Patrick Ferguson

1744–1780

Patrick Ferguson was an officer in the British Army during the American Revolutionary War. Ferguson is most famous for developing the Ferguson Rifle and for leading British forces at the Battle of Kings Mountain. Ferguson was defeated and killed at Kings Mountain, a major turning point in the American Revolutionary War.

Patrick Ferguson, American Revolution, Ferguson Rifle, NPS

This portrait depicts Colonel Patrick Ferguson, who led British forces at the Battle of Kings Mountain. It hangs in the visitor center at Kings Mountain National Military Park. The photo was taken by the author in 2022, during a visit to the park. Image Source: American History Central.

Who was Patrick Ferguson?

Patrick Ferguson (1744–1780) was a Scottish-born in the British Army who rose to prominence during the American Revolutionary War. Ferguson is most famous for designing the first breech-loading rifle used by the British Army.

After traveling to America in 1777, Ferguson participated in the Philadelphia Campaign and may have passed up an opportunity to kill General George Washington at the Battle of Brandywine. After being injured at Brandywine, Ferguson excelled in military intelligence and led raiding parties, before joining the British Southern Campaign.

While in the South, he fought at the Battle of Monck’s Corner and helped the British win the Siege of Charleston. Afterward, he was tasked with raising militia forces in the Backcountry region of North Carolina and South Carolina.

In the Backcountry, Ferguson clashed with American Militia forces who joined forces with the Overmountain Men. The combined American force attacked him at the Battle of Kings Mountain. Ferguson was killed during the battle, and his entire command was lost.

Battle of Kings Mountain, Death of Patrick Ferguson
This illustration depicts the moment Ferguson was shot as he tried to break through the American lines. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Facts About Patrick Ferguson

These facts summarize the life and career of Patrick Ferguson, a key leader of British forces in the American Revolutionary War, who also invented the Ferguson Rifle.

Ferguson’s Early Life and Education

  • Patrick Ferguson was born in 1744 to Scottish parents.
  • His father was James Ferguson and his mother was Anne Murray.
  • James Ferguson was a senator of the College of Justice and Lords Commissioners of Justiciary in Scotland.
  • His mother was the daughter of Alexander, Lord Elibank.
  • He attended a private military academy in London.

Early Military Career

  • Ferguson started his military career by joining the Royal North British Dragoons — also known as the Scots Greys — at the rank of Cornet on July 12, 1759.
  • As a Cornet, Ferguson was the lowest commissioned officer in the company.
  • Dragoons were infantry soldiers who rose horses instead of marching, but usually dismounted for battle.

Seven Years’ War

  • In 1761, Ferguson served in a campaign in Germany.
  • An issue with his leg forced him to spend time six months in a hospital in Osnabrück, Germany.
  • In 1762, he returned to Scotland and spent another year recuperating.

Return to Military Service with the Scots Greys

  • Ferguson finally returned to service with the Scots Greys in 1763.
  • From 1763 to 1768, the Scots Greys served in Britain.

70th Regiment of Foot

  • In 1768, Ferguson purchased a commission as a Captain in the 70th Regiment of Foot.
  • His cousin, Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Johnstone, was the commanding officer.
  • Ferguson joined the 70th Foot on September 1, 1768, when it sailed to the West Indies.
  • While in the West Indies, he bought a sugar plantation on the island of Tobago.
  • Ferguson’s leg started bothering him again in 1771, and he returned to Britain in 1772.
  • His brother, George, took over the sugar plantation.
General William Howe, Illustration
General William Howe. Image Source: Wikipedia.

