THE BATTLE OF COWPENS
REINTERPRETING A TACTICAL MASTERPIECE
KENNETH R. HAYNES, JR.
Just after sunrise on January 17, 1781, American forces under Brigadier
General Daniel Morgan won a singular victory over a slightly superior force of
British commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton. The Battle of
Cowpens was really the only significant battle of the American War for
Independence which the Americans won in a fair fight. By all the standards of
the day Tarleton should have won; he had overall numerical superiority, a
superiority in veteran infantry (7th Regt. excepted), an overwhelming three to
one advantage in cavalry and the perfect field on which to use them, and the
benefit of artillery support. Cowpens was a miraculous feat of arms that some
historians have compared to Hannibal's tactical masterpiece at Cannae.
Perhaps because Cowpens was fought in a virtual wilderness with few
literate eyewitnesses trustworthy accounts are for. Even Morgan and Tarleton
wrote only brief descriptions of the action in which there are disappointingly
few details and events are telescoped or left out altogether. Not only do
accounts conflict, it is sometimes difficult to determine the time frame or
phase of the battle in which they transpire. Before trying to glean the truth
from the original sources it will be necessary to give a modern synthesized
overview of what happened on that winter day. Even this is difficult because
nineteenth and twentieth century historians interpret details differently.
The Battle of Cowpens was fought on the Green River Road between the
headwaters of Island and Suck Creeks some five miles south of Broad River not
far from the North and South Carolina border. The Green River Road ran
northwest through the relatively level grasslands of the battle site with
scattered red oaks, hickories, and pines abounding. The road cut across or was
near two low knolls around which the battle was fought. About 500 yards behind
the second knoll there was an intersection with the Coulter's-Island Ford Road.
Tarleton's strike force of some 1,000 rank and file approached the
battlefield from the southeast and halted when the enemy was spotted. Tarleton
hurriedly sent his advance guard of Legion Cavalry to drive in 150 rebel
skirmishers while his main infantry line began to deploy. The cavalry succeeded
in their mission and withdrew to the flanks of the forming infantry line.
Before the infantry could be fully deployed the infantry were ordered forward.
The British infantry was severely mauled by the rifle fire of Colonel
Andrew Pickens' militia but the latter fell back according to orders around the
left flank of Morgan's third line of Continentals and Virginia militia.
According to some authorities Morgan intended to halt Pickens' men at the third
line, but the pressure of the enemy was too great and they panicked and ran to
the rear to get to their horses. A body of light dragoons fell upon them but in
turn were charged and routed by William Washington's entire cavalry force that
had been posted behind the Continentals.
The way was now clear for the advance on the Continentals. A fifteen
minute firefight ensued in which the Americans did not budge and Tarleton
decided to commit his reserve, the 1st Battalion/71st Highlanders. Morgan, in
the meantime, was trying to rally his militia. On seeing the Highlanders draw
near, Lieutenant Colonel John Eager Howard ordered his right flank company to
wheel inward but the order was misunderstood and the entire Continental line
marched to the rear. Visibly upset, Morgan allowed the retreat to continue for
a short distance while Picken's reformed militia advanced towards the
threatened right flank.
Tarleton, sensing victory, ordered the left wing troop of the Legion to
swing around the Highlanders to take the retreating Continentals in their
flank. The entire Legion Cavalry reserve is put in motion to back up this
movement. This is when things started to go wrong for the British. Pickens'
militia somehow manage to envelope the Highlanders without interference from
any enemy cavalry. Howard simultaneously about faced his line and poured a
withering volley into a surprised and disorganized enemy. Washington's Cavalry
then swung around the British right and took the fleeing redcoats in the rear.
It is a classic double envelopment. All but the Highlanders were forced to
Seeing the disaster overtaking the infantry, the Legion Cavalry fled the
battlefield despite orders to rally. With some fifty cavalry remaining under
his immediate command, presumedly the rallied front line dragoon troops,
Tarleton moved forward to cover the withdrawal of the Highlanders and Royal
Artillery. Unfortunately, he was cut off by the American cavalry and forced to
flee. The units he tried to rescue were lost, the artillery being wiped out.
There are serious problems with this standard view of the Battle of
Cowpens and interesting questions naturally arise concerning the disposition of
troops and various phases of the conflict. The existing evidence is subject to
various interpretations by different historians and some problems with the
battle may never be suitably resolved. The theories put forward by this author
are by no means meant to be a final solution and some may find my views
objectionable. With so little good original source material available on the
military aspects of the war speculation must rule the day, but hopefully this
paper will make a contribution to our understanding of this pivotal battle.
GENERAL MORGAN'S BATTLE PLAN
It is generally agreed that General Daniel Morgan took a tremendous risk
in accepting battle in the open semi-wooded environment of the Cowpens. He was
gambling that his rash young opponent would only attack head on. Apparently, he
was also gambling that this attack would only come from Tarleton's infantry,
and that his cavalry would be held back to be used once the Americans were
routed. Morgan's multiple battle line could not hope to stop a full scale
cavalry charge. Even Morgan's skirmish line of 120 men had to fall back when
charged by merely two troops. Dispersed as they were, they could only fall back
firing from tree to tree at Captain Ogilvie's dragoons. Pickens' second line
militia, although formed in a number of companies, were deployed in a crescent
over some 500 yards with large gaps between the small companies. This was
hardly a formation that could bring enough firepower to bear on charging
cavalry so as to stop them in their tracks.
