Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Cowpens in Miniature 6

Part 6: In the Night
Previous: Tarleton's Pursuit

Early on the night of January 16, 1781, the American force, commanded by Brigadier-General Daniel Morgan, was making final preparations for the battle that was expected the following day.

Captain Samuel Hammond remembered that “Orders… [were] issued to the militia, to have twenty-four rounds of balls prepared and ready for use, before they retired to rest.”

Of special concern to Morgan was the huge British cavalry force. Some days before the battle, Morgan met with Colonel Richard Winn of South Carolina, who had previously fought against Lieutenant-Colonel Banastre Tarleton. According to Morgan, Winn asked him, “Do you think I shall be attacked by the British?” He answered, “I do and that by a Strong force from Winn's boro….” Morgan then asked, “Can you inform me the Manner Colo. Tarleton brings on his Attack?” Winn responded, “I can, Tarleton never brings on the Attack himself his mode of Fighting is to Surprise, by doing this he sends up two or three Troops of Horse and if he can throw the party into Confusion with his reserve he falls on and will cut them to pieces.”

More than anything, Morgan needed as many cavalrymen as possible to counter Tarleton. He had with him a force of Continental light dragoons under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel William Washington, but according to Josiah Martin, this force “amounted [only] to 72 as counted by the applicant the day before the battle.” Tarleton had around 300 mounted men (301 in my order of battle, not counting mounted infantry).

According to Thomas Young of South Carolina, “Night came upon us, yet much remained to be done. It was all important to strengthen the cavalry. Gen. Morgan knew well the power of Tarlton's legion, and he was too wily an officer not to prepare himself as well as circumstances would admit. Two companies of volunteers were called for. One was raised by Major Jolly of Union District, and the other, I think, by Major McCall. I attached myself to Major Jolly's company. We drew swords that night, and were informed we had authority to press any horse not belonging to a dragoon or an officer, into our service for the day.

Major Joseph McJunkin of South Carolina had a similar recollection. “On the night before the battle forty-five militia soldiers were enrolled as dragoons and placed under the command of Col. McCall and annexed to Washington's cavalry. These officers and men, in the respective commands, were far from being tyros in the art of war. They were marksmen and had generally been in the war from the commencement.”

In the meantime, Morgan visited his men in their encampment and offered words of encouragement. According to Young, “It was upon this occasion I was more perfectly convinced of Gen. Morgan's qualifications to command militia, than I had ever before been. He went among the volunteers, helped them fix their swords, joked with them about their sweet-hearts, told them to keep in good spirits, and the day would be ours. And long after I had laid down, he was going about among the soldiers encouraging them, and telling them that the old wagoner would crack his whip over Ben. (Tarleton) in the morning, as sure as they lived.

Young continued, “‘Just hold up your heads, boys, three fires,’ he would say, ‘and you are free, and when you return to your homes, how the old folks will bless you, and the girls kiss you, for your gallant conduct!’ I don't believe he slept a wink that night!”

He wasn’t as upbeat with all of the men as he was with Young. William Mitchel remembered Morgan sharing a bit of gallows humor. “General Morgan went around among the troops to give orders &c that when he got to Captain William Wilson's quarters, he said to him ‘Captain, don't let your men sleep too sound tonight, for Tarleton will attack us in the morning & we'll feel damn ugly with cold bayonets in our guts.’”

The British commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Banastre Tarleton, assumed that the Americans were retreating away from his force when in fact they were preparing for battle. Tarleton’s own bone-tired men slept on the grounds of the Americans’ former encampment. Finally, after hearing from his scouts he decided to make a night march of his own in the hope that his force would overtake the Americans before they crossed the Broad River.

Tarleton recorded that “at three o'clock in the morning on the 17th [see Note 1], the pickets… [were] called in, [and] the British troops… were directed to follow the route the Americans had taken the previous evening.” To expedite the march, “the baggage and wagons were ordered to remain upon the ground till daybreak, under the protection of a detachment of each corps” [see Note 2]. During the march, “Three companies of light infantry, supported by the legion infantry, formed the advance; the 7th regiment, the guns, and the 1st battalion of the 71st, composed the center; and the cavalry and mounted infantry brought up the rear.”

Tarleton thought that his movements were conducted in secrecy. In fact his force was being closely monitored. According to Major Joseph McJunkin of South Carolina, militia Colonels “Brandon and Roebuck, with some others, had the special charge of watching Tarleton's movements from the time he reached the Valley of the Pacolet. They sat on their horses as he approached and passed that stream and counted his men and sent their report to headquarters. They watched his camp on the night of the 16th until he began his march to give battle. Morgan appears to have had the most exact information of everything necessary.”


1. Lieutenant Roderick Mackenzie stated that the march began by 2pm. The earlier time implies that Tarleton gave his troops little time to rest between marches. Mackenzie felt that Tarleton had denigrated the troops in his postwar memoir. Differences in the accounts such as this one were designed to show that the troops had performed heroically under trying circumstances (and, by implication, that it was Tarleton who was at fault for the British defeat).

2. A very rough estimate, based on my earlier analysis of the British order of battle, is that 10 men each were selected for this purpose from the ranks of the 7th Foot, the 71st Foot, and the British Legion infantry. According to Mackenzie these men were placed under the command of Ensign Fraser of the 71st.


Joseph Johnson's 1851 Traditions and Reminiscences Chiefly of the American Revolution in the South is the original source of Hammond's statement.

Will Graves transcribed the statement by Colonel Richard Winn (.pdf file).

Susan K. Zimmerman and R. Neil Vance transcribed the pension application of Josiah Martin (.pdf file).

John Moncure's online history of the battle, The Cowpens Staff Ride and Battlefield Tour, includes a transcription of the statements by Hammond, Martin, Young, Hammond, McJunkin, Tarleton, and Mackenzie.

This issue (.pdf file) of The Southern Campaigns of the American Revolution magazine provides a complete treatment of McJunkin's statements.

Will Graves transcribed the pension application of William Wilson (.pdf), which includes the statement by William Mitchell.

Marg Baskin's Banastre Tarleton website has transcriptions of Tarleton's account and Mackenzie's Strictures.

Related: The American Cavalry - Part 1, The American Cavalry - Part 2, Mounted Militia

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Cowpens in Miniature 5

Part 5: Tarleton's Pursuit
Previous: Morgan's Decision

In the evening of January 16th, the British force commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Banastre Tarleton reached what had been the encampment of the American army under Brigadier-General Daniel Morgan.

Tarleton’s men were given a chance to rest and eat. Meanwhile, “Patroles and spies were immediately dispatched to observe the Americans.” Tarleton had with him men well suited to this task, including a large body of cavalry and some mounted infantry. He also had the services of a number of Loyalist volunteer scouts. Tarleton remarked that, “The dragoons were directed to follow the enemy till dark, and the other emissaries to continue their inquiries till morning, if some material incident did not occur.” Tarleton did not immediately learn to where his enemy was fleeing. However, “Early in the night the patroles reported that General Morgan had struck into byways, tending towards Thickelle [Thicketty] creek: A party of determined loyalists made an American colonel prisoner, who had casually left the line of march, and conducted him to the British camp.”