British Light Infantry Units

  • Ferguson was living in London in 1773 when he participated in a training for Light Infantry Units.
  • Following his experience in the French and Indian War, General William Howe proposed adding Light Infantry Companies to the British Army.
  • The purpose of the Light Infantry Companies was to provide each Regiment of Foot with a company of skirmishers, who could maneuver faster and quickly engage enemy forces.
  • During the American Revolutionary War, these units were often placed on the flanks and were referred to as “flank companies.”
  • They were trained to move in a single file, with their commanding officer leading them, over and through difficult terrain, such as the hills and woods that lined the Bay Road between Concord and Boston (see Massachusetts Provincial Congress, Narrative of the Battles of Lexington and Concord).
  • During the training, Howe noticed Ferguson’s skill for the style of fighting.

The Ferguson Rifle

  • In 1775, Ferguson started working on a “breech loading” rifle, although some accounts say he started in 1774.
  • In this style of rifle, ammunition is loaded into the breech — the end of the rifle — instead of the barrel, like a musket.
  • The design of the rifle allowed it to be reloaded while lying on the ground, and it could fire up to six rounds per minute.
  • According to some accounts, Ferguson developed the rifle in response to reports of the superior marksmanship of American riflemen, such as Daniel Morgan.
  • Although Ferguson’s system was not unique, the Ferguson Rifle was the first beech-loading rifle that was successfully used in combat.
  • It is estimated that 100 Ferguson Rifles were made, and about 12 of them still exist.
Ferguson Rifle, Patrick Ferguson, American Revolution
The Ferguson Rifle. Image Source: Museum of the American Revolution.

Ferguson Joins the American Revolutionary War

  • Ferguson and his unit —100 men armed with Ferguson Rifles — arrived in New York on May 24, 1777.
  • His first engagement was the Battle of Short Hills (June 26, 1777) in New Jersey, which resulted in a British victory.
  • The unit is commonly referred to as “Ferguson’s Riflemen.”

The Philadelphia Campaign of 1777

  • Ferguson and his men landed at Turkey Point, Maryland, on August 24, 1777, where they joined British forces for the Philadelphia Campaign.
  • Ferguson and his men joined with British and Hessian Light Infantry Companies at the Battle of Cooch’s Bridge (September 3, 1777). The combined British forces defeated American forces led by General William Maxwell.
  • These small battles, other skirmishes, and difficult marches reduced Ferguson’s contingent from 100 men capable of fighting to 28.

Battle of Brandywine

  • Ferguson led his men during the Battle of Brandywine (September 11, 1777), another British victory.
  • His unit participated in the secondary British assault at Chadd’s Ford in the afternoon.
  • During the battle, Ferguson sustained a severe injury when a bullet shattered his right elbow, which permanently crippled his arm.
  • According to Ferguson, he had an opportunity to shoot an American officer during the battle, which he later believed to be General George Washington.
Battle of Brandywine, 1777, Illustration, FC Yohn, LOC
This illustration by Frederick Coffay Yohn depicts the Battle of Brandywine. Image Source: Library of Congress.

Ferguson Rifle Unit Disbanded

  • Despite the advantages of the Ferguson Rifles, they tended to jam, which caused problems for Ferguson and his men.
  • General William Howe responded by disbanding Ferguson’s unit on September 12, 1777.

Military Intelligence

While Ferguson’s arm recovered, he became involved in military intelligence, gathering and providing information for General Henry Clinton.

General Henry Clinton, American Revolution
General Henry Clinton. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Raid on Chesnut Neck — October 6, 1778

Ferguson led raids against American forces in the area around Little Egg Harbor, New Jersey. Ferguson had 300 British Regulars under his command, along with roughly 100 Loyalists. Ferguson and his men were transported to New Jersey by a small fleet of 9 ships, which were under the command of Captain Henry Collins.

  • William Livingston, the Governor of New Jersey, alerted General George Washington that Ferguson was preparing to attack Chesnut Neck.
  • Chestnut Neck was used by American privateers to store captured supplies, which were distributed to the Continental Army.
  • George Washington sent Casimir Pulaski and his command, Pulaski’s Legion, consisting of infantry and dragoons, to aid American forces in the area.
  • Ferguson and his men arrived on October 6 and raided Chesnut Neck on October 7.
  • During the raid, Ferguson and his men engaged American forces.
  • The Americans were unable to stop Ferguson from seizing supplies and destroying supplies that had to be left behind.
  • Afterward, Ferguson withdrew but burned and destroyed buildings on the plantation of Eli Mathis, along with his mills and salt works.

