In the prior year there have been several articles in the Journal of the American Revolution reappraising certain participants involved with the southern campaign. One article included mention of Patrick Ferguson but that piece was general in nature and could not go into detail as to how conclusions were drawn or what evidence might exist to support them (or refute as the case may be). In order to supplement that information and provide a slightly more complete analysis of the major, here are a few thoughts dedicated to him. We start by looking at what a few prominent historians have indicated before getting into some evidence.
First, Judge Landrum of South Carolina wrote a history of the southern campaign in 1897 that was largely based upon traditions in the back country – basically, the same people who would otherwise be most likely to despise Ferguson. Instead of that, Landrum described Ferguson as “a finished soldier and his bearing throughout his military career proved him as brave as a lion.” Ferguson was also an intelligent man of “eminent literary talents who was deemed by other writers and contemporary sages equal to the best authors of the Scottish Augustan age.” “Possessing a vigorous mind and brilliant parts,” he “early displayed inventive genius, sound judgment and intrepid heroism … He was pleasant and conciliatory in manner, and was well calculated to gain friends.” After the British occupation of Ninety-Six in June 1780, Ferguson told the inhabitants, “We come not to make war upon women and children, but to give them money and relieve their distresses.”
For an opinion from a reputable officer who served with Ferguson, we have this nice summary from Charles Stedman: Ferguson’s “zeal in the service of his king and country was equal to his other great qualities as an officer.” He also described the Major as a “gallant officer” possessed of an “unconquerable spirit” that “refused to surrender” and was therefore killed at Kings Mountain.
After reviewing those incredibly positive descriptions of Major Ferguson, one almost feels like the man might qualify for sainthood. However, there are also a few more realistic historians whose judgments come across favorably but do, at least, admit to a few faults. In his very popular and well thought of history of the British occupation, John Buchanan mentioned that Ferguson’s letters displayed an “almost cavalier recommendation to burn and destroy on a wide scale,” thereby leaving the civilian population to starve. Buchanan also described Ferguson’s attitudes toward the militia and his own capabilities as “overly optimistic,” He emphasized the negative opinions of British officer Nesbit Balfour admitting that Ferguson had a “good mind, especially for technical subjects” but Buchanan openly doubted descriptions of Ferguson as a “brilliant soldier”. Overall, Buchanan seems to regard Ferguson as a good soldier and decent enough fellow but one overstated by history.
On the other side of prominent twentieth century historians, the Wickwire biography of Lord Cornwallis contains very positive descriptions of Patrick Ferguson. “A brilliant man aware of his brilliance, the inventor of a superior rifle that the authorities ignored, he was by 1780 a mere major, though his seniority and birth might have entitled him to the command of a regiment. Under these circumstances, he was understandably a willful and impatient subordinate. In his eyes, his appointment in 1780 as inspector of militia now gave him a semi-independent command. Having secured the position at his own request, he intended to use it to prove himself to his superiors. . . . Some qualities worked in his favor. Haughty he might look, but he cultivated a familiarity with loyalists unusual among British officers, who tended to treat American civilians of whatever political persuasion with contempt. . . . Ferguson was, furthermore, humane and chivalrous, merciful and gentlemanly, with a nice sense of duty and honor. ‘We came not’, he said, ‘to make war on women and children, but to relieve their distress.’ . . . Such a man naturally attracted loyalist militia to his cause. Had prudence and discretion balanced his noble qualities, he might in the end have achieved what Cornwallis’s army could not. But Ferguson was willful, impatient, and headstrong.”
That all sounds fine and wonderful, mostly positive comments, yet still, the reader is left wondering what might be underneath these descriptions. And, perhaps going just a step further, might also take a look at what might lead one historian to question these glowing conclusions.
First, Major Ferguson is highly praised for his bravery and military skill. There are several examples of this. As most fans of the revolution are aware, Ferguson spent much of 1775 and 1776 in Britain working on improvements to a breech loading rifle. His design came to be known as the Ferguson Rifle and, in a famously reported field trial, Ferguson maintained a pace of four shots per minute (up to six) while pouring in a steady stream of hits at the one hundred yard target. Even with rain and high winds, the major proved deadly with his new weapon. He was rewarded with a patent and a special corps of marksmen picked from regular regiments that would test the new rifle in combat. Unfortunately, the rifle corps’ first real combat was at Brandywine and Ferguson was wounded before having an opportunity to impress. General Howe disbanded the corps while Ferguson recovered, the explanation being that his rifle was too difficult for most enlisted men and, since Patrick himself now had a bad arm and would be unable to use the weapon, the corps was not viable.