In the event of massing of British cavalry, Morgan may have sounded the
recall for his militia. The Continentals would reduce their frontage by forming
in close order. The Virginia militia would file march behind them, thus making
the formation three deep. Pickens' militia would fall back and form on the
flanks three or four deep, but in open files to allow each rank the freedom to
fire and fall back through the formation to reload. Such massed firepower
should not have had too much difficulty in stopping charging dragoons if the
firing started at about 150 yards. Washington's cavalry could take care of any
units that outflanked the American infantry line. A cavalry charge straight up
the middle could not have dismissed by Morgan and his staff. Tarleton had used
his much weaker cavalry in just this manner at the Waxhaws in his greatest
victory. He did the same thing at Camden, ending the resistance of deKalb's
Continentals. It would have been extremely foolhardy to have dismissed the
possibility of a massive cavalry charge.
On the other hand, Lieutenant Colonel Tarleton recognized the dangers in
launching a major cavalry attack. He had been relatively lucky at the Waxhaws,
and he undoubtedly knew about the failure of an entire regiment of dragoons to
crush a single Continental battalion at the Battle of Monmouth Courthouse (l6th
L.D. vs Col. Walter Stewart's l3th Pa.). He decided upon a more conservative
course and sent his infantry forward first.
If Tarleton sent his infantry forward, Morgan would sting them with his
skirmish line, each rifleman firing once or twice as they fell back to the m*in
militia line. Unfortunately, numerous works on the battle do not or cannot give
us a realistic explanation of just what was expected of Pickens' men. The fire
discipline of Pickens' men was complicated by the fast that some men carried
muskets, while others had rifles. It might be expected that those companies
from districts closest to t*e mountain would have the majority of its militia
armed with rifles. This is because the rifle was necessary to put meat on the
table of the frontier household. The weapon of choice for most Piedmont
companies was undoubtedly the smoothbore musket as it cost less and was easier
to obtain. The overall ratio of rifles to muskets may be assumed to have been
1:2 because one-third of the militia were thrown out as skirmishers and they
are said to have been riflemen.
I would hazard a guess that nothing really formal was required of the
militia companies in their fire discipline or their method of withdrawal. If
David Ramsay is correct in saying that the militia began firing at 100 yards
and continued until the enemy closed the ranks to 40 yards, this would imply
that all or part of each company fired and immediately broke to the rear so as
to give the men a chance to reload and get off another shot at close range. The
rally would have been hurried and company officers would have had difficulty in
forming their units, particularly with some men trying to reload their rifles -
a long cumbersome process - and others dragging off wounded comrades. In my
opinion, not many riflemen would have the courage to fire a second time at such
a close range.
Because of the limitations of the rifle, a decision had to be made whether to
get off a long range shot (beyond 125 yards) and a shorter one, or just one
heavy discharge at a relatively close range (100 yards in). Given the poor
visibility, the trees, and the rolling ground it would have been more
efficacious to fire at close range. Perhaps the riflemen were allowed to fire
first and run to the rear. The musket men firing when comfortable with the
range, although there would be psychological tendency to volley fire.
After performing their duty, the militia were probably told to reform 150
to 200 yards behind the regulars. They would return to the fight on one or both
flanks of Howard's regulars.
If threatened by a double envelopment by Tarleton's cavalry, the Continentals
would fall back and the militia would swing back forming a large "U",
thereby forcing the cavalry to attack slightly uphill. Washington's cavalry
could then attack from a position in the rear, catching the enemy on their
flanks. A desperate sabre melee would have ensued in which two to one numerical
advantage by the British may or may not have been offset by the surprise
American counterattack. Of course, all this is speculation, but seems to be the
only way General Morgan could combine simplicity and utility in a battle plan
against an enemy with a terrain advantage for cavalry operation.
ROLE OF THE ROYAL ARTILLERY
The Royal Artillery is mentioned at the opening of the battle and at the
end when they were overrun by two detachments of Continental troops. It can
then be inferred that they played no role in between. Of course, this is
nonsense! It is well known that light 3-pounders were used to accompany
infantry so as to give them fire support. This function would have been
especially valued by Tarleton's front line infantry who, although numerically
superior to the Continentals (approx 450 verses 290 rankers), were definitely
inferior to Morgan's combined infantry. Given the shaky quality of the 7th
Regiment of Foot (nearly all recruits) and to a degree the Legion Infantry, we
would envision a long range fire fight at 120 to 150 yards with the artillery
firing canister into the rebel line (each round consisted of 36 iron shot that
weighed 1 1/4 ounces each). This would reduce British casualties and help
explain how such a long duration fire fight (15-20 minutes) could have
transpired. Had the lines immediately closed to 50 yards one side would have
broken. If this theory is correct most of the Continental's 72 casualties would
have been inflicted by this fire.
In the final advance upon the Continentals the artillery would have fallen
behind. When the American counterattack came, the artillerists would make a
desperate effort to draw off their pieces with drag ropes. They could not get
too far before being overtaken. When this happened they turned on their
pursuers and fought to the last using their muskets. They would not have used
canister for fear of hitting their own men now prisoners of the Americans.
THE RETREAT OF THE CONTINENTAL LINE
We are given the impression by some accounts that the Continentals stood
like a rock slugging it out toe to toe with the British for fifteen to twenty
minutes before falling back an unknown distance only to counterattack. Morgan
gives 50 paces as this distance - very short indeed! But Morgan was occupied
well to the rear for much of the combat rallying broken militia units. It is
likely that he overtook his retreating Continentals only after they had
withdrawn a considerable distance.
Given the deadly effect of canister fire it is likely that Howard's
Continentals slowly retreated some 250 yards behind the first knoll. This
withdrawal would slow the rate of fire of the enemy artillery as they were
manhandled forward in stages. At this point Lieut. Colonel Howard tried to
swing his right flank company of Continentals (Wallace's Virginians) and
presumedly the militia inward (i.e. refusing his wing) so as to counter the
threat that the 71st Regiment posed. Howard's order only led to confusion and
first Wallace's company, then the entire line, moved to the rear some 250-300
yards to the second knoll.