Following “The examination of the militia colonel,” [see Note 1] and after receiving other reports, Tarleton made up his mind to pursue Morgan further. At the very least he was convinced of “the propriety of hanging upon General Morgan's rear, to impede the junction of reinforcements, said to be approaching.” Tarleton also knew that ahead of Morgan was a formidable obstacle, the Broad River. Tarleton hoped to “prevent his passing [the] Broad river” if at all possible.

From the state of the Americans’ former encampment, it appeared that they had retreated hastily. Tarleton found there “plenty of provisions, which they had left behind them, half cooked, in every part of their encampment.” He concluded that, “The Americans to avoid an action, left their camp, and marched all night.” One of Tarleton’s junior officers, Lieutenant Roderick Mackenzie, remembered reaching Morgan’s abandoned encampment “about ten o'clock on the evening of the l6th of January,” and also thought that “Morgan had quitted [only] a few hours before.” In fact, the Americans had begun their retreat in the morning and had arrived at their new encampment by the evening.

One who would have had a better knowledge of the timing of the Americans’ retreat was the Loyalist Alexander Chesney. Chesney was out scouting for Tarleton on the 16th and was perhaps the first scout to discover the Americans’ retreat. When he reached their encampment he “found the fires burning but no one there.” This must have been at some time in the afternoon. However, rather than immediately report this fact to Tarleton, he apparently first tried to learn where the Americans were heading. He “rode to my father's who said Morgan was gone to the Old-fields about an hour before” [see Note 2]. Chesney then rode home, where his wife confirmed what his father had said. There he also learned that the Americans “had used or destroyed my crop & took away almost every thing.” At this point he “immediately returned to col Tarleton,” but did not find him. By this time (early morning on the 17th), Tarleton had long since “marched to the Old fields.”


1. The identity of this alleged colonel is unknown.

2. The “old-fields” was evidently another term used to refer to the Cowpens area; one American participant used the same term.


Marg Baskin's Banastre Tarleton website has transcriptions of Tarleton's account, Mackenzie's Strictures, and other records pertaining to the British Legion.

The Journal of Alexander Chesney

Related: Tarleton's Narrative, Alexander Chesney's Rivulet, The Cowpens Battlefield

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Cowpens in Miniature 4

Part 4: Morgan's Decision
Previous: American Order of Battle

The account of the battle of Cowpens that begins with this post is geared towards individuals that are already well acquainted with the Southern Campaign of the American Revolution. If this were a formal history of the battle, pains would be taken to explain the circumstances leading up to the battle of Cowpens and to introduce the major characters that were involved. Instead, this account begins on the eve of the battle and without such background information.


The small American army under Brigadier-General Daniel Morgan encamped near “the Cowpens” on the evening of January 16th, 1781. Not far from Morgan, and in pursuit of his army, was a British force under Lieutenant-Colonel Banastre Tarleton. Morgan monitored Tarleton’s movements carefully. The British had recently occupied a campground that the Americans had abandoned in the morning. Morgan later stated, “I received regular intelligence of the enemy's movements from the time they were first in motion. On the evening of the 16th inst., they took possession of the ground I had removed from in the morning, distant… about twelve miles.”

Unless the Americans resumed their retreat, the British would soon overtake his force. A further retreat would have been the prudent choice, and prudence had led him to abandon his previous encampment in favor of that near the Cowpens. Now, however, he had a change of heart. According to an acquaintance, Colonel Henry Lee, Morgan, “having been accustomed to fight and to conquer, did not relish the eager and interrupting pursuit of his adversary; and sat down at the Cowpens to give rest and refreshment to his harassed troops, with a resolution no longer to avoid action, should his enemy persist in pressing it.”

Morgan rode over the area and settled on a prospective battlefield. Captain Dennis Tramel of South Carolina was with Morgan at this time because he was “well acquainted with the local Situation of the ground.” Tramel, and “the company under his command” “went out and selected the ground upon which the Battle was fought” “with Genl. Morgan and his life-guard and Aide d camp.” [see Note 1]

According to Tramel, Morgan remarked, “Captain here is Morgan's grave or victory.” Colonel Richard Winn spoke with Morgan after the battle; Morgan told him that his words had been “on this ground I will Defeat the British or lay my Bones,” after which he chose “the place for his grave.”

Miniature Version of the Cowpens Battlefield.

Colonel Winn looked over the battlefield afterwards and said that it “would not have been my Choice.” The battlefield, he thought, was inadequate to the defense, especially against Tarleton’s large force of dragoons. He said, “In the first place it was Even Enough to make race paths Covered Over with a Small Growth of trees midling Open without underwoods.” In other words, there was nothing to impede a British cavalry charge. Furthermore, the British could easily maneuver around the American position because there was “Nothing to defend Either in front Rear or flank.” Under these circumstances, with “the force of the British Horse and Advantage of the Ground they had, the Advantage Over Morgan [was] as two is to One.”

Henry Lee made similar remarks. “The ground about the Cowpens is covered with open wood, admitting the operation of cavalry with facility, in which the enemy trebled Morgan. His flanks had no resting place, but were exposed to be readily turned.” Even worse, “the Broad river ran parallel to his rear, forbidding the hope of a safe retreat in the event of disaster.”

At this point, Morgan likely met with his principal subordinates, Lieutenant-Colonel John Eager Howard of the Continental infantry and Lieutenant-Colonel William Washington of the Continental cavalry. Their reaction to his decision is not recorded, but Lee knew both men well, and their concerns may have shaped Lee’s postwar comments.

Lee wrote, “This decision grew out of irritation of temper, which appears to have overruled the suggestions of his sound and discriminating judgment.” Lee thought that Morgan should have immediately crossed the Broad before Tarleton could reach him. Not far beyond was King’s Mountain, a well-known landmark. According to Lee, “Had Morgan crossed this river, and approached the mountain, he would have gained a position disadvantageous to cavalry, but convenient for riflemen; and would have secured a less dangerous retreat.” Perhaps Washington or Howard suggested as much. “But these cogent reasons, rendered more forcible by his inferiority in numbers, could not prevail. Confiding in his long tried fortune, conscious of his personal superiority in soldiership, and relying on the skill and courage of his troops, he adhered to his resolution.”

Morgan knew that the inexperienced militia were often unreliable once the fighting began. After the war he defended his decision to fight at Cowpens in cynical terms. “[A]s to covering my wings,” which as Winn and Lee pointed out, were vulnerable to attack, “I knew my adversary, and was perfectly sure I should have nothing but downright fighting. As to retreat, it was the very thing I wished to cut off all hope of. I would have thanked Tarleton had he surrounded me with his cavalry. It would have been better than placing my own men in the rear to shoot down 1 broke from the ranks. When men are forced to fight, they will sell their lives dearly; and I knew that the dread of Tarleton's cavalry would give due weight to the protection of my bayonets, and keep my troops from breaking as Bufort's regiment did” [Note 2]. Besides, Morgan thought, crossing the Broad River would not have really brought his men to safety. “Had I crossed the river, one half of the militia would immediately have abandoned me.”

Morgan (with perhaps the assistance of Washington and Howard) then developed his battle plan.