Battle of Mincook Island — October 15, 1778

  • When Pulaski arrived in Little Egg Harbor, his men set up camps on a farm and Mincook Island.
  • It is believed that a deserter from the American forces found Ferguson and told him where Pulaski was.
  • Ferguson organized an expedition and rowed to the area near the camp, disembarked his men, and then marched near the American camp.
  • Stopping near an American outpost, Ferguson had his men fix their bayonets and launched a surprise attack on the morning of October 15, 1778.
  • Most of the Americans were sleeping when the British force attacked and killed 50 men.
  • Pulaski organized his men and rode to the site of the attack.
  • When the American force arrived, Ferguson withdrew.
  • In the aftermath of the attack, Ferguson was accused of committing a massacre, similar to the Battle of Paoli Tavern (September 11, 1777) and the Battle of Herringtown (September 28, 1778).

Stony Point and Ferguson’s American Volunteers

  • Following the Battle of Stony Point (July 16, 1779), General Henry Clinton put him in charge of the fort’s defenses.
  • He oversaw Stony Point, New York from July to November 1779.
  • On October 25, 1779, he was promoted to Major of the 71st Regiment of Foot.
  • At Stony Point, Ferguson started recruiting men for Ferguson’s Scottish Corps, also known as the “American Volunteers.”
  • His new command included 150 Loyalists from New York and New Jersey.

Ferguson Joins the British Southern Campaign

  • After American and French forces failed to capture Savannah, Georgia in October 1779, the Americans retreated to Charleston, South Carolina. Under the command of General Benjamin Lincoln, the Americans fortified the city and prepared for a British attack.
  • British officials responded by organizing an expedition to capture Charleston.
  • The effort was led by General Henry Clinton, and Ferguson and his command were part of the expedition.

Siege of Charleston

Banastrae Tarleton, Portrait, Reynolds
Banastre Tarleton. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Cornwallis and the Southern Campaign

  • Following the siege, Clinton returned to New York and left General Charles Cornwallis with orders to subdue the South Carolina, then North Carolina and Virginia. 
  • This strategy, known as the British Southern Campaign, was intended to restore British control of the Southern Colonies. 

Ferguson Raises Loyalist Volunteers

  • The success of the British Southern Campaign relied on the recruitment of Loyalist volunteers to increase the ranks of the British forces.
  • On May 22, Ferguson was appointed as the Inspector of Militia for North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia and he was in charge of raising volunteers.
  • Ferguson successfully raised more than 4,000 men near Ninety Six and also organized his own command of 300 Loyalists.
  • This company was not outfitted with Ferguson Rifles.

Ferguson in the Backcountry

At this point, Ferguson started to make critical errors in judgment that not only cost him his life but contributed to the eventual Surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown in October 1781.

  • As Cornwallis prepared to move his forces into North Carolina, he put Ferguson in charge of defending the left flank of the army.
  • With 1,000 men under his command, Ferguson moved west. Along the way, he skirmished with American Militia forces.
  • Ferguson reached Gilbert Town, North Carolina on September 7, and established headquarters.
  • However, he left three days later, on September 10, and then clashed with American forces under the command of Colonel Elijah Clarke.
  • Afterward, Ferguson issued a proclamation that warned Patriot militias to lay down their arms and told them, “…if they did not desist from their opposition to the British arms, he would march his army over the mountains, hang their leaders, and lay their country waste with fire and sword.”
  • Ferguson returned to Gilbert Town on September 20.