We can only speculate as to Howard's tactical methods. We know that
British armies in America used a thin two deep open order formation. This was
because the understrength battalions had to be teased out in order to gain more
firepower than the conventional three deep line could give. The open order
(approx 4 feet per file) was much utilized in the broken wooded terrain where
infantry had little to fear from a practically non-existent cavalry arm.
American battalions must have used similar open formations when operating in
broken or wooded terrain.
Next to nothing is known about certain aspects of minor tactics during the
period in question, particularly how actions were fought in wooded terrain when
specialist light infantry companies or corps were absent. When forced to detach
skirmishers from line companies the French and prussian practice was to
send one or two squads, normally the wing files of each company, forward thirty
or forty yards. Experimentation with skirmish lines had been carried on during
the eighteenth century but they were rather rudimentary. Skirmish tactics would
only become more sophisticated during the Napoleonic Wars.
The retreat to the second knoll was carried on "as if on parade"
but Howard, still threatened by the highlander's flanking movement, may have
aligned his Continental Light Infantry on an east-west axis in order to take
advantage of the sloping terrain, his right resting on the Mill Gap Road. This
new position would have presented a slightly refused front to the approaching
British and gained a few precious moments while Pickens' men rushed to the
rescue. It might be suggested that a formal echeloned withdrawal was used, each
company/division firing then moving off. Indeed, the confusion and retreat of
the right wing companies would seem to justify this tactic. But given the
relatively short distance moved, a covering fire by skirmishers dropped off by
the left wing companies would probably have sufficed.
On reaching his new position Howard may have closed up his formation but
this is unlikely because the enemy line already presented a greater front than
his and all this movement would have tipped his hand. Lieutenant Thomas
Anderson recorded that "their line was so much longer than ours they
turned our flanks which caused us to fall back some distance. The enemy
thinking that we were broke set up a great shout, charged us with their
bayonets but in no order. We let them come within ten or fifteen yards of us
then give them a full volley and at the same time charged them home. They, not
expecting any such thing put them in such confusion that we were in amongst
them with the bayonets which caused them to give ground and at last to take to
The best known account of the battle was penned by Lieut. Colonel John
Eager Howard of the Maryland Continentals. It is filled with interesting
details of his experiences. Nevertheless, it apparently was written long after
the battle, and can be misleading. For example, Howard's statement that
Triplett and Tate were on his left is definitely at odds with Morgan and
Hammond and some authors who state that all the Virginians were on the
right! Howard's statement that Washington's cavalry "moved to the
left from our rear, to attack Tarleton's horse" may be taken
to mean only his attack on the 17th Light Dragoons; on the other hand, given
the context of the narrative, it probably means that Tarleton's reserve cavalry
was attacked from around Howard's left flank. This is the interpretation of
Graham and Robert C. Pugh. Others believe that only the infantry were attacked.
My view will be discussed in the sections on cavalry and the militia.
It is well known that participants in a battle can only be cognizant of events
transpiring on their own front. Howard may have seen Washington attack the 17th
Light Dragoons, then lost track of their whereabouts until he saw them in the
enemy's rear. He may have assumed they attacked from the east because he saw
them pursuing Nettles' men to the east. Neither he, nor apparently the British,
kept track of Washington's circuitous movements in the rear of Howard's
position. Here is the account of Lieut. Colonel JOHN EAGER HOWARD:
Morgan was careful to address the officers and men, to inspire confidence in
them. As to what Morgan has since said, `I would not have had a swamp in the
view of the militia' - I do not think it deserves any consideration. They were
words used in conversation, without any definite meaning. I am positive that
Triplett and Tate were on my left. Major M'Dowell was of North
Carolina. I do not think there was such an eminence; there was a slight
rise in the ground; nor was Washington's horse posted behind it, but on the
summit; for I had a full view of him as we retreated from our first position.
Seeing my right flank was exposed to the enemy, I attempted to change the
front of Wallace's company (Virginia regulars); in doing it, some confusion
ensued, and first a part, and then the whole of the company commenced a
retreat. The officers along the line seeing this, and supposing that orders had
been given for a retreat, faced their men about, and moved off. Morgan, who had
mostly been with the militia, quickly rode up to me and expressed apprehensions
of the event; but I soon removed his fears by pointing to the line, and
observing that men were not beaten who retreated in that order.
He then ordered me to keep with the men, until we came to the rising ground
near Washington's horse; and he rode forward to fix on the most proper place
for us to halt and face about. In a minute we had a perfect line. The enemy
were now very near us. Our men commenced a very destructive fire, which they
little expected, and a few rounds occasioned great disorder in
While in this confusion, I ordered a charge with the bayonet, which order was
obeyed with great alacrity. As the line advanced, I observed their artillery a
short distance in front, and called to Captain Ewing (actually Lieut Ewing),
who was near me, to take it. Captain Anderson now General Anderson, of
Montgomery county, Maryland), hearing the order, also pushed for the same
object, and both being emulous for the prize, kept pace until near the first
piece, when Anderson, by placing the end of his espontoon forward into the
ground, made a long leap which brought him upon the gun, and gave him the
honour of the prize.
My attention was now drawn to an altercation of some of the man with an
artillery man, who appeared to make it a point of honour not to surrender his
match. The men, provoked by his obstinacy, would have bayonetted him on the
spot, had I not interfered, and desired them to spare the life of so brave a
man. He then surrendered his match.