That evening the American camp was abuzz with the news that Morgan intended to fight the British. Militiaman Thomas Young recalled that "We arrived at the field of the Cowpens about sun-down, and were then told that there we would meet the enemy. The news was received with great joy by the army." The militia either did not appreciate the fact that their position was a relatively disadvantageous one, or their eagerness to fight the British overruled whatever reservations they may have had about the chosen battlefield.

William Mitchel recalled that “on the night previous to the battle, a Council of war was held where it was determined that they should fight the next morning.” Morgan personally had decided to fight the British, but he was unable to offer battle without the full cooperation of the commanders of the Southern militia serving with him.

According to Captain Samuel Hammond of South Carolina, “A general order, forming the disposition of the troops, in case of coming to action" had been prepared earlier. At the meeting, this "was read to Colonels [Andrew] Pickens and [James] McCall, Major [James] Jackson and the author of these notes [Hammond]." Morgan's plan was sound and helped convince the militia commanders that Tarleton could be defeated. [see Note 3].

Major Joseph McJunkin of South Carolina, who may also have been present, remembered that “On the night of Jan. 16… [Morgan] now had his entire force [assembled] and the question must be decided, "Shall we fight or fly?" The South Carolina Militia demanded a fight… Here the final decision is to risk battle.”


1. The aide-de-camp was either Peter William Joseph Ludwig, the “Baron de Glaubeck.” or Major Edward Giles of the Maryland Regiment Extraordinary.

2. A reference to the destruction of Colonel Abraham Buford's command at the Battle of Waxhaws.

3. These were some of the principal commanders of the Southern militia with Morgan. Probably also present were Major Joseph McDowell of North Carolina, and Colonels Joseph Hayes and John Thomas of South Carolina, but Hammond did not mention them. Details of Morgan's plan will appear in a future post.


John Moncure's online history of the battle, The Cowpens Staff Ride and Battlefield Tour, includes a transcription of Morgan's report, and the statements by Tramel, Young, Hammond, and McJunkin.

Henry Lee's 1812 Memoirs of the War in the Southern Department of the United States

Will Graves transcribed the statement by Colonel Richard Winn.

William Johnson's 1822 Sketches of the Life and Correspondence of Nathanael Greene has the final quote from Morgan.

Will Graves transcribed the pension application of William Wilson (.pdf), which includes the statement by William Mitchell.

Joseph Johnson's 1851 Traditions and Reminiscences Chiefly of the American Revolution in the South is the original source of Hammond's statement.

This issue (.pdf file) of The Southern Campaigns of the American Revolution magazine provides a complete treatment of McJunkin's statements.

Related: The Cowpens Battlefield, Morgan's Report, The Hammond Map

Friday, March 27, 2009

Cowpens in Miniature 3

Part 3: American Order of Battle
Previous: British Order of Battle

There is considerable uncertainty about the number of American participants at the battle of Cowpens, a topic about which I have previously commented on at length. I noted that two trustworthy sources (Brigadier-General Daniel Morgan and Sergeant-Major William Seymour) placed the American total at or below 800 men.

In this post I describe the American order of battle in some detail. In this description, Morgan's command has a total of 950 men.

The chief reason why I chose a larger total concerns the question of how many militia were present at the battle. Why Morgan's and Seymour's accounts imply a very low total, other credible sources explicitly indicate otherwise (see How Many Fought at Cowpens?). These statements include a total in the neighborhood of 350 for just the militia line (Otho Williams) to a total for all of the militia of about 500 (Nathanael Greene), 550 (US Congressional Resolution) or 600 men (William Moultrie). In my scheme there are around 590 militia (45 mounted militia, 230 on the main line, and 315 on the militia line).

My total of 950 men is not likely to sit well with some.

Those readers swayed by contemporary author Lawrence Babits would regard this number as too low. He estimated between 1,800 and 2,400 Americans were present at the battle. His estimate of a comparatively large total is based chiefly on an examination of pension applications filed by veterans after the war. I'm in favor of using pension application as a source of information, but I was unswayed by his analysis. This topic was covered in six previous posts (see How Many Fought at Cowpens?, Problems with Pensions, Veteran Survival, Little River Regiment, Morgan and Seymour, Fitting Large Numbers on the Militia Line).

Conversely, those swayed by early historian James Graham would regard this number as too high. I quoted him before, but a key passage bears repeating.

"It is true, his entire command, including all the militia that arrived previous to the battle, would appear to be about nine hundred and eighty men, if army returns and muster rolls were alone consulted. But every one acquainted with military affairs knows that such evidences of strength always exceed the reality. A number of his regulars were sick at the time, and many of the militia were absent. One detachment had been sent off with the baggage, another had gone to Salisbury in charge of prisoners, and a third guarded the horses of the militia. Besides, after the retreat of the militia from the front line, several of them never again appeared in the field, and a few mounted their horses and fled from the ground. Such men should not be permitted to lesson the glory of the achievement, by sharing in the honors of the victors as well as diminishing the mortification of the vanquished. The forces engaged in the battle under Morgan did not exceed eight hundred and fifty men."

Below I describe in some detail the composition of the American force, and estimate the size of each component. I don't have great confidence in the estimates of the various components, but at least there is some logic behind the decisions and the total is consistent with early sources.

American Deployment at Cowpens (click to enlarge). 1 = Continental Light Dragoons; 2 = Mounted Militia; 3 = Right Wing of the Main Line; 4 = Continental Infantry; 5 = Left Wing of the Main Line; 6 = Right Wing of the Militia Line; 7 = Left Wing of the Militia Line. Each miniature represents approximately 20 combatants.

Cavalry Reserve

Lieutenant-Colonel William Washington, commanding. Units #1 & #2 in the above figure.

Continental Light Dragoons: 72 men (Lieutenant-Colonel William Washington). See The American Cavalry - Part 1 for additional details.

Mounted Militia: ~45 men (served in two companies commanded by Major James McCall and Captain Banjamin Jolly). See The American Cavalry - Part 2 for additional details.

Total: ~117 men

The Main Line Continentals

Lieutenant-Colonel John Eager Howard commanding. Unit #4 in the figure.

1st Delaware Regiment: ~60 men. (one light infantry company under Captain Robert Kirkwood; total is based on Babits' A Devil of a Whipping).

1st Maryland Regiment: ~180 men (three light infantry companies under Captains Richard Anderson, Henry Dobson, and Nicholas Mangers; information from Babits.

Virginian Continentals: ~20 men (one company under Captain Andrew Wallace). William Jewell who fought in this company wrote, "Captain Wallace... marched us to Charlotte in North Carolina where we Joined General Greene: General Morgan was here permitted to select about 20 men to reinforce his own little band of perhaps 300 men against Tarleton at the Cowpens – he was selected as one and after the battle went as guard with the prisoners to Albemarle Barracks in Virginia."

Others: ~33 men.

As noted previously, some Virginia State troops and North Carolina Continentals may have served on the main line. Like Wallace's men, they may have been handpicked to supplement Morgan's other Continentals. Colonel Otho Williams in a January 23, 1781 letter said that Morgan had 290 light infantry. There were perhaps 237 Maryland and Delaware Continentals (number based on U.S. Congressional Resolution of March 9, 1781), plus 20 men with Wallace. An additional 33 men would produce a total force of 290.

