Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Ferguson, Patrick

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821979Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 18 — Ferguson, Patrick1889Henry Manners Chichester

FERGUSON, PATRICK (1744–1780), brevet lieutenant-colonel, major 71st Highlanders, inventor of the first breechloading rifle used in the British army, born in 1744, was second son of James Ferguson of Pitfours, Aberdeenshire, a senator of the College of Justice and one of the lords commissioners of justiciary for Scotland, by his wife, Hon. Anne Murray, daughter of Alexander, (fourth) lord Elibank. He was taught fortification, gunnery, &c., in a military academy in London, and on 12 July 1759, before he was fifteen, was appointed cornet in the royal North British dragoons or Scots greys, with which he made a campaign in Germany. He fell sick soon after, and his friends, against his wish, procured his transfer to the light troop of the regiment at home, thereby preventing his seeing further service in Germany. On 1 Sept. 1768, when senior cornet of the greys, a company was purchased for him in the 70th foot in the West Indies, with which regiment he served during the repression of a negro rising in Tobago. At the commencement of the American war of independence the boasted skill of the American marksmen directed his attention to the improvement of military firearms, and he devised certain plans of breechloading and other improvements, for which he obtained a patent (Patent 1139, 2 Dec. 1776). The printed specification, which can be seen at the office of the commissioners of patents, describes them as ‘various improvements upon firearms whereby they are loaded with more ease, safety, and expedition, fire with more certainty, and possess other advantages.’ It is admitted that some of the principles had been suggested before, but ‘had never been seriously applied to purposes of public utility.’ The patent covers several forms of breech-action. In the first, which Ferguson appears to have adopted, the breech is closed by a vertical screw-plug, which is lowered to admit of the introduction of the ball, followed by the cartridge or charge. Special arrangements are provided against the fouling of the screw-plug and accumulation of gas in the breech. A second plan, said to be particularly suitable for artillery, was to close the breech with ‘a perpendicular or horizontal turnplate.’ A third provided for the closing of the breech with a sliding transverse-bar. The use of sliding backsights adjustable to any range was included in the patent, and likewise a peculiar mode of rifling, in which the grooves were to be made of exaggerated width as compared with the ‘lands’ between them, the idea being that fouling of the bore and ‘stripping’ of the bullet in its passage would thereby be prevented. Ferguson made some experiments at Woolwich in June 1776 before a number of distinguished officers, when, we are told, ‘under the disadvantages of a heavy rain and a high wind, he did the four following things, none of which had ever before been accomplished with any kind of smallarms, viz., 1. He fired during four or five minutes, at a target 200 yards distant, at the rate of four shots a minute; 2. He fired six shots in one minute; 3. He fired four shots a minute, advancing at the same time at the rate of four miles an hour; 4. He poured a bottle of water into the pan and barrel of the piece when loaded, so as to wet every grain of powder, and in less than half a minute fired as well as ever with her without extracting the ball. He also hit the target at 100 yards lying on his back on the ground, and notwithstanding the unequalness of the wind and the wetness of the weather, only missed the target three times during the whole course of the experiments’ (Ann. Reg. 1776, xix. 1148). According to Ferguson's biographer the experiments were also tried by some trained men of the guards before the king at Windsor, but the soldiers were nervous and less successful than Ferguson. Ferguson was sent back to America—his regiment was then at Halifax, U.S.