In the pursuit, I was led towards the right, in among the 71st, who were
broken into squads, and as I called to them to surrender, they laid down
their arms, and the officers delivered up their swords. Captain Duncanson, of
the 7lst grenadiers, gave me his sword, and stood by me. Upon getting on my
horse, I found him pulling at my saddle, and he nearly unhorsed me. I expressed
my displeasure, and asked him what he was about. The explanation was, that they
had orders to give no quarter, and they did not expect any; and
as my men were coming up, he was afraid they would use him ill. I admitted his
excuse, and put him into the care of a sergeant. I had messages from him some
years afterwards, expressing his obligation for my having saved his life.
Their artillery was not thrown in the rear, but was advanced a little at
the head of the line, and was taken as I have mentioned. Washington did
not encounter the artillery. He moved to the left form our rear, to
attack Tarleton's horse, and never lost sight of them until they abandoned
Major M'Arthur very freely entered into conversation, and said that he was an
officer before Tarleton was born; that the best troops in the service were put
under "that boy" to be sacrificed; that he had flattered himself the
event would have been different, if his advice had been taken, which was to
charge with all the horse, at the moment we were retreating.
THE ROLE OF THE BRITISH CAVALRY
1. Attack of Tarleton's vanguard cavalry on Morgan's skirmishers:
Colonel Tarleton, in an effort to cover his forming battle line, sent
Captain David Ogilvie's fifty green coated legionnaires against Morgan's 120
skirmishers. On the surface the attack was a failure, some 15 horses and/or men
being casualties. The skirmishers, however, were forced to retire into Andrew
Pickens' main militia line firing in relay. Morgan had counted on these
sharpshooters inflicting heavy casualties on the British infantry. Tarleton was
pleased. With small loss he had eliminated a dangerous line of resistance.
2. Initial deployment of Tarleton's Legion Cavalry:
It can be argued that Tarleton's decision to divide his arm blanch
resulted in it being defeated piecemeal. The troop of dragoons placed on each
flank of the infantry line Lieut. Nettles' 17th L.D. on the right, Capt.
Ogilvie's Legionnaires on the left) were not strong enough to deliver a
knockout blow. No author has speculated as to their function. They probably
supplemented the fire of the infantry by dismounting and forming an extended
skirmish line. Morgan in his battle report may have misidentified these
dismounted dragoons as light infantry as he says Tarleton had two companies of
the latter on each flank.
Before a mounted attack, such as the l7th Light Dragoon's on the retreating
militia, the dismounted troopers would have to jog back to the clumps of horses
in the rear (1 holder for every 3 skirmishers). The horses had to be separated,
carbines secured, and the troop reformed in two ranks. All this must have taken
several minutes. This must be the reason why the 17th L.D. were unable to
strike Pickens' fleeing men until they were in the rear of Howard's line.
Captain David Ogilvie's dismounted Legionnaires on the left held their position
for ten to fifteen minutes until the 1/7lst Regiment approached their left in a
column of companies. We know this to be the case because Tarleton had only
ordered "the cavalry on the right" to charge the enemy's left. As he
narrates in his history, "they executed the order with great gallantry,
but were drove back by the fire of the reserve, and by a charge of Colonel
Washington's cavalry." By not ordering a coordinated cavalry strike behind
the Continental battle line against the fleeing militia Tarleton made the
crucial mistake in the battle. Such a deep strike would have prevented a
militia rally and William Washington would have been hard pressed to handle
this simultaneous double assault.
3. The attack of the 17th Light Dragoons (Lieut. Nettles' troop):
On being ordered by Tarleton to attack, Lieut. Nettles had to disengage
from his skirmish fight, mount his troop, then swing his unit wide around the
left flank of Howard's Continental line so as to avoid the fire of the Virginia
militia. The movement was probably made initially in a column of twos. As the
troop numbered only some 40 to 50 rank and file (assuming a few British
Legionnaires included to bring unit up to strength), it would have been easy to
penetrate through the cane and scrub growth along the headwaters of Suck Creek
No. 2 then attack in echelon formation.
Some of the militia may have reached the rallying point and were beginning to
form a line when Nettles' troopers began to slay other fleeing militia who were
trying to reach this point. The partially formed militia may have been the
"reserve" that Tarleton mentions. In any event, they must not have
maintained formation for long. They were in the open and the sight of swinging
sabers sent them scurrying to the rear with the rest.
Washington's 3rd Continental Light Dragoons at the time of the attack were
posted several hundred yards behind Howard's right flank, having moved there
from a more central position due to enemy artillery fire. This distant position
may explain why Nettles' troop which was sweeping around the opposite flank did
not spot them until it was too late. Ironically, Ogilvie's left flank troop may
have spotted Washington in his new position when they reached the high ground
on Pickens' right that the militia had abandoned. Seeing that he was
outnumbered three to one, Ogilvie may have hesitated in coordinating an assault
on Washington even if the thought had occurred to him. Of course, Ogilvie
apparently had no orders to attack in support of Nettles and it would have
taken a few minutes to request permission from Tarleton, disengage mount, then
4. Captain David Ogilvie's attack around Howard's right:
Another important controversy of the battle involves the actions of
Tarleton's left wing troop of cavalry under Captain David Ogilvie. Tarleton's
account is not clear. He indicates that the movement of the 1/71st into line
and that of his reserve cavalry "to threaten the enemy's
right flank" would most likely bring victory. "The cavalry were
ordered to incline to the left, and to form a line, which would embrace the
whole of the enemy's right flank."