That Howard's light infantry was an amalgam of men drawn from several units rather than a single large regiment is a reflection of the destitute condition of the American army in the South. On December 7, 1780, Major-General Nathanael Greene wrote to General George Washington complaining that:

"Nothing can be more wretched and distressing than the condition of the troops, starving with cold and hunger, without tents and camp equipage. Those of the Virginia line are literally naked, and a great part totally unfit for any kind of duty, and must remain so untill clothing can be had."

It was necessary to handpick men for service with Morgan because so many were incapable of a rigorous campaign.

Total: ~290 men (based on Williams)

Main Line Militia

Units #3 & #5 in the figure.

Major Francis Triplett's Virginia militia battalion: ~170 men (four companies under Captains James Tate, Patrick Buchanan, James Gilmore, and either Captain Combs or Lieutenant Dearing). The total number is based on the aforementioned letter by Williams.

Little River Regiment of South Carolina militia: ~40 men (Colonel Joseph Hayes, commanding). Daniel Morgan's letter of Jan 4, 1781 identified "forty militia horsemen under Col. Hays." A regimental strength of about 40 men can be interpreted as being consistent with statements made by Private Aaron Guyton of South Carolina (see Little River Regiment). Statements by Morgan and Seymour likewise suggest that the South Carolina militia regiments were quite small (see Morgan and Seymour).

Babits pointed out that there were last minute arrivals adding to the strength of the militia on the eve of the battle. However, there were also last minute departures. Major Joseph McJunkin observed that these regiments included a significant number of "pet tories" who were reluctant to fight (and prone to desert), and Morgan complained that he couldn't keep the militia together.

Other Units: ~20 men (conjectural). This includes a company of North Carolina State Troops commanded by Captain Henry Connelly.

As noted previously, some other militia units have been identified with the main line by various sources. Babits noted that his review of pension applications placed two companies (50 men) of Major David Campbell's Virginia militia battalion at the battle. The pension applications in question are lacking in details. It is not clear how many companies were in this battalion, how many men were in each company, whether all or only part of the companies served in the battle, or even whether the claims made in the applications are trustworthy. As these men are not mentioned in other participant accounts, this group, if present, was not likely to have been of a significant factor in the battle.

Total: ~230 men.

Placement of Militia Units on the Main Line

Of the Virginia militia, Combs'/Dearing's company (~42 men; based on a four-way division of Triplett's 170 men) and Tate's company (~42 men) appear to have been on the left wing, while Buchanan's company (~42 men), appears to have been on the right. Hayes' Little River Regiment (~40 men), and Connelly's company (~20 men) also appear to have been on the right wing (see The Main Line: Composition). I have not been able to place Gilmore's company on either wing. To even things out, I tentatively place Gilmore's company on the left wing to bring that total over the desired threshold. This gives the left wing 126 men (all Virginians), and the right wing 102 men (a hodgepodge of units from several states).

Lieutenant-Colonel John Eager Howard noted that at the climax of the battle that he had only 350 men with him. At this time, the right wing of the main line had fled, but the left wing remained in place. By my calculations, he would have had 290 Continental and Virginia state troops plus 126 riflemen under Major Francis Triplett. This total (416 men) is considerably above the 350 men Howard stated. It could be that some of my assumptions are in error. Alternatively, Howard, in arriving at 350 men, may have thought only half of the Virginian riflemen remained (this would have been 85 men) and forgot about the other units. He might also have subtracted about 20-25 men due to the losses he had sustained from British fire up to this point. This would result in a total of about 350 men.

Militia Line (Left Wing)

Unit #7 in the figure.

Georgia Refugees: One battalion under Major John Cunningham.

South Carolina State Troops: One regiment under Captain (Major) Samuel Hammond. Hammond is referred to as both a captain and a major. Hammond himself noted that he had been promoted to major, but technically he remained a captain, because he had not yet received his commission. Hammond stated that he

"Commanded on the left of the front line as Major of McCall's Regiment. It is here necessary to observe that Col. McCall had been promoted to the command of a Regiment of Cavalry authorized to be enrolled for six months & Applicant appointed to the Majority neither had yet been commissioned & only few armed with swords & pistols. The Refugee militia attached to their respective commands enrolled in the regiment and were promised by the Governor to be provided with clothing & arms as soon as they could be procured --- not a day was lost in recruiting nor was the full number made up before the Battle. The few 25 to 30 that were equipped as Horsemen were placed under Col. McCall and attached to Col. Washington's command. Those who were not so equipped were armed with Rifles & placed under the Applicant."

Upper Ninety-Six Regiment of South Carolina militia: I argued in a previous post that the left wing of the militia line likely included Colonel Andrew Pickens' regiment of South Carolina militia and perhaps also other volunteers from Georgia and South Carolina not affiliated with either Cunningham or Hammond. (see The Militia Line: Composition and Organization).

Total: ~115 men. I have not found information about the number of men in these units, therefore, I defer to Babits' number, which in turn comes from an unpublished study described in the Greene Papers. I haven't read the study and so I can offer no comment other than that the number seems plausible.

Militia Line (Right Wing)

Unit #6 in the figure.

Major Joseph McDowell's battalion of North Carolina militia: ~120 men. This total is based on a letter from Daniel Morgan to Nathanael Greene, dated December 31, 1780.

1st Spartan Regiment of South Carolina militia: ~40 men (Colonel John Thomas, commanding). The estimate is an extension of that for Hayes' regiment (see above).

2nd Spartan Regiment of South Carolina militia: ~80 men (two battalions; Colonel Joseph Brandon and Lieutenant-Colonel Benjamin Roebuck, commanding). Again, the estimate is an extension of the reasoning applied to Hayes' regiment.

The battalions of McDowell, Thomas, Brandon, and Roebuck are estimated to have had a total force of 240 men. However, there were some significant detachments. Captain Samuel Otterson of Brandon's battalion indicated that 30 men were detached as serving as spies and missed the battle. Captain Benjamin Jolly, also of Brandon's battalion, commanded a company of mounted militia contained men drawn, in part, from the South Carolinians' ranks (see The American Cavalry - Part 2).

Total: ~200 men (240 men - detachments).

Grand Total

  • Cavalry: ~117 men
  • Main Line Continentals: ~290 men
  • Main Line Militia: ~230 men
  • Militia Line (Left Wing): ~115 men
  • Militia Line (Right Wing): ~200 men

Total ~950 men


Lawrence Babits' A Devil of a Whipping: The Battle of Cowpens is available through amazon.com

Will Graves transcribed the pension application of William Jewell (.pdf file).

A summary of the Otho Williams papers can be found here. The item in question is a letter from Williams to Dr. James McHenry, dated January 23, 1781.

A transcription of the letter from Greene to Washington can be found here.

January 23, 1781 letter from Major-General Nathanael Greene to Brigadier-General Francis Marion (not available online).

Theodorus Bailey Myers' 1881 Cowpens Papers has the U.S. Congressional Resolution, a copy of the statement by Jackson, and various statements by Morgan.

This issue (.pdf file) of The Southern Campaigns of the American Revolution magazine provides a complete treatment of McJunkin's statements.

Will Graves trancribed the pension application of Samuel Hammond (.pdf file).

Will Graves transcribed the pension application of Samuel Otterson (.pdf file).