While Ferguson recovered from his wound, he spent time around New York inspecting defenses and writing letters to Sir Henry Clinton. Many of those letters go into great detail about improvements to the various military facilities around New York. Later on he made similar observations concerning defenses in the south. The letters also contain detailed plans about using a total force of 27,000 men acting as light troops to subdue the colonies. They would divide into four army groups and travel about, living off the land while setting up temporary bases to disarm the rebels and bring them back to the Crown. Unfortunately, this is likely where historians start to doubt his military abilities. The first and immediate fatal flaw in such a plan is that no such numbers of light troops existed in the British Army of North America. Light troops in the revolution represented the best of the infantry rank and file and the British Army was just not that large. His plan would require virtually one hundred percent of all troops in North America fight as light troops, thereby completely ignoring that not all soldiers were up to that type of duty. As if that flaw were not enough, Ferguson’s notion that 27,000 troops should live off the land in army groups of 6,000 men each seems incredibly risky. At least one detractor considered Ferguson’s ideas “ridiculous.”
And that brings up a second trait to examine. Most historians consider the major to be a gallant and chivalrous man who treated people well on a personal level. His letters to Clinton sort of fly in the face of that description. Just as the 27,000 light troops were to live off the land, their mission would be to move into a “particular district, to gather up all the enemy’s partys, collect carriages, provisions or forage, disarm the inhabitants, take hostages or, if necessary, lay waste to the country.” After all, it was now time to “exert a degree of severity which would not have been justifyable at the beginning.” This was not a single reference. In his plans to raid coastal towns, Ferguson recommended the “burning of their grains & the depriving their cattle of all means of subsistence during the hard winter of that country.” The rebels “would be obliged to beg for bread.”
The letters to Clinton do not represent the only black marks to Ferguson’s humanity. In October of 1778, he raided Little Egg Harbor in New Jersey and caught Count Pulaski’s infantry companies sleeping. His men, under orders to give no quarter, killed them all. Reports range from 50 to 250 dead rebels with the British loss limited to one man. There were only five prisoners taken. Ferguson justified the action by incorrectly claiming that Pulaski had posted orders that no quarter was to be given to the British. Also that, being a night action, it wasn’t practical to give any quarter to the sleeping enemy. The explanation may have seemed more sincere if Ferguson had not just witnessed John Graves Simcoe’s ranger unit win great praise for a similar action at Hancock House. It probably should be noted that the letters suggesting severity and the Little Egg Harbor action took place right after Ferguson’s wound and subsequent recovery. There is a bitter tone during that period that doesn’t really seem to carry over to his time in the south.
Which brings up the incidents that give evidence of Ferguson’s good character. Historians point to his harsh reaction to rapes committed by members of the British Legion during the siege of Charleston. Another strong point to be made in his favor is that, once given a measure of command independence in the southern campaigns, Ferguson does not seem to have been guilty of many hangings or other atrocities. Unfortunately, his men were a different matter: they were often undisciplined and Ferguson was unable to control them. In letters to General Cornwallis, Ferguson indicated that, if he tried to discipline them, the new royal militia would simply desert and go home. As a result, his men freely plundered the rebel population and sought private retributions at will. However, the same back country historians that freely demonize Banastre Tarleton, James Wemyss, and Thomas Brown, seem to understand his predicament and have very positive things to say about Patrick Ferguson. It appears that, outside of the Little Egg Harbor incident, Ferguson’s severity is really just a bunch of talk in some letters and was not how he operated when actually put in the position to do so.
Talk of Ferguson’s character should not stop without at least some mention of his gallantry in restraining himself at Brandywine from shooting George Washington. Even though good reason exists to think Washington was not the officer in question, Ferguson’s act in passing up the shot remains in good standing. Almost ironic, in fact, is that James Delancey later identified the officer “dressed in Hussar” garb as Count Pulaski, the same man whose men were killed at Little Egg Harbor.
A third aspect of Ferguson’s character often discussed by historians is ambition and overconfidence. In Major Ferguson, the two traits seem hopelessly intertwined and should be looked at together. One can clearly see from the history of Ferguson’s life that his ambition was to be a career soldier and he sought notice for his military ability. His lengthy and detailed letters to Clinton show dedication but also ambition. A real gung-ho type who volunteered his advice to superiors and always remembered to point out how he could accomplish his goals, “at small expense,” even to the point of personally guaranteeing to pay any excess out of his personal pocket – which was likely not to be taken seriously since Patrick Ferguson did not have a deep pocket on which to draw.
