America’s Other 9/11: Ferguson and the Shot Not Heard ‘Round The World

Mention 9/11 and we are instantly catapulted into the past with keen memories of where we were and what we were doing. It is a monumental day in American history, both for its infamy and for the honor on display in the response. So too, was another September 11, 1777.

Captain Patrick Ferguson is a name unfamiliar to most Americans and it shouldn’t be. It can be argued that Ferguson’s gallantry at Brandywine Creek was the turning point of the Revolutionary War — and he was a British soldier. The 33-year old Scotsman, attached to Royal North British Dragoons, was the reputed “finest shot in the British Army.” On this 9/11, Ferguson was with a band of snipers covering the advance of the 12,500 man British force marching toward Philadelphia to take the City and split the American forces. In opposition was a rag-tag, throw-together gang of American soldiers held together by the sheer will of General George Washington.

Son of a judge and child of the Enlightenment, Ferguson was anything but your ordinary British officer. Oh, he was tough enough, having been continually tested during the Seven Years’ War which had left him lame and his military career on-hold for six years. He was also bored with his non-combat post, and yearned to see action in America. Historian Lyman C. Draper writes of him, “No man, perhaps, of his rank and years, ever attained more military distinction in his day than Patrick Ferguson.”

Sporting a repeating rifle of his own design, Ferguson lay in wait for any threat to the advancing Redcoats. Seeing a group of American officers on a trail ahead, Ferguson ordered three of his company to advance with him to a ledge to pick off the unsuspecting revolutionaries. On that fall day, Ferguson had a job to do, and was uniquely positioned by technology and happenstance to do it well. The rifle he designed was a quantum leap over the venerable British “Brown Bess” musket with its long muzzle-loading barrel that exposed its operator to return fire. Ferguson’s rifle was a breech-loader operated by simply turning the trigger guard. As he would later say of the unsuspecting colonial officer in his sights, “I could have lodged half a dozen balls in or about him, before he was out of my reach….”

Camouflaged by their green uniforms in the dense forest of eastern Pennsylvania, the snipers were a perfect blend of stealth and surprise. Ferguson and his men saw the bright tunic of the Hussar cavalryman followed by a tall  senior American officer in a high cocked hat riding a bay horse. Distasteful of an ambush, Ferguson called to the men to give them a sporting chance before the inevitable result. The American stopped, looked at Ferguson, and then turned to ride on. Ferguson called again, and this time the officer turned to look directly at the Scotsman, who, by now, had leveled his rifle just below the cocked hat. The officer paused, turned again, and slowly cantered off.

Ferguson did not fire. He would later explain, ” … it was not pleasant to fire at the back of an unoffending individual, who was acquitting himself very coolly of his duty—so I let him alone.”  The recipient of Ferguson’s gallantry and largesse was, of course, General Washington, who would lose that day at Brandywine Creek, but who would ultimately win the War learning from the mistakes made there.

9/11, it seems, is a recurring day of honor.

Source: (excerpted from, “The Marksman Who Refused to Shoot George Washington,” By Ernest B. Furgurson)

 –Mark Esposito, Guest Blogger

26 thoughts on “America’s Other 9/11: Ferguson and the Shot Not Heard ‘Round The World”

  1. Nice thread everyone! It is heartening to see at least some
    Americans who read and study the history of our nation…
    unlike our current “elected” officials who apparently can barely
    read let alone learn the lessons of history.

  2. Andy:

    Point taken, and Franklin met the news of the fall as recounted here:

    “Only in the fall of 1777 did Franklin’s nerves begin to fray. On the afternoon of September 7, he received a visit from a French officer who spoke fluent English and who qualified as one of the more prominent eccentrics in Europe. … After several glasses of wine, Franklin unburdened himself, with much emotion: “There is nothing better to do here than drink,” he lamented. “How can we fool ourselves that France might understand America better than Britain? How can we fool ourselves that a monarchy will help republicans, revolted against their monarch? How can your ministers believe what they cannot understand?” France wanted to crush her old rival, but would do nothing to help America do so. He was heartsick. He sorely regretted his failure to interest Versailles in an alliance, which would have been so much to the good of both countries. And while he understood that France feared for her colonies if America succeeded too well, he believed France could delay but by no means prevent that success.