James Graham's 1856 The Life of General Daniel Morgan

Related: How Many Fought at Cowpens?, The Main Line: Composition, The Militia Line: Composition and Organization

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Cowpens in Miniature 2

Part 2: British Order of Battle
Previous: About the Recreation

The American commander Brigadier-General Morgan indicated that the British force at Cowpens was comprised of 1,150 men (see How Many Fought at Cowpens?). I assume that this number included both the men (of all ranks) that fought at the battle and the detachment that was left behind to guard the British baggage train.

Rank and file totals for most British units can be found in a British report dated January 15, 1781. This includes the detachment of the 16th Foot (44 men), the 7th Foot (167 men), the 1st Battalion of the 71st Foot (249 men), the light infantry companies of the 71st Foot (69 men), and the British Legion (451 men).

I also reviewed the rolls for the Prince of Wales American Regiment (PoWAR) light infantry company, and determined that there were as many as 1 officer and 28 rank and file of this company present at Cowpens.

Finally, Lieutenant Roderick Mackenzie recorded the number of officers present in most of the units at Cowpens, including the 7th Foot (7), the 71st Foot (16 between the battalion and light companies), the PoWAR light infantry company (1), and the detachment of the 17th Light Dragoons (2).

Some assumptions had to be made fill in the gaps in the records.

Rank and File Estimates

The two 3-pounders that the British had at the battle had a crew in the neighborhood of 22 men and no officers (an estimate based primarily on John Moncure's estimate in The Cowpens Staff Ride and Battlefield Tour and Lawrence Babits' estimate in A Devil of a Whipping: The Battle of Cowpens).

Tarleton's account implies that the 17th Light Dragoons had around 50 men, but he was speaking very loosely. The other numbers he gave are demonstrably wrong, such as his statement that his total force was 1000 men, and that the 7th Foot, and 1st battalion of the 71st Foot both had 200 men. A U.S. intelligence report of Jan 6, 1781 gives 35 men for the 17th (see excerpt, below). This is also not entirely trustworthy. However a number between 35 and 50 men is probably accurate. For this reason, the 17th Light Dragoons are assumed to have had around 40 men.

The British report does not indicate how many of the rank and file in the British Legion were infantry and how many were dragoons. Tarleton's account implies that there were 250 dragoons, which would leave about 200 infantrymen. The US intelligence report, mentioned above, indicates that the infantry and cavalry components were of equal size (this is not shown in the excerpt above). An annotation on the Pigee Map (Babits, page 71) lists 280 men for Tarleton's cavalry. This number also appeared in a New Jersey newspaper account of the battle. My assumption is that the cavalry had around 240 men (280 rank and file total - 40 rank and file for the 17th light dragoons); this leaves about 210 rank and file for the infantry.

Officer Estimates

Using the number of officers listed by Mackenzie, and the rank and file numbers indicated above, it is possible to determine for some units the ratio of officers to rank and file. There were 9 officers for 167 rank and file in the 7th Foot (1:19), 16 officers for 318 rank and file in the 71st Foot (1:20) 2 officers for 40 rank and file in the 17th Light Dragoons (1:20), and 1 officer for 28 rank and file in the PoWAR light infantry (1:28). The average ratio is 1:20. By extension the number of officers in other units can be estimated.

Musician Estimates

British companies at the Cowpens were badly understrength. I'm assuming that there was not more than 1 musician per company. Following Babits, I'm further assuming that the detachment of the 16th Foot was organized as a single company, and that the 7th Foot was organized into four companies. The number of infantry and dragoon companies in the British Legion are based on records found on Marg Baskin's Banastre Tarleton website.

Esimated Totals

British Regulars

16th Foot: ~44 men (41 rank and file, 2 officers, and 1 musician).

7th Foot: ~180 men (167 rank and file, 9 officers, and 4 musicians).

71st Foot (1st battalion): ~269 men (249 rank and file, 12 officers, and 8 musicians)

71st Foot (light infantry companies): ~75 men (69 rank and file, 4 officers and 2 musicians).

17th Light Dragoons: ~43 men (40 rank and file, 2 officers, and 1 musician).

Royal Artillery detachment: ~ 22 men (all rank and file).


British Legion Infantry: ~226 men (about 210 rank and file plus about 10 officers and 6 musicians).

British Legion Dragoons: ~258 men (about 241 rank and file, 12 officers and 5 musicians)

Prince of Wales American Regiment light infantry: ~29 men (28 rank and file, 1 officer, and 0 musicians).

Grand Totals

Total: 1,146 men of all ranks (1,067 rank and file, 52 officers, 27 musicians)

This total almost exactly matches the total of 1,150 men Morgan named.

Morgan said that the British claimed to have "fought" 1,037 during the battle. I'm assuming that this number was the total number of rank and file with Tarleton, minus the baggage detachment. The size of this detachment is unknown, however Mackenzie said that it was under the command of Ensign Fraser of the 71st. If the detachment was comprised of Ensign Fraser and 30 men then the total number of British present during the battle would be as follows:

Revised Total: 1,115 men of all ranks (1,037 rank and file, 51 officers, 27 musicians).

Tarleton and Mackenzie said the British force had 1,000 men. They were probably counting only rank and file that were on the battlefield.

American Lieutenant-Colonel John Eager Howard wrote that at the climax of the battle, his 350 men were confronted by 800 Bitish. I show he was facing 814 men (1146 for the British overall - 31 men for the baggage detachment - 258 men for the British Legion dragoons - 43 men for the 17th Light Dragoons = 814) minus whatever losses the British sustained earlier in the battle).

American Major-General Nathanael Greene estimated that there were 50 Loyalist militiamen accompanying Tarleton's baggage train and presumably serving as drivers and/or guards. Tarleton probably also had a number of African Americans serving as drivers. Morgan recorded, in his after action report, the capture of "ten negroes." Tarleton mentioned having the service of Loyalist guides, but they were probably very few in number. Of these, South Carolina militaman Thomas Young encountered the Loyalists "Littlefield and Kelly" after the battle. Loyalist Captain Alexander Chesney scouted for Tarleton and participated at least during the late stages of the fighting.

The British Force in Miniature

(click to enlarge)

7th Foot (left) and 71st Foot (right)

British Legion infantry (left) and British Legion dragoons (right)

17th Light Dragoons (left) and light infantry companies (right)

Royal Artillery detachment (left) and baggage guard (right)


John Moncure's online history of the battle, The Cowpens Staff Ride and Battlefield Tour, includes a transcription of statements by Morgan, Mackenzie, Tarleton, Howard, and Greene.

Marg Baskin's Banastre Tarleton website has transcriptions of Tarleton's account, Mackenzie's Strictures, and other records pertaining to the British Legion.

François-Jean de Chastellux's (1787) Travels in North-America, in the Years 1780, 1781, and 1782 is one place to find a copy of the British rank and file returns.

Lawrence Babits' 1998 A Devil of a Whipping: The Battle of Cowpens is available through amazon.com.

Theodorus Bailey Myers' 1881 Cowpens Papers has Morgan's account of the battle as it appeared in a New Jersey newspaper.

