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If Patrick Ferguson had taken aim and fired at the officer who turned his back and rode away, there is no telling how the American Revolution would have turned out.

On September 11, 1777, an army of 12,500 British troops who had recently landed at the northern end of the Chesapeake Bay marched through Pennsylvania toward the patriot capital of Philadelphia. Covering their flank, a detachment of green-clad British marksmen hid in the woods along Brandywine Creek, near Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, and kept a lookout for American forces led by General George Washington. Suddenly a cavalry officer dressed in the flamboyant uniform of a European hussar rode into view, followed by a senior American officer wearing a high-cocked hat.

Captain Patrick Ferguson, a 33-year-old Scotsman reputed to be the finest shot in the British army, commanded the British marksmen, who were equipped with fast-firing, breech-loading rifles of Ferguson’s own design. He whispered to three of his best riflemen to creep forward and pick off the unsuspecting officers. But before the men were in place, he felt disgust at the idea of such an ambush, and ordered them not to fire. He shouted to the American officer, who was riding a bay horse. The American looked his way for a moment, and turned to ride on. Ferguson called again, this time leveling his rifle toward the officer. The American glanced back before slowly cantering away.

A day later, after he had been seriously wounded himself, Ferguson learned that the American officer he let ride off was most likely General George Washington. “I could have lodged half a dozen balls in or about him, before he was out of my reach,” Ferguson recalled, “but 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.”

If Ferguson had taken aim and fired at the officer who turned his back and rode away, there is no telling how the American Revolution would have turned out. Washington lost the Battle of Brandywine and then the city of Philadelphia, but lived on to win the war. A century later, American historian Lyman C. Draper wrote: “How slight, oftentimes, are the incidents which…seem to give direction to the most momentous concerns of the human race. This singular impulse of Ferguson illustrates, in a forcible manner, the over-ruling hand of Providence in directing the operation of a man’s mind when he himself is least of all aware of it.”

Generations have honored the name of Washington, but few remember the chivalrous officer who held his fire and let the general ride on into history. The Scotsman deserved fame for what he did in the rest of his short but full life; he was a brave but unconventional professional soldier, eager for battle from adolescence to the day he died. As Draper would write, “No man, perhaps, of his rank and years, ever attained more military distinction in his day than Patrick Ferguson.” Many months after Brandywine, when the Revolutionary War turned south, it also turned to partisan combat, especially in the thinly settled country back of the Atlantic coast. There Ferguson rode into a darker chapter of history in a battlefield finale that was anything but glorious.

Ferguson was a son of the Scottish Enlightenment, born in 1744 to an eminent judge near Aberdeen, who bought a commission for him before his 15th birthday as a cornet (junior lieutenant) in the Royal North British Dragoons. He proved himself under fire in Flanders and Germany during the Seven Years’ War, but sustained injuries that derailed his military career for nearly six years. Although one leg was still lame, in 1768 he returned to service as a captain in the 70th Foot, a regiment assigned to put down slave uprisings in the West Indies. That meant disorganized, small-unit warfare, experience that Ferguson would draw on near the end of his life. After the tropical islands, he was sent in the early 1770s to the garrison of Halifax, Nova Scotia, quiet duty that soon bored him, and he returned to Britain as disputes heightened between the American colonies and the mother country.

Word of the vaunted marksmanship of American hunters and soldiers, and the accuracy of their long rifles, spread across the pond. So Ferguson devoted himself to producing a weapon that would enable British troops to outshoot those potential rebels. The standard “Brown Bess” musket issued to soldiers of the Crown was a long, heavy, inaccurate, smooth-bore flintlock muzzle-loader, and using it involved a series of elaborate steps that entailed remaining upright and exposed to enemy fire. Ferguson wanted a weapon that was safer, faster and more deadly. Starting with a model devised by Isaac de la Chaumette, a Frenchman living in England, he perfected the first practical breech-loading rifle in the history of warfare.

Ferguson’s rifle did away with awkward manipulation of the ramrod, the exercise that brought on so many casualties among troops using the Brown Bess. The key to its success was a screw-type breech lock, operated by simply rotating the trigger guard. It could be loaded safely and quickly in four steps: Turn the guard to open the breech; lean the muzzle forward; drop the ball, then the powder charge into the chamber; and turn the guard to close the breech. A rifled barrel made the weapon vastly more accurate. As a bonus, the Ferguson weighed only 7 1/2 pounds, nearly 3 pounds less than the Brown Bess.

Practicing with his new breech-loading rifle, Captain Ferguson became so adept that he “almost exceeded the bounds of credibility,” winning renown as the best shot in the British army. He could get off seven aimed rounds in a minute, more than twice the average soldier’s rate with a muzzle-loader. Typically, the army bureaucracy was skeptical of any improvement in weaponry that might require new thinking and more money. To convince his seniors, in June 1776 Ferguson demonstrated his rifle to a party of lords and generals at Woolwich, site of the Royal Military Academy, across the Thames from London.