—and he was permitted to form a corps of riflemen out of volunteers from regiments in America. This corps was armed with breechloading rifled carbines, with screw-plug breech action, and sighted for one hundred to three hundred yards. One of these rifled carbines is figured, from an American source, in Greener's ‘The Gun and its Development’ (London, 1881), fig. 74, p. 89. Ferguson's corps of riflemen, extended in front and supported by a corps of rangers, did good service in covering General Knyphausen's advance at the battle of Brandywine, 11 Sept. 1777, when Ferguson received a severe wound, which deprived him of the use of one arm. Sir William Howe, then commander-in-chief at New York, is said to have taken umbrage at the formation of the rifle corps without his having been previously consulted, and, taking advantage of Ferguson's prolonged absence through his wound, broke up the corps, sending the men to the light companies of their regiments and returning the breechloading rifles into store. After Ferguson's recovery he was sent in command of a detachment of three hundred men embarked in the Zebra, Vigilant, and Manchester, under Captain Collins, royal navy, to root out a nest of privateers from Little Egg harbour in the Jerseys, the results of which were notified in the ‘London Gazette,’ 1 Dec. 1778. Next year he was sent with a small force to dislodge the enemy from Stonyport and Verpank's Neck. From Stonyport he was ordered to Georgia with the troops under Major-general Pattison, royal artillery, which penetrated into South Carolina, where he was employed under Tarleton at the siege of Charleston. On 26 Oct. 1779 Ferguson was appointed major in one of the battalions of the old 71st highlanders, which corps was then serving in America and was disbanded in 1783. After the siege of Charleston Ferguson was actively employed in organising and training the loyal militia of South Carolina, in whose fighting powers he appears to have had over-confidence (Ross, Cornwallis Correspondence, i. 59). With about a thousand of these men he accompanied Lord Cornwallis in his march through the Carolinas, during which he was severely wounded in his sound arm. Ferguson, whose recent promotion to the brevet rank of lieutenant-colonel appears not to have been known in America at the time, was surprised and killed at King's Mountain, N.C., during the operations there on 9 Oct. 1780. Cornwallis says: ‘Major Ferguson had taken infinite pains with the militia of Ninety-six (a frontier post), and had obtained my permission to make an excursion into Tryon county, whilst the sickness of my army prevented my moving. As he had only militia and the small remains of his own corps, without baggage or artillery, and as he promised to come back if he heard of any superior forces, I thought he could do no harm, and might help to keep alive the spirits of our friends in North Carolina, which might be depressed by the slowness of our movements. The event proved unfortunate, without any fault of Major Ferguson. A numerous and unexpected army came from the mountains, and as they had good horses their movements were rapid. Major Ferguson was tempted to stay near them longer than he had intended, in the hope of cutting off Colonel Clarke on his return from Georgia. He was not aware that the enemy was so near him, and in endeavouring to execute my orders of passing the Catawba and joining me at Charlottetown he was attacked by a very superior force and totally defeated at King's Mountain’ (ib. i. 496–8). This disaster was a heavy blow to the royal cause. Tarleton appears to have blamed Cornwallis for not supporting Ferguson, which Cornwallis declares to be ‘a most malicious and false attack’ (ib. i. 59). Ferguson is allowed by all to have been a generous, chivalrous soldier, but the partisan warfare in which he was engaged gave rise to rancorous feelings on both sides. It is alleged that indignities were offered to his mangled corpse and great barbarities practised on the wretched militiamen under him who were taken prisoners (comp. Cornwallis Corresp. i. 67, and Bancroft, Hist. U.S. vi. 292–3). Unable to show other marks of respect to his memory, Ferguson's brother officers published a notice of him in the form of a monumental epitaph in the ‘New York Gazette,’ 14 Feb. 1781.

[A memoir of Ferguson was written by his kinsman, Dr. Adam Ferguson [q. v.], for the first edit. of Encycl. Brit. (British Encyclopædia), but as it was considered too long, and Dr. Ferguson refused to abridge it, it was omitted and afterwards published separately. Two copies will be found in British Museum under title ‘Sketch of a Memoir of Lieut.-Colonel Patrick Ferguson. By Adam Ferguson, LL.D.’ (London, 1817). Besides this work reference may be made to Ross's Cornwallis Correspondence (London, 1869, 3 vols.), i. 10, 59, 67, 70, 303–41, 486, 496–7; Banastre Tarleton's Hist. Campaigns, 1780–1 (London, 1787), pp. 164–5; Drake's Am. Biog.; Bancroft's Hist. United States, vi. 155, 270–1, 287–289, 292–3; Two Scottish Soldiers, by James Ferguson of Kinmundy, Aberdeen, 1888.]

H. M. C.