Regiment wrote unsympathetically of the execution:

Saturday, 24th. A soldier of the l0th shot for desertion; the only thing done in remembrance of Christmas Day. Although General Gage never pardons deserters, I don’t think his manner of executing them sufficient examples, as he has only piquets of the army out instead of the whole, which would strike a greater terror in the men. Punishments were never meant only to afflict Criminals, but also as Example to the rest of Mankind.[8]


[1] John Barker, The British in Boston: Being the Diary of Lieutenant John Barker of the King’s Own Regiment (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1924), 11.

[2] Frederick Mackenzie, The Diary of Frederick Mackenzie (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1924), 13.

[3] Court martial of William Ferguson, WO 71/80, 176-184, British National Archives. All subsequent information is from this trial transcript unless otherwise stated.

[4] A stock was a stiffener worn around the shirt collar to keep it upright.

[5] Discharge of Samuel Lewis, WO 121/4/273, British National Archives.

[6] Muster rolls, 52nd Regiment of Foot, WO 12/6240.

[7] General Orders, America, WO 36/1, British National Archives.

[8] Barker, The British in Boston, 14.

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