The Overmountain Men Respond to Ferguson’s Proclamation

  • Instead of laying down their arms, the leaders of the militia forces — collectively known as the Overmountain Men — decided to take action. 
  • On September 25, John Sevier, accompanied by Colonel Isaac Shelby, gathered roughly 240 men at Sycamore Shoals in present-day Tennessee.
  • Together with Major Joseph McDowell and Major Joseph Winston, and with Colonel William Campbell of Virginia, they moved into North Carolina to find and confront Ferguson. 
  • Together, there were about 1,200 American troops.
Battle of Kings Mountain, Overmountain Men
“Gathering of the Overmountain Men at Sycamore Shoals” by Lloyd Branson. Image Source: Tennessee State Museum Website.

Ferguson at Kings Mountain

  • Ferguson received intelligence that informed him the Americans were planning to attack.
  • On September 27, he started to move east, toward Cornwallis and his army, for protection. 
  • As he moved in that direction, he camped at Kings Mountain, a small isolated mountain near the border of North Carolina and South Carolina.
  • Ferguson expected to be joined by Major Archibald McArthur and the 71st Regiment of Foot.
  • Although Ferguson camped on the top of Kings Mountain and had the advantage of the high ground, there was also no escape route.
  • The steep slopes of the mountain were covered with trees, which provided cover for any attackers.
  • Some accounts indicate Ferguson was occupied with his mistress, a woman who went by the name of “Virginia Sal.”
Battle of Kings Mountain, British Bayonet Charge, NPS
This diorama depicts a Loyalist bayonet charge down the side of Kings Mountain. This photo was taken by the author. Image Source: American History Central.

The Battle of Kings Mountain

  • On October 7, 1780, the American forces quietly surrounded Kings Mountain and launched a sneak attack on Ferguson and his Loyalist militia.
  • The Americans moved up Kings Mountain on all sides, and slowly moved in toward Ferguson’s camp.
  • Ferguson tried to rally his men and then attempted to ride his horse through the American lines.
  • Ferguson was fatally wounded, and his men surrendered.
  • The battle lasted just over an hour and the Americans won a resounding victory.

Death of Patrick Ferguson

  • Ferguson was killed and his forces suffered significant casualties. Every member of his command was either killed or taken prisoner.
  • Virginia Sal was also killed.
  • Ferguson and Sal were buried together on the battlefield.
  • Ferguson was the only non-native American involved in the Battle of Kings Mountain.
  • Ferguson’s second-in-command, Abraham De Peyster, was a Loyalist from New York City. De Peyster was taken as a prisoner.
Death of Patrick Ferguson, Historical Marker, NPS
This photo shows the Memorial to Patrick Ferguson at the Kings Mountain National Military Park. This photo was taken by the author. Image Source: American History Central.

Inscription on the Ferguson Memorial at Kings Mountain

TO THE MEMORY OF
COL. PATRICK FERGUSON
SEVENTY-FIRST REGIMENT.
HIGHLAND LIGHT INFANTRY.

BORN IN ABERDEENSHIRE,
SCOTLAND IN 1744.
KILLED OCTOBER 7, 1780
IN ACTION AT
KING’S MOUNTAIN
WHILE IN COMMAND OF
THE BRITISH TROOPS.

A SOLDIER OF MILITARY
DISTINCTION AND HONOR.

THIS MEMORIAL
IS FROM THE CITIZENS OF
THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
IN TOKEN OF THEIR APPRECIATION
OF THE BONDS OF FRIENDSHIP AND
PEACE BETWEEN THEM AND THE
CITIZENS OF THE BRITISH EMPIRE

ERECTED OCTOBER 7, 1930

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations, including APA Style, Chicago Style, and MLA Style.

  • Article Title Patrick Ferguson
  • Date 1744–1780
  • Author
  • Keywords Patrick Ferguson, Who was Patrick Ferguson, What did Patrick Ferguson accomplish, When did Patrick Ferguson develop the Ferguson Rifle, Where was Patrick Ferguson killed, Why were the Overmountain Men pursuing Patrick Ferguson, How did Patrick Ferguson die
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date April 18, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update March 26, 2024

Taxonomies