In the absence of solid evidence on the British side, it would seem logical to
assume that the order was dispatched to Captain Ogilvie as well as the British
Legion reserve cavalry. Furthermore, it is also probable that Ogilvie used his
initiative to move out as an advance strike force, preliminary to the movement
of the reserve. Once he was behind Howard's right he may have even spotted the
militia rallying around the grove of pines well in Morgan's rear and decided to
neutralize this potential threat on his own without adequate support.
Overconfidence, founded upon the Legion's past successes against militia,
overrode any feelings of hesitance.
If British accounts are silent as to Ogilvie's attack, there seems to be ample
evidence from the American side. Suffice to say that Ogilvie's attack was
unsuccessful. He was repulsed by rifle fire from numerous militia in a
semi-protected position and counterattacked by Washington's entire cavalry.
More on this when the American militia is discussed.
5. Failure of the British reserve cavalry:
Late in the battle Tarleton had all but won. As he saw it; the militia
were routed and had to be making for the Broad River and safety, and the
Continentals were in full retreat covering the latter's flight. The 7lst and
Ogilvie's cavalry troop would swing around the enemy's western flank, either
forcing them to stand and be slaughtered in a cross fire or to flee.
Anticipating the latter, Tarleton ordered his entire reserve cavalry under
Captain Richard Hovenden to follow up these leftward jabs with a mighty left
hook that would annihilate his opponent. It was a good plan; it should have
worked. Unfortunately for the British cause in America, it did not.
Good timing, good luck, or a combination were the keys that unlocked
Tarleton's logical grand tactic. It is probable that the 240 strong cavalry
reserve were moving up in a column of sub-divisions with high hopes. On seeing
MacArthur's Highlanders brought up short by the rejuvenated militia and
Newmarsh's infantry routed, the cavalry may have paused momentarily in
contemplation of following their original orders or punching through the gap
between Howard and Pickens. The indecision may have begun moments before as
Ogilvie's fleeing troop sped past, perhaps throwing the column into some
confusion. At this crucial moment Washington's whitecoats swept down on their
left flank and the reserve cavalry fled. "Tarleton sent directions to his
cavalry to form about four hundred yards to the right of the enemy, in order to
check them, while he endeavored to rally the infantry to protect the guns.
"The cavalry did not comply with the order." Yet another order was
sent, but the rout was on. The reserve cavalry - Tarleton's pride and joy -
left the field without striking a blow.
A threefold psychological shock of seeing Ogilvie's and Newmarsh's troops
running away while enemy cavalry were moving in from an unexpected direction
would at least partially exonerate the British Legion Cavalry from the charge
of cowardice. Probably the best explanation of the behavior of the cavalry can
be found in their composition. Frequent detachments during the summer and fall
months and the resulting losses entailed had destroyed the small unit cohesion
and integrity of the Legion. At least half of the ranks were filled with less
than enthusiastic rebel parolees or deserters.
6. Tarleton's narrow escape:
After the reserve cavalry failed to rally on ignoring two orders to do so,
Colonel Tarleton collected l4 officers and some 40 dragoons (probably the l7th
L.D. who had been badly scattered and slow to rendezvous). According to him,
"Colonel Washington's cavalry were charged, and driven back into the
continental infantry by this handful of brave men." This would seem to be
wishful thinking on Tarleton's part. There is no supporting evidence that the
British launched a successful cavalry charge late in the battle.
Lieutenant Roderick Mackenzie probably makes a more realistic comment on
this desperate charge; "Lieutenant Colonel Tarleton with no more than
fifty horse, hesitated not to charge the whole of Washington's cavalry, though
supported by the continentals; it was a small body of officers and a detachment
of the seventeenth regiment of dragoons, who presented themselves on this
desperate occasion; the loss sustained was in proportion to the danger of the
enterprise, and the whole body was repulsed."
It may have initially been Tarleton's intentions to cover a withdrawal of
the infantry by his attack but events moved so rapidly that saving the Royal
Artillerymen was the only realistic option left. It was a futile gesture. The
Green Dragoon and his men were cut off by overwhelming numbers of Washington's
cavalry and Continental infantry who swarmed around the two artillery pieces
and a short melee ensued. Tarleton's horse was felled by a musket ball and the
rider only escaped when Doctor Robert Jackson, Assistant Surgeon of the 7lst
Regiment, rode up and offered him his mount. In the wild pursuit that followed
William Washington outdistanced his own men and was almost killed by Tarleton
and two companions. Fortunately, Washington was rescued by two of his own
companions. Tarleton was able to effect his escape after wounding his
adversary's horse with a pistol shot.
THE ROUT AND RALLY OF THE MILITIA
Most accounts, following GrAham's and Carrington's histories, state that
Colonel Andrew Pickens' militia were ordered by Morgan to retreat across the
front of the Continentals and take post on their left flank. This
seems a highly unlikely order on two counts. First, the militia were only
expected to fire two or three times - letting the British approach close so as
to better identify and pick off their officers. Such a body of militia could
hardly be expected to immediately rally and resume fighting with the enemy hot
on their heels. Second, a withdrawal across the front of the Continentals (just
150-200 yards away) with the enemy within deadly range seems to be tactically
unsound not to mention irregular and dangerous. In short, such a retirement
seems totally inconsistent with tactical doctrines of the era and Morgan's
ideas on managing militia. The likelihood of a few companies withdrawing around
the left wing of Howard's line has been distorted into a belief that the entire
militia were ordered to do so.