    He did not sound like the serene, unflappable Franklin of legend. At the same time, he made no public concession to despair. It was as essential that he appear buoyant in Paris as it was essential that he convince Vergennes that the Americans were perilously close to sinking. The papers constantly reported him in good spirits, despite the news that the British occupied Philadelphia. He was colorful in his pronouncements. Philadelphia, he insisted, would prove a grave for the British troops. Washington would blockade the roads; the Delaware would freeze; the British army would be cut off from its own ships.


    That Thursday morning an American messenger galloped into Franklin’s courtyard. He had left the colonies only a month earlier. He had not alighted from his horse when Franklin called out to him, “Sir, is Philadelphia taken?” “Yes, sir,” replied the young officer, at which Franklin turned in defeat, his hands clasped behind his back. “But, sir, I have greater news than that,” the messenger called to Franklin’s back, “General Burgoyne and his whole army are prisoners of war!”

    –excerpted from Stacy Schiff’s article, “Franklin in Paris,” The

  3. Mespo,

    My objection is to the term “ragtag” and similar terms. It sets up a standard that is often universal and not supportable. I espcially dislike this in terms of American Civil War Confederate soldiers, used as a reason they lost (if the did). As to your other points, fine. We can debate the various aspects, supply, battle performance, motivation, leadership, but obviously this is not the forum. As for the fact, the Brits took Philly, did not Ben say something like, “Philadelphia has captured the British Army.

  4. “. . . Had the English been able to make enough of them, it is likely they would have made a difference in the outcome of the war.”

    Thats a maybe, several repeating rifles where available at the start of the American Civil War, Lincoln saw a demonstration of a machine gun & strongly encouraged the army to buy them. But the generals in charge knew better! Such weapons would permit the troops to _waste_ bullets instead of aiming each shot.

    When the English forces finally fielded a breech loader it remained a single-shot model until long after other countries had gone to magazine fed ones.

    Great story though – I had no idea that breech loaders went that far back. Very interesting, thanks!

  5. Andy:

    You are right about the single shot nature of the Ferguson. However, to suggest the Continental Army was anything but a throw-together force before important reforms by Von Steuben is according it more respect than it deserved. Here’s an excerpt from Wiki that gets it essentially correct:

    “Throughout its existence, the Army was troubled by poor logistics, inadequate training, short-term enlistments, interstate rivalries, and Congress’s inability to compel the states to provide food, money or supplies. In the beginning, soldiers enlisted for a year, largely motivated by patriotism; but as the war dragged on, bounties and other incentives became more commonplace. Two major mutinies late in the war drastically diminished the reliability of two of the main units, and there were constant discipline problems.

    The army increased its effectiveness and success rate through a series of trials and errors, often at great human cost. General Washington and other distinguished officers were instrumental leaders in preserving unity, learning and adapting, and ensuring discipline throughout the eight years of war. In the winter of 1777-1778, with the addition of Baron von Steuben, of Prussian origin, the training and discipline of the Continental Army began to vastly improve. (This was the infamous winter at Valley Forge.) Washington always viewed the Army as a temporary measure and strove to maintain civilian control of the military, as did the Continental Congress, though there were minor disagreements about how this was carried out.”

    Washington’s forces did fight a successful rearguard action during the battle, but it was still a catastrophic loss as the colonials were completely outflanked and surprised. Philadelphia would fall without a shot 15 days later. Washington’s forces dropped from 15000 to about 6000, and he wrote Hamilton saying, “The distressed situation of the army, for want of blankets and many necessary articles of clothing, is truly deplorable, and inevitably must bring destruction to it, unless a speedy remedy is applied.”

  6. It is indeed an interesting battle where the British turned the Aamerican flank with an aggressive tactical march. HOWEVER, Ferguson’s rifle was a single shot not a reapeating arm. The early models were prone to having the screw breach jam with powder residue (there were later improvements). Also drop the rag tag myth. Washington’s army was not of the standard of the British at this time but a brigade fought a formal and good rearguard action including assaults by the “Guards” that allowed the American forces to withdraw some in order and others with a clearer purpose.

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