Related: Cowpens in Miniature 1, Tarleton's Narrative, Cornwallis' Report

Friday, March 20, 2009

Cowpens in Miniature 1

The Battle of Cowpens in Miniature
Part 1: About this Project

[Rewritten 12/28/09; see this brief explanation]

On January 17, 1781, a British force, under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Banastre Tarleton was decisively defeated by an ad hoc American army under the command of Brigadier-General Daniel Morgan at "Cowpens" South Carolina. This battle is widely regarded as a turning point in the American Revolutionary War in the southern states, and an important step towards the climatic victory of the war at Yorktown.


Background Information (Wikipedia Links)


Recommended Reading

Edwin Bearss. (1967). Battle of Cowpens: A Documented Narrative and Troop Movement Maps.

Lawrence Babits. (1998). A Devil of a Whipping: The Battle of Cowpens.


In working on this project, I began by reading as many first-hand accounts of the battle as I was able to obtain. I then took these, plus relatively reliable second-hand accounts (i.e., those penned shortly after the war, especially by men that had fought in the Revolution) and set about synthesizing them a single account. There are problems intrinsic to such an undertaking: the meaning of participant accounts of the battle may be ambiguous or in conflict with other sources of information. The solution I aimed for was a narrative that was simultaneously as true as possible to the source material while at the same time attempting to minimize apparant contradictions (I think of this as a kind of rhetorical linear regression in which the various participant statements serve as the data points). The result is a version of the battle that is unsurprising in some respects and novel in others.

That the result of my efforts should be novel at all warrants some comment. The Battle of Cowpens has been well described in print, and has been tackled by a number of respected historians. One of those histories, Lawrence Babits' A Devil of a Whipping likewise placed very heavy reliance on participant accounts. Indeed, Babits' book was the inspiration for this project. There are three basic reasons why the accounts should differ.

First, although there is a great deal of overlap in our sources, there are some differences in the sources that were used and in how those sources were used (e.g., in a number of places I quote passages that he did not).

Second, even when the same passages are quoted here and in Babits, we may impart different meanings to those passages. As noted above, much of the source material lends itself to varying interpretations. In a few places I call attention to these differences in how a source was used and I make the case for the particular interpretation I've adopted (see below).

Third, Babits argued that the American forces at Cowpens were more numerous and included a wider variety of units than was previously recognized. This belief appears to have affected how he used the source material. I more-or-less agree with Babits about the variety of units, but I am unpersuaded that the Americans were as numerous as he suggested (see below).


Blog Posts in this Project

Background Information:

Order of Battle:

Arguments in favor of a lesser American troop total:

Before the Battle:

The Americans Deploy for Battle:

Unlike others, I have the Americans initially deployed as two lines of infantry, not three. This is because I became convinced the American skirmishers were detached after the British deployed, not before (this is clearly described in Morgan's report on Cowpens). Unlike many writers, I became convinced that the militia deployed as two wings with a sizeable gap between them. Also unlike many writers, I became convinced that the main line deployed as a line of Continentals supported by two detached wings of militia. I make the novel argument that Morgan purposely left a gap between the Continentals and the militia wings to accommodate the retreat of the front-line militia.

The British Deploy for Battle:

Fighting on the Skirmish Line:

Unlike other writers, I have the retreat of the skirmishers (and later, the militia line) covered by two companies of mounted militia.

Fighting on the Militia Line:

Initial Fighting on the Main Line:

Unlike others, I have the front-line militia retreating straight back towards the main line, passing through the gaps between the Continentals and the two wings of main-line militia. Most histories have the militia retreat around the left flank of the main line. I also took a unique view of the British cavalry charges during the battle. I accepted Babits' argument that two charges were made, but I came to a different view about the purpose, sequence, and timing of these charges.

The American Counterattack:

The defeat of Tarleton's forces is usually attributed to a double envelopment. I don't exactly disagree with this description, but I do argue that that the British line broke first in its center, and that the resulting two parts separately surrendered. I also have a unique take on Washington's charge against the British dragoons.

The Battle Ends:

I have Tarleton's famous countercharge occuring at a later point in the battle than do others. I accepted Babits' assertion that American losses were higher than is usually described in histories of the battle, but I used somewhat different reasoning to arrive at this conclusion.


The animation below shows each of the maps I generated for this project. Please note that the length of time represented by each image is variable. The links above provide a proper explanation of what is occurring at each time point.


Americans are in blue: 1 & 2 = American cavalry, 3 = Right wing of the main line, 4= Continental Infantry, 5 = Left wing of the main line, 6 = right wing of the militia line, 7 = left wing of the militia line, 8 = skirmishers. British are in red: 9 = Front line, 10 = Ogilvie's company of British Legion dragoons, 11 = British vanguard / miscellaneous British Legion dragoons, 12 = 17th Light Dragoons, 13 = 71st Foot, 14 = British Legion dragoon reserve.


Additional Thoughts:

A few posts on Cowpens were written subsequent to the 25-post sequence describe above. These include:

On the Representation of the Battle with Military Miniatures

The scale of the representation is 1:20 at a 15mm-miniature scale. The use of the miniatures is primarily to illustrate the action in a way that cannot easily be accomplished with maps alone. I acknowledge, however, that the recreation in miniature is far from a perfect representation of the actual fighting. I haven't built a battlefield before (and I had problems making this one). One of the reasons why I chose Cowpens is that the battlefield was relatively flat and without buildings, fields, or fences. As far as the vegetation is concerned, I kept things simplistic. I made no attempt, for example, to render canebrakes, as has been alleged to have been present around the streams bordering the battlefield. There are likely also fewer miniature trees on the battlefield than should be there. Admittedly, I've put more effort into modeling the fighting than I have into modeling terrain features and vegetation. I also wanted to keep things simple so that I could easily move the miniatures from one spot to another so as to represent the various phases of the battle.

I recognize that while I may be perhaps a competent painter, I'm not a particularly accomplished one, and further that the manner in which the miniatures were originally sculpted and the manner in which I chose to paint them does not perfectly accord with the uniforms and equipment borne at Cowpens. There is no point in criticizing me about gun carriages, trousers, canteens, epaulets, half-spatterdashes, and the like as I am most likely already aware of these errors in the representation. Most of these matters are quite minor (to my mind anyways). If one wishes to find more detailed, handsome, and historically accurate representations of the soldiers at Cowpens, it is best to look elsewhere. I particularly recommend the artwork of Don Troiani.

The representation of the battle includes miniature casualties. It is not a simple matter to divide the number of casualties thought to have occurred across the various units on the battlefield and across the different phases of the battle. On this count, documentation is rather poor. Therefore, my placement of casualties on the battlefield should be taken primarily as an invocation of casualties occurring, rather than as a strict statement about the number of losses occurring within a given unit at a given time. The total losses shown, however, are consistent with historical totals.


I have relied very heavily on online materials in preparing this project. In particular, I have relied greatly upon Edwin Bearss' and John Moncure's well-sourced histories, the latter in particular because it includes numerous transcriptions of the original source material. The Cowpens National Park Service website has also been especially helpful, and it has Bearss' books and other works online. This project also would not have been possible without the website southerncampaign.org, which is a home to thousands of transcribed pension applications. I owe a debt of gratitude to the volunteers who have made an enormous investiture of their time in preparing those transcriptions. Google Books has also been an indispensable resource, and allows instant access to most of the early histories of the battle. I have also frequented theminiaturespage.com, which is a source of all kinds of useful information about the hobby, and I have found much inspiration in a number of other blogs, especially those listed on my blog roll.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

British Cavalry Charges at Cowpens - Part 2

Last time, I noted that the British commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Banastre Tarleton, deployed a troop of cavalry on either end of his line of infantry at the beginning of the battle. I also argued that both of these troops were used to assail the two flanks of the American line. I described, in particular, the attack of Captain David Ogilvie's British Legion dragoons against the right wing of the American main line.