If we can trust Colonel Samuel Hammond's disjointed account of Morgan's
dispositions, there were large gaps in Morgan's third line between the
Continentals and the flanking Virginia militia. These strange gaps must have
been meant as a retreat route, and assuming they did exist, would have been an
integral part of Morgan's battle plan. Panicky militia could overrun a solid
line, throwing it into disorder as at Camden. These gaps would forestall such
Morgan states that the militia fired by "regiments" (presumedly
companies) and retired agreeable to orders. As previously mentioned, the
British were allowed to approach very close before the firing commenced. This
must have strained the nerves of everyone as the rifle was a standoff weapon
(150-250 yards) with no bayonet. Compensating for this dangerous and atypical
usage of their weapons, the men were told to fire in relays and fall back. This
fighting withdrawal at close range allowed maximum damage to the British
officer corps and better observation of the effects of the fire.
David Ramsay says the Americans first fired at lOO yards and continued
until the British got to within 40 yards. Some sort of echeloned flow to the
rear may have begun on the right, these men reaching the rallying point first
(perhaps 250 yards behind Howard's line), but it does not naturally follow that
they retreated across the front of the Continentals and behind the left wing
militia units from Ninety-Six and Long Canes.
One participant, Major Joseph McJunkin of Union County, has left us an
interesting if brief account of the battle, although events are telescoped and
probably out of sequence. His testimony is instrumental in helping us assemble
the disjointed accounts of the battle into a coherent whole even though it is
confusing in places. Here is the most relevant part of the "Memoir"
of Major JOSEPH MCJUNKIN:
Howard's regulars formed one line; the North and South Carolina militia, under
Gen. Pickens, constituted the second, about 150 or 200 yards in advance; Col.
Brandon's regiment was posted to the left of the road leading from Union
District to North Carolina; and Col's. Thomas' and Roebuck's on the right.
Botta and Ramsay represent, that Morgan formed his troops in two divisions; the
first, consisting of militia under Gen. Pickens, was in advance of the second,
which consisted of the regulars: while behind them all was drawn up
Washington's cavalry. All these accounts say, it seems to the writer, be
reconciled. The ground between the two reedy branches the heads of "Suck
Creek," is not more than sufficient for the formation of Howard's
regulars. In front of them would be very appropriately posted the militia. The
riflemen, or experienced marksmen, accustomed to woods' fighting, would be
selected as sharp-shooters to enfilade the road, which for miles runs north,
along an ascending plain, overgrown with large chestnuts. These would
constitute excellent cover for such troops. Col. Brandon commanded those on the
left, as we look south along the road, and Roebuck and Thomas those on the
right. The whole militia command, when overpowered, were directed to retire and
form on the right and left of the regulars. This formation could
not be in line, but must have been at right angles with the regulars, and hence
the ultimate formation would have been, the regulars in the center, the militia
the right and left wings thrown forward, on the right and left of the road, and
making the exact form of the letter E, which, from infancy, has always been
represented to the writer as the form of Morgan's line of battle.
Col. Farr, Major McJunkin, and others, volunteered as sharp-shooters, who
were first to encounter the enemy. Tarleton advanced in two lines -- his
infantry the centre of each, and his cavalry the flanks. The militia, after
delivering a well-directed fire, fell back on the regulars, and were
charged, right and left, by Tarleton's dragoons: on the
left, the cavalry was repulsed by Washington; on the right, Tarleton forced
his way, pell mell, to the rear. At this instant, Washington rode
his squadron of cavalry immediately in the rear of the continentals, and said
to Howard, "Charge the infantry, and I will the cavalry." In an
instant, order was restored: Howard's continentals advanced with a quick step,
and charged the regulars with fixed bayonets. Washington's dragoons and mounted
militia charged Tarleton and his cavalry, while in the confusion of sabring the
fugitive militia, and bore them off the field: the militia, too, rallied, and
right and left poured in a deadly fire. All was confusion in the British ranks.
Howard called out, "throw down your arms, and you shall have good
quarters." In an instant, 500 men piled their arms. The entire regiment of
infantry called the Scots', was killed or taken prisoners: 700, Major McJunkin
says, of the finest looking men he ever saw, were the prisoners. "Their
dress and accoutrements," he remarks, "contrasted strangely with that
of their conquerors. They looked like a set of Nabobs, in their flaming
regimentals, set down with us, the militia, in our tattered hunting shirts,
black, smoked, and greasy." Tarleton and his cavalry fled before
Washington for sixteen miles, to Goudelock's, where they pressed Mr. Goudelock
to pilot them across the Pacolette at Scull Shoals, which was the nighest route
to Hamilton's ford, on Broad River, in the vicinity of Cornwallis' camp.
McJunkin's statement that on falling back, the militia "were charged,
right and left, by Tarleton's dragoons" is not mentioned in modern
accounts. Furthermore, McJunkin indicates that these attacks were staggered.
The first attack around the left was repulsed (attack of the l7th L.D.). The
second attack around the right penetrated further as "Tarleton"
(actually Capt. Ogilvie) forced his way "pell mell" to the rear. The
militia were saved when William Washington returned from his first pursuit and
appeared in the rear of the Continentals. McJunkin confirms that there was a
communication between Washington and Howard as to a coordinated attack plan,
although it is not completely clear which cavalry McJunkin is referring to,
Ogilvie's troop or Captain Hovenden's massed reserve cavalry which were still a
good way off but probably visible in the high ground previously occupied by the
right flank militia at the beginning of the battle. As Lieut. Colonel Howard
was still falling back and the 1/7lst regiment was threatening to outflank him,
he was hardly in a position to counterattack! Given the emergency at the copse
of pines, it would make more sense to drive off Ogilvie's troop, rally the
militia and lead them forward to succor Howard's flanks, and then, and only
then to send a courier to Howard with Washington's coordinated attack plan.