Though lashed by high winds and drenched by heavy rain, Ferguson fired a series of rounds at different distances, some at six a minute. He got off four shots a minute while advancing at 4 miles an hour. He poured a bottle of water into the weapon, thoroughly wetting his powder, then got off another shot within 30 seconds, without extracting the ball. Finally he lay on his back and hit the bull’s eye. In the entire performance, he missed his targets only three times. The skeptical officials were so impressed that they told King George III, who witnessed another such exhibition and promptly awarded Ferguson a patent for his efficient new rifle.

His Majesty, his generals and Ferguson were eager to rush this formidable weapon into the field against the rebels, but those were the days before mass production. The rifle would not equip an army, or even a full regiment, in time to matter in America. Ferguson was given command of a single company, only 100 men, whom he diligently trained to become expert with his rifle. Sent to America, he recruited more marksmen from different regiments in General William Howe’s army. Their first serious combat was at Brandywine Creek.

The day after Ferguson passed up the chance to shoot the stately American officer with the high cocked hat, a patriot ball shattered his right elbow. A surgeon who had attended wounded American officers told Ferguson that General Washington had been out just before the battle with light troops, escorted only by a French officer in hussar dress, and wearing exactly the uniform Ferguson had seen across his rifle sights. The surgeon’s revelation prompted Ferguson to reflect on his decision not to fire; he was unsure what he would have done if he had recognized that Washington was his target. “I am not sorry that I did not know at the time who it was,” he wrote.

Some doubting scholars have maintained that the near-victim of Ferguson’s marksmanship could not have been Washington. They asserted that no commanding general would have been riding without armed escort so close to the enemy. But later researchers found a letter from Washington’s headquarters to Congress confirming that “His Excellency” was “out reconnoitering and busily engaged.” And the Polish hero Count Casimir Pulaski, recently arrived from France, did in fact dress as a hussar, and he was with Washington as an aide de camp until being sent into action later on that crucial day. The novelist James Fenimore Cooper would write that his father-in-law, serving with Ferguson, believed the near-victim was Pulaski, rather than Washington. But Cooper’s account had dates and other details wrong. Apparently the evidence will never be conclusive, but it leans strongly toward Washington, who was the only ranking American officer in the vicinity.

For months after Brandywine, Ferguson managed to fend off surgeons who wanted to amputate his shattered right arm. But the arm was useless thereafter, so he laboriously taught himself to wield sword, pistol and pen with his left hand. While he was out of action, his sharpshooters scattered into other units, but rejoined him after he recovered. Early in October 1778, General Henry Clinton, who had replaced General Howe, dispatched the Scottish captain on a commando raid against one of the hideouts from which American privateers were harassing and capturing British ships.

With 400 men aboard eight or 10 vessels, Ferguson sailed from New York to strike at Little Egg Harbor, on the New Jersey coast just above modern Atlantic City. They destroyed 10 vessels, wrecked warehouses and shipyards, and burned the homes of known patriots. Days later, Ferguson heard from deserters that Pulaski’s Legion, sent by Washington to catch him, was camped 11 miles away. In the deep of night, he took 250 troops in rowboats to surprise the Americans. They bayoneted and killed 50, capturing only five, before Pulaski arrived with his dragoons and drove the attackers away. The Americans would complain that their men were massacred. “It being a night attack, little quarter could of course be given,” Ferguson reported; only two of his own troops were killed, three wounded and one missing.

The nature of the war was rapidly changing. Chivalry and ferocity were in serious contention on both sides, and within Patrick Ferguson.

After a series of successful missions along the coast and up the Hudson Valley, in late 1779 Ferguson was at last promoted to major, in the 71st Highlanders. Then, when General Clinton mounted an all-out offensive to crush resistance in the rebellious South, he temporarily boosted Ferguson to lieutenant colonel, leading an independent force of 500 rangers. Skirmishing ahead of the army between Savannah and Charleston, he accidentally collided with a friendly force and in the darkness, a British bayonet sliced through his good left arm. Undaunted, for three weeks he rode with his reins in his teeth.

Charleston fell to the British in May 1780 after three months of siege operations, during which Ferguson’s Rangers struck inland to cut off American lines of supply. From Charleston, General Charles Cornwallis intended to subdue the backcountry and then sweep north through the Carolinas and Virginia. The British strategists believed that the backcountry was full of loyalists, and Cornwallis sent Ferguson and the arrogant, merciless cavalryman Banastre Tarleton into the hills to recruit them. This brought on a series of bloody clashes, American Tories vs. American patriots, often family against family. “It was a civil war,” wrote the historian Christopher Ward, “and it was marked by bitterness, violence, and malevolence such as only civil wars can engender.”