The other British cavalry charge was made by Lieutenant Henry Nettles and the 17th Light Dragoons.

Whereas Ogilvie's charge was made at an early point in the British attack on the American main line, Nettles' attack occurred after the American Continentals had begun to retreat. Lieutenant-Colonel John Eager Howard, who commanded the Continentals, wrote that, “…about the time of our retreat, a large body of british cavalry passes round my left flank and pursued the flying militia to their horses."

This force would have been Nettles' 17th Light Dragoons, which had been stationed on the British right.

Howard, like Major McJunkin, whom I quoted in my last post, believed that the retreating front-line militia was the target of Nettles' attack. However, this may be another case in which the encounter between the British dragoons and the reforming front-line infantry was accidental. South Carolina militiaman Jeremiah Dial stated that the British cavalry "broke through the leftwing of the Malitia," which echoes the statements made about the attack that broke the right wing (see: The Main Line: The Right Wing Collapses). Private Isaac Way, who was on the left wing of the main line (Triplett's Virginians), evidently was in the line of this charge. He claimed that he “was severely wounded on the side, back, arms, head and in the face by the cut of the sword of a British dragoon.”

There is evidence that around the time of Nettles' charge, at least some of the American cavalry was employed to assist Lieutenant-Colonel John Eager Howard in halting the Continentals during their accidental retreat.

Brigadier-General William Moultrie, who obtained his information second-hand, wrote, “…the second [main] line began to give way. Colonel Washington [i.e., Lieutenant-Colonel William Washington of the American 3rd light dragoons] perceiving this, immediately rode up close to the rear of the second line with his cavalry, and spoke to Colonel Howard, ‘that if he would rally his men, and charge the enemy's line, he would charge the cavalry that were got among our militia in the rear.' Colonel Washington, riding up so close to the rear of our second line stopped the British for a moment, which gave time to Colonel Howard to rally his men, and charge with fixed bayonets… [then] Colonel Washington charged the enemy's cavalry, who were cutting down our militia, and soon drove them off.” (book link)

Howard's account reinforces this point: "Washington observing this [i.e., the British cavalry attack] charged them. As well as I can recollect this charge was made at the same moment that I charged the [British] infantry, for as soon as we got among the enemy & were making prisoners I observed the enemy's cavalry retreating the way the[y] had advanced, by our left flank, and Washington in pursuit of them and he followed them some distance--You will observe by this statement that Washington's charge had no connexion with mine as his movement was to the rear in a quite different direction.”

Washington’s charge “to the rear” was from immediately behind the Continentals to the area in the left rear of the main line where the militia were under attack. Howard repeated this idea in another place in the same letter: “He [Washington] moved to the left from our rear, to attack Tarleton's horse.”

Nettles' Attack. 1 & 2 = American Cavalry, 3 = Right Wing of the Main Line (broken), 4 = Continental Infantry, 5 = Left Wing of the Main Line (Triplett's former company has been broken, but the rest of the line is intact), 6 = Right Wing of the Militia Line (reforming), 7 = Left Wing of the Militia Line (and parts of the right wing, see: Flight of the Militia - Part 3; both groups are reforming), 9 = British Front Line, 10 = Captain David Ogilvie's Company (reforming), 11 = Other British Legion Dragoons, 12 = 17th Light Dragoons, 13 = 71st Foot, 14 = Main British Legion Dragoon Reserve.


John Moncure's online history of the battle, The Cowpens Staff Ride and Battlefield Tour, has a transcription of the statement by Howard.

Will Graves transcribed the pension application of Jeremiah Dial (.pdf file).

Will Graves transcribed the pension application of Isaac Way (.pdf file).

William Moultrie's 1802 Memoirs of the American Revolution.

Related: British Cavalry Charges at Cowpens - Part 1, 17th Light Dragoons, The Main Line: The Right Wing Collapses

Saturday, March 14, 2009

British Cavalry Charges at Cowpens - Part 1

In a recent series of posts I considered the question of how the militia retreated from the front line to a new position behind the main line during the battle. I noted that histories of the battle generally maintain that the militia retreated around the left flank of the Continental line. I also argued that it is unlikely that the militia would have retreated in this manner. Instead, I argued that the front-line militia were divided into a left and right wing and that the two wings retreated, respectively, around the left and right flanks of the Continentals. I pointed out that a withdrawal in this manner was not only relatively simple and safe, but it also appears to be indicated by a handful of participant accounts. (See Flight of the Militia - Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4).

Participant accounts provide very strong evidence that the militia were assailed during the battle by the British dragoons. A statement in British commander Lieutenant-Colonel Banastre Tarleton’s memoir -- “The cavalry on the right were directed to charge the enemy's left" -- is commonly understood to be his way of saying that he dispatched a troop of dragoons to attack the militia during their retreat. Therefore, my position -- that the militia simultaneously retreated to both the left and right rear of the main line -- would seem to be problematic. Why would Tarleton only dispatch a troop of dragoons to attack the militia on the American left when there was also a large body of militia on the American right?

Tarleton indicated that he stationed a troop of dragoons on both of his flanks at the onset of the battle and Lawrence Babits, in A Devil of a Whipping, argued that both of these troops saw combat during the battle. Babits specifically identified the troop on the British right as the company of 17th light dragoons under the command of Lieutenant Henry Nettles, and the troop on the British left as the company of British Legion dragoons under the command of Captain David Ogilvie. I find these arguments convincing.

Babits has both Nettles and Ogilvie in action not long after the militia began their flight. In his account, Nettles on the British right attacked the front-line militia who were mostly (although not entirely) reforming in the left rear of the American main line (his account is fairly conventional on this point; cf. Flight of the Militia - Part 1). He also claimed that Ogilvie, on the British left, helped drive off Major Joseph McDowell’s North Carolinians.

My review of the source documents has convinced me that Babits is correct about the occurrence of separate charges by Nettles and Ogilvie. That two charges occurred is indicated in reliable sources. Major Joseph McJunkin noted that "Tarleton then made a charge on the right & left wings, treading & cutting till he got in the rear of Howard's command, when Col. Washington made a charge upon him." Major-General François-Jean de Chastellux also learned that both flanks were targeted. He wrote that the British cavalry “endeavoured to turn the flanks of General Morgan's army, but were kept in awe by some riflemen, and by the American horse detached by Colonel Washington, to support them, in two little squadrons.”

Other accounts explicitly mention a British cavalry attack on either the American left flank or right flank, further indicating that both flanks were attacked. One mounted militiaman, Jeremiah Dial, remembered that the British cavalry "broke through the leftwing of the Malitia," while another, Thomas Young remembered when "the British cavalry had charged the American right."