Even the questionable incident at Little Egg Harbor reflects the ambition of Major Ferguson. Only a few months before, he witnessed his friend Capt. James Dunlop gain great accolades for a violent night assault at Hancock’s House where the rebels were killed rather than taken prisoner. Ferguson was likely eager to show his own ability to lead raids and quell the rebellion.
These same traits appear complicit in Ferguson’s death. Near the end of the Kings Mountain campaign, Ferguson clearly saw the danger posed by the Overmountain Men and requested “3 or 400 hundred good soldiers, part dragoons” in order to defeat the rebels. Even with that request, he still reflected desperation to retain his independent command. Risking his entire army, Ferguson remained at Kings Mountain instead of rejoining Cornwallis; his last request on the 5th was that the general not “supersede me by sending a superior officer.”
In those last movements we don’t just see the ambition but also the overconfidence. Ferguson evidently believed his eighty regulars and the newly formed Royal militia were ready to go into battle. A review of his correspondence with Cornwallis and the lack of any training time reflects a military force nowhere close to battle readiness. Instead of heeding the instructions of Lord Cornwallis, Ferguson chose to dig in at Kings Mountain where he had “taken a post where I do not think I can be forced by a stronger enemy than that against us.” Of course he was wrong and the result was Major Ferguson’s death at Kings Mountain.
Having droned on long enough here, I conclude with a few thoughts of my own about Major Ferguson. I found no reason to believe him personally unpleasant or inappropriate in his relations with the rebel population. I find his good reputation among the rebel population highly persuasive. His harsh letters during the time of wound recovery should likely be taken with a grain of salt as something he never acted upon. The records from the southern campaigns that I have read do not show Ferguson among the British officer group that engaged in frequent hangings or other depredations. In his various explanations for the brutal actions at Little Egg Harbor, I think there is a hint of regret for those results and I think he should be allowed the error in judgment. It is difficult for soldiers faced with an enemy unprepared to receive them yet motivated to kill. All that said, I agree with John Buchanan’s assessment concerning the major’s military skills. Even though I see an active and enthusiastic soldier, I do not see military genius. His plans for conquest are woefully unrealistic and his decision to remain at Kings Mountain shows little military skill in establishing a defensive position or assessing his situation. Instead, I see a young officer desperate to gain glory and accolades, even to his own detriment and death. I believe he was a probably a good officer at times but not really the stuff of independent command.
 Dr. J. B. O. Landrum, Colonial and Revolutionary History of Upper South Carolina (Greenville, SC: Shannon & Co, 1897), 234 – 235.
 Ibid., 223.
 John Buchanan, The Road to Guilford Courthouse (New York: John Wiley & sons, 1997), 195 – 203.
 Franklin and Mary Wickwire, Cornwallis and the War for Independence (London: Faber and Faber, 1971), 204. The Wickwire text relies heavily on the manuscripts of Lyman Draper and provides examples from him and Charles Stedman of Ferguson’s gallant and proper conduct toward women.
 Hugh Rankin, “An Officer out of his Time,” in Howard H. Peckham, Sources of American Independence (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978), 2:288.
 Ferguson to Clinton, August 1, 1778, in Peckham, Sources of American Independence, 2:301.
 Balfour to Cornwallis, June 20, 1780, in Ian Saberton ed., The Cornwallis Papers: The Campaigns of 1780 and 1781 in the Southern Theatre of the American Revolutionary War (Uckfield: The Naval & Military Press Ltd, 2010), 1:98.
 Ferguson to Clinton, August 1, 1778, in Peckham, Sources of American Independence, 2:301.
 Ibid., 307.
 Ferguson to Clinton, August 15, 1778, in Peckham, Sources of American Independence, 2:313.
 There is at least one reference to hanging a patriot named Smith for breaking parole after Musgrove’s Mill. the Diary of Anthony Allaire, entry for August 20, 1780, in Lyman Draper, Kings Mountain and Its Heroes (Cincinnati: Peter G. Thomson, 1881), 505.
 Ferguson to Cornwallis, July 24, 1780, in Saberton, The Cornwallis Papers, 1:293.
 Referring primarily to Draper and Landrum.
 Buchanan, The Road to Guilford Courthouse, 198 quoting James Fenimore Cooper who said that Delancey “constantly affirmed that his commander was mistaken … It was his opinion from some particulars of dress and stature that it was the Count Pulaski.”
 Ferguson to Cornwallis, October 5, 1780, in Saberton, The Cornwallis Papers, 2:164.
 Ferguson to Cornwallis, October 6, 1780, in Saberton, The Cornwallis Papers, 2:165.
 Possibly just my imagination.
 A very similar situation to that of Pyle’s Defeat by Henry Lee in March of 1781.