Ferguson tried first to make friends, to convince these rustics that he came “not to make war on women and children, but to relieve their distresses.” That summer, he succeeded in collecting and drilling several thousand loyalists. But when soft words did not work, he resorted to the sword, even the hangman’s noose. As word of his men’s plundering spread, local and state militia leaders raised regiments of vengeful partisans, including “over-mountain men” from beyond the Blue Ridge, skilled at shooting squirrels and fighting Indians.

Ferguson was operating out of touch, beyond Cornwallis’ western flank, while the main British army marched north. His reputation spread among the backwoodsmen as they gathered in the mountains. Though slim and scholarly in appearance, in combat he was inspirational. He wore over his uniform a bold black-and-white plaid duster to be seen by his troops, and signaled them with a silver whistle to be heard in the chaos of battle.

But Ferguson’s zealotry carried him into a mistake that made sure there would be no mercy if he ever fell into patriot hands. As the backwoodsmen gathered in the hills, he sent a prisoner with a message to their commander. He told them to “desist from their opposition to the British arms,” or else “he would march his army over the mountains, hang their leaders, and lay their country waste with fire and sword.” This arrogance further infuriated the patriots, who vowed to hunt him down.

Cornwallis captured the village of Charlotte, N.C., in late September 1780, and waited there for Ferguson to rejoin him. Pulling back with the patriots hard behind, Ferguson decided to turn and fight on Kings Mountain, which rose to 1,700 feet near the North-South Carolina border, 35 miles west of Charlotte. On a plateau bounded by rocky slopes, he deployed just over 1,000 troops. He was the only British soldier among them—all the rest were either Tory militia or regularized Americans. They waited for reinforcements that would never come.

More than 1,500 lean, angry patriots from the Carolinas, Virginia, Georgia and Tennessee converged on Kings Mountain. As they spread around Ferguson’s position, Virginia’s Colonel William Campbell told them not to wait for orders to attack: “Let each man be his own officer. If in the woods, shelter yourselves and give them Indian play!” His men clambered up the rocky steep, slipping through the brush to sight the Tories. A neighborhood youth had told them about the officer wearing a black-and-white duster, and they knew who it was.

Campbell spotted Ferguson’s men through the autumn woods. “There they are!” he shouted. “Shout like hell and fight like devils!” The backwoodsmen under his command sent a high, primordial war cry keening over the mountainside—a sound that would return to history as the “Rebel Yell.”

Strangely, as if the two sides were lined up across an open field, Ferguson ordered a bayonet charge. As his Tories rushed and then fell back, well-aimed rifle fire picked them off. The patriots closed in from all sides.

Ferguson galloped here, then there, blowing his silver whistle to inspire his troops. A few white flags appeared; furious, he cut them down. Then he realized he was being overrun and, according to the patriots, tried to ride through their lines to escape. A mountain sharpshooter named Robert Young recalled that he saw that conspicuous black-and-white shirt and said to himself, “I’ll try and see what Sweet-Lips can do.” Taking aim with his pet rifle, he fired; a volley of shots knocked the brave but grievously errant Scot from his horse.

With Ferguson down, his second in command tried and failed to rally the Tories. Despite a flurry of white flags, the patriot officers were slow to stop the slaughter. Ferguson was hit by eight or more balls, at least one through the head. His force lost 157 killed, 163 badly wounded and 698 prisoners. Only 28 patriots were killed, and 64 wounded. It was the biggest clash between brother Americans before First Bull Run in Virginia in 1861, and it boosted morale up and down the young republic.

The victorious patriots buried the bodies of the fallen in two shallow pits. Tarleton later asserted that “the mountaineers used every insult and indignity towards the dead body of Ferguson,” and one of his officers said, “While they buried all the other bodies, they stripped Ferguson’s of its clothes and left it naked on the field of battle.” Another account says it was wrapped in a raw beef hide and buried. Patriot soldiers reported that Ferguson’s favorite camp follower, a young woman nicknamed “Virginia Sal,” was killed while tending the wounded and lay beside him in death. According to Draper, “The wolves of the surrounding country were soon attracted to the spot…for several weeks they revelled upon the carcasses of the slain….Long after the war, it is said, that Kings Mountain was the favorite resort of the wolf-hunter.”

It took more than six weeks for news of Ferguson’s defeat at Kings Mountain to reach George Washington at his headquarters in New Jersey. Washington’s papers do not disclose whether he ever learned of the twist of fate by which the fiery Scotsman held his fire and let the American in the high cocked hat canter away, eventually to save the young nation.

Washington journalist Ernest B. “Pat” Furgurson, a former correspondent and columnist for the Baltimore Sun, is the author of Freedom Rising: Washington in the Civil War.