There is another item that McJunkin mentions that is of interest in our
analysis. He states that "the whole militia command, when overpowered,
were directed to retire and form on the right and left of the
regulars. It is interesting to note that Samuel Hammond's second map of the
battle does show the militia on the flanks of the regulars. While we might
reject the supposition that Morgan ordered the militia to reform on the
flank(s) of the Continentals, McJunkin's statement makes more sense if the
militia were meant to retire around the regulars and form in one or two bodies
that could cover the latter's retreat or join them in a final stand. This very
tactic had been performed by loyalist militia and regulars at the Battle of
Long Canes five weeks earlier when Colonel Issac Allen defeated Elijah Clarke's
Georgians near Ninety-Six, South Carolina.
By whatever route, the militia probably endeavored to rally behind
Howard's Continentals, not his left flank! Many units, probably from the right
flank, managed to do so. The left flank militia from Ninety-Six and Long Canes,
while streaming towards the rendezvous point, were suddenly beset by Lieutenant
Harry Nettle's troop of dragoons. A number of men were sabered, and falling to
the ground, were later bayoneted by enemy infantry passing over their crumpled
bodies. Panic spread to the rallied units and they to began to break to the
rear in order to reach their horses tied up in a grove of pines perhaps a mile
behind the lines. The militia were given a short reprieve when William
Washington drove off Nettle's troopers. But there was more excitement awaiting
the militia in the grove of pines. And this is what is usually overlooked in
Late in his life JAMES P. COLLINS related his experiences in the battle as
About sunrise on the l7th January, 1781, the enemy came in full view. The
sight, to me at least, seemed somewhat imposing; they halted for a short time,
and then advanced rapidly, as if certain of victory. The militia under Pickens
and Moffitt, was posted on the right of the regulars some distance in
advance, while Washington's cavalry was stationed in the rear. We gave the
enemy one fire, when they charged us with their bayonets; we gave way and
retreated for our horses, Tarleton's cavalry pursued us;
("now," thought I, "my hide is in the loft") just as we got
to our horses, they overtook us and began to make a few hacks at some, however,
without doing much injury. They, in their haste, had pretty much scattered,
perhaps, thinking they would have another Fishing creek frolic, but in a few
moments, Col. Washington's cavalry was among them, like a whirlwind, and the
poor fellows began to keel from their horses, without being able to remount.
The shock was so sudden and violent, they could not stand it, and immediately
betook themselves to flight; there was no time to rally, and they appeared to
be as hard to stop as a drove of wild Choctaw steers, going to a Pennsylvania
market. In a few moments the clashing of swords was out of hearing and quickly
out of sight; by this time, both lines of the infantry were warmly engaged and
we being relieved from the pursuit of the enemy began to rally and prepare to
redeem our credit, when Morgan rode up in front, and waving his sword, cried
out, 'Form, form, my brave fellows! Give them one more fire and the day is
ours. Old Morgan was never beaten.' We then advanced briskly, and gained the
right flank of the enemy, and they being hard pressed in front, by
Howard, and falling very fast, could not stand it long. They began to throw
their arms, and surrender themselves prisoners of war.
CHRISTOPHER BRANDON was a volunteer serving in Washington's cavalry and
witnessed the retreat of the militia. He and several troopers who "had
been separated from their respective corps in a previous charge round
Morgan's left flank," were near the fleeing militia and witnessed
the heroic efforts of platoon commander Lieutenant Joseph Hughes as he tried to
stem the tide:
Hughes, said Brandon, saved the battle of the Cowpens. I saw it as it occurred.
Hughes could run faster than any man I ever knew. He was also a man of great
personal strength. As the company to which Hughes belonged fled, pursued by
Tarleton's cavalry, Hughes with his drawn sword would pass them, face about and
order them to stand, and often struck at them with his sword to make them halt.
He called to them in a loud voice and said: 'You damned cowards, stand and
fight; there is more danger in running than fighting, and if you don't stop and
fight, you will all be killed.' But they continued to run by him in the utmost
confusion. He would again pursue them, pass them - his speed of foot being so
much greater than theirs - face about, meet them, and again order them to halt.
He at last succeeded. The company halted on the brow of the slope, some
distance from the battle line, behind a clump of young pines that
partially hid them from the cavalry of Tarleton. Others joined them instantly
for self protection against the charge of the cavalry. Their guns were
instantly loaded. Morgan galloped up and spoke words of encouragement.
In a moment the British cavalry were at them. They delivered a deadly
fire at only ten paces distance; many saddles were emptied, and
the rest recoiled at the unexpected assault. At this moment Col. Washington
charged. The battle was restored, and the charge of Col. Howard of the
Maryland line completed the victory.
A third account, frequently excerpted, is that of Thomas Young who, like
Christopher Brandon, was a volunteer in Washington's mounted militia,
specifically Major Benjamin Jolly's company from Union County. His statements
compliment Brandon's and Collins' but there are differences. Here is the
account of THOMAS YOUNG:
The morning of the 17th of January, 1781, was bitterly cold. We were formed in
order of battle, and the men ere slapping their hands together to keep warm -
an exertion not long necessary.
The battle field was almost a plain with a ravine on both hands, and very
little under growth in front or near us. The regulars, under the command
of Col. Howard, a very brave man, were formed in two ranks, their right
flank resting upon the head of the ravine on the
right. The militia were formed on the left of the
regulars, under the command of Col. Pickens, their left flank resting
near the head of the ravine on the left. The cavalry
formed in the rear of the centre, or rather in rear of the left wing of the
regulars. About sunrise, the British line advanced at a sort of trot, with a
loud halloo. It was the most beautiful line I ever saw. When they shouted, I
heard Morgan say, 'They give us the British halloo, boys, give them the Indian
halloo, by G ;' and he galloped along the lines, cheering the men, and
telling them not to fire until we could see the whites of their eyes.