However, I take a different view about the timing of and targets of those charges. Specifically, I believe that a) the first British cavalry charge was made by Ogilvie's company, and b) that the British cavalry charges were directed against the retreating militia.

The accounts quoted above do not suggest that the retreating front-line militia were the targets of these attacks. The flanks, rather, seem to be extensions of the main line. In McJunkin's account, the wings are broken through before the cavalry reaches the American rear where the American militia were rallying.

A comparison of the several British accounts of the battle suggest that the first British cavalry charge was directed against the right wing of the American main line.

Tarleton said that "The cavalry on the right were directed to charge the enemy's left," but Lieutenant Roderick Mackenzie corrected him, saying "Captain Ogilvie, with his troop, which did not exceed forty men, was ordered to charge the right flank of the enemy."

Tarleton did seem to have the American right flank in mind as a target. He mentioned in his description of the American deployment that his reserve infantry, the 71st Foot, was placed on behind the far left of the British line, rather than in the center. For a later point in the battle, when the attack on the American main line was underway, he described his intention to envelop the right of the main line:

"Lieutenant-colonel Tarleton thought the advance of the 71st into line, and a movement of the cavalry in reserve to threaten the enemy's right flank, would put a victorious period into the action."

Moreover, British and American accounts suggest that this charge by Ogilvie was successful insofar as it resulted in the rout of the right wing (see: The Main Line: The Right Wing Collapses for details).

However, Tarleton also claimed that these dragoons were "drove back by the fire of the reserve, and by a charge of Colonel Washington's cavalry." My belief is that when Ogilvie's dragoons succeeded in breaking through the right wing of the main line, they then ran into (most likely unexpectedly) into the right wing of the front line, which would have been at that moment reforming a short distance nearby.

Ogilvie's Attack. 1 = Continental Light Dragoons, 2 = Mounted Militia, 3 = Right Wing of the Main Line (broken by Ogilvie's charge), 4 = Continental Infantry, 5 = Left Wing of the Main Line, 6 = Right Wing of the Militia Line (reforming), 7 = Left Wing of the Militia Line (reforming), 9 = British Front Line, 10 = Captain David Ogilvie's Company, 11 = Other British Legion Dragoons, 12 = 17th Light Dragoons, 13 = 71st Foot, 14 = Main British Legion Dragoon Reserve.

This second encounter, between Ogilvie's dragoons and the reforming militia is what gave rise to the impression that the retreating militia had been targeted. In McJunkin's words, "Then there is a charge of the dragoons even past the line of regulars after the retreating militia. Numbers are cut down." This "reserve" (Tarleton's term) was significantly larger than the force Ogilvie had just routed and they, with the assistance of the American cavalry, defeated Ogilvie's attack. Noteworthy is that McJunkin and most of the would-be pensioners mentioning a British cavalry attack were in the units I've located on the right wing of the militia line and that would have been in the line of Ogilvie's charge (see The Militia Line: Composition and Organization; Flight of the Militia - Part 1).


Marg Baskin's Banastre Tarleton website has a transcription of Tarleton's and Mackenzie's accounts of the battle.

Lawrence Babits' 1998 A Devil of a Whipping: The Battle of Cowpens is available through amazon.com.

This issue (.pdf file) of The Southern Campaigns of the American Revolution magazine includes an article by Will Graves that provides a thorough treatment of McJunkin's statements.

François-Jean de Chastellux's 1787 Travels in North-America, in the Years 1780, 1781, and 1782.

Will Graves transcribed the pension application of Jeremiah Dial (.pdf file).

Related: The Main Line: The Right Wing Collapses, Flight of the Militia - Part 1, The American Cavalry - Part 1

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Flight of the Militia - Part 4

In a recent series of posts I have considered the question of how the American front line militia retreated safely during the battle of Cowpens. The description of the militia retreat that has most affected my understanding of the battle was provided by Private John Thomas of the Virginia militia.

Thomas recalled that the front-line militia "were 200 yards to the front." Their orders "were to fire... and fall off to the right and flank of the Musquet Line [the Continentals]. When they retreated, they were to pass through "breaks in the Centre... [on] the right and left of the musquetry." This plan is illustrated below.

The Planned American Retreat. 1 = Continental Light Dragoons, 2 = Mounted Militia, 3 = Right Wing of the Main Line, 4 = Continental Infantry, 5 = Left Wing of the Main Line, 6 = Right Wing of the Militia Line, 7 = Left Wing of the Militia Line, 8 = Skirmishers

The traditional view of the retreat, which follows from William Johnson's history is that the entire militia line retreated around the left flank of the main line to a position in the left rear. Then, the militia circled around behind the main line to reenter the fight to the right of the Continentals.

Below I list 10 serious problems with the traditional account of how the American front-line militia retreated and later rejoined the fighting.

1) The retreating militia would have been passing not only across the front of the Continentals, but also across the front of the British infantry. It seems likely that the British would have attacked their vulnerable flank.

2) Most historians have overlooked or discounted that part of Brigadier-General Daniel Morgan's after action report that indicated the front-line militia were deployed in two wings. In other words, they may not have appreciated just how far the militia would have had to march to gain the left flank of the main line.

3) This method of withdrawal was dangerous not only to the militia, but also to the Americans on the main line. So long as the militia were between the British and the main line, the former would have been able to advance on the latter in safety.

4) The alleged path of retreat and return to the battle involved a remarkably circuitous route. For those on the right side of the militia line in particular, the shortest distance to their ultimate destination on the battlefield was more-or-less straight backwards, not around the left flank. Marching an unnecessary distance would have delayed their reentry into the battle.

5) It would have been impractical, if not dangerous, to have the hundreds of militiamen on the front line converge on a single location behind the main line. The various units could well have become intermixed, leading to extra and unnecessary disorder in their ranks.

6) The horses of the militia were located in the left rear of the main line. Bringing all of the front line militia near their horses during the retreat would have facilitated their flight from the battlefield when American success depended on their re-engagement with the British.

7) In no battle of the war did large bodies of American militiamen complete complex maneuvers on the battlefield after the shooting started. Even if such a maneuver were successfully executed on this one occasion, why would the American commanders have planned on such occurrence?

8) The traditional view of the retreat of the further has it that not only did the front line militia undergo this complex maneuver, but they were charged by British dragoons while the maneuver was taking place, and yet this did not greatly impede their ability to successfully execute this maneuver.

9) At the moment that the front line militia were crossing behind the Continentals, the Continentals were themselves heading towards the rear in an accidental retreat. Somehow, the two forces did not collide, nor did the retreat of the Continentals adversely effect the time it took the militia to complete the maneuver.

10) Lawrence Babits, in A Devil of a Whipping, gave good reasons why one should believe that the duration of the main line fighting was relatively short. If his interpretation is correct, then the retreating militia would have received a charge by the British dragoons, sorted themselves back into their proper formation, and marched across the width of the battlefield in mere minutes.


John Moncure's online history of the battle, The Cowpens Staff Ride and Battlefield Tour, has his interpretation of the militia retreat and transcriptions of the statement by Thomas.

Lawrence Babits' A Devil of a Whipping: The Battle of Cowpens is available through amazon.com.

Related: Flight of the Militia - Part 1, Flight of the Militia - Part 2, Flight of the Militia - Part 3