Every officer was crying don't fire! For it was a hard matter for us to keep
I should have said the British line advanced under cover of their artillery;
for it opened so fiercely upon the centre, that Col. Washington moved his
cavalry from the centre towards the right wing.
The militia fired first. It was for a time, pop-pop-pop-and then a whole
volley; but when the regulars fired, it seemed like one sheet of flame from
right to left. Oh! it was beautiful! I have heard old Col. Fair (Col. Farr ?)
say often, that he believed John Savage fired the first gun in this battle. He
was riding to and fro, along the lines, when he saw Savage fix his eye upon a
British officer; he stepped out of the ranks, raised his gun-fired, and he saw
the officer fall.
After the first fire, the militia retreated, and the cavalry
covered their retreat (attack on l7th L.D. ?). They were again
formed and renewed the attack, and we retired to the rear (2 coy of mounted
militia ?). They fought for some time; and retreated again - and then formed
a second time. In this I can hardly be mistaken, for I recollect well that
the cavalry was twice, during the action, between our army and the
enemy. I have understood that one of the retreats was ordered by mistake by one
of Morgan's officers. How true this is I cannot say.
After the second forming, the fight became general and
unintermitting. In the hottest of it, I saw Col. Brandon coming at full
speed to the rear, and waving his sword to Col. Washington. In a moment
the command to charge was given, and I soon found that the British
cavalry had charged the American right. We made a most
furious charge, and cutting through the British cavalry, wheeled and charged
them in the rear. In this charge, I exchanged my tackey for the finest horse I
ever rode; it was the quickest swap I ever made in my life!
At this moment the bugle sounded. We, about half formed and making a sort of
circuit at full speed, came up in rear of the British line, shouting and
charging like madmen. At this moment Col. Howard gave the word 'charge
bayonets!' and the day was ours. The British broke, and throwing down their
guns and cartouch boxes, made for the wagon road, and did the prettiest sort of
It seems to be fairly evident from the accounts of Collins, Brandon, and
Young that a deep strike cavalry charge was made against Morgan's militia who
were trying to rally in and around a grove of pines. In the confusion some
militia were felled by British troopers who slashed their way through the
branches of the young pines or circled behind the copse. This was a true melee.
But more and more men accumulated in these pines during pauses in several
British efforts, and finally Morgan and Pickens rallied the men and directed
the fire of some against the handful of valiant green coated dragoons.
Scattered in their unsuccessful efforts to pry the rebel militia from their
lair, the British troop were overwhelmed by Washington's 3rd Continental Light
dragoons who had returned from their brief pursuit of Lieutenant Nettles'
James Collins' testimony is unique in that he claims that the militia
advanced "and gained the right flank of the enemy." This is at
least partially confirmed by Major Samuel Hammond's second map of the battle in
which he shows the majority of the militia and Washington's cavalry hitting the
enemy's right flank. Conventional wisdom, evidence, and common sense dictate
that most of Pickens' troops struck the 7lst Regiment on the enemy's left
flank, not the right. It is possible, however, that a few companies did move
against the British right, thus accomplishing a "double envelopment."
Statements such as "we gave the enemy one fire" and Morgan's
order not to fire "until we could see the whites of their eyes" seems
to confirm a close British approach before the militia fired. Most men such as
James Collins probably got off only one shot before withdrawing through and
behind the Continentals. It would seem that Morgan's order for each man to fire
two or three times was overly optimistic.
THE ROLE OF WILLIAM WASHINGTON'S CAVALRY
The role of Brig. General Daniel Morgan's cavalry under Lieut. Colonel
William Washington was undeniably important, but how important? Was their
contribution crucial to victory or just part of a team effort?
It semes fairly conclusive from the testimony of our three militiamen that the
American cavalry, although small in numbers, played a critical role in
obtaining the victory. Not only did their charge near the copse of pines assure
the rally of Pickens' militia, but their sweep around the rear of the British
infantry prevented any chance of an enemy rally. The redcoated infantry had no
choice but to surrender. Four separate attacks were made by William Washington
and his 3rd Continental Light Dragoons:
1. Attack on the l7th Light Dragoons:
At the commencement of the action Washington's cavalry were forced to move
from their central position behind Howard's line to one behind his right flank
several hundred yards away. This was due to enemy artillery fire. From his
vantage point Washington could see that the militia rally slightly to his left
front had soured as units arriving from the eastern flank panicked as
Lieutenant Nettles' 17th Light Dragoons rode in among them sabers striking home
right and left.
Washington must have paused a moment as first some then all of the militia
began to run. It seems likely from the testimonies of Brandon and Young that
some if not all of the militia cavalry were detached to stem the rout and
prevent the fugitives from reaching their horses at the northern edge of the
copse of pines. Next, before calling for a charge, Washington checked his flank
like a good cavalry leader and saw that Ogilvie's troop was still fighting as
dismounted skirmishers. He was free to charge - and charge he did, quickly
scattering the enemy troopers although few casualties if any would have been
inflicted. The "Death's Head" troop fled to the east among the cane
brakes along Branch No. 2 of Suck Creek and the forest from which they were
slow to extricate themselves. The "recall" was sounded on the trumpet
as the Americans reformed after a relatively short pursuit. The cavalry was led
to the rear to a position near the grove of pines where the militia were now
having difficulties with the second troop of Legion dragoons under Captain
2. Attack on Captain Ogilvie's troop of British Legion Dragoons:
Some sense may be made of our "eyewitnesses" and our secondary
accounts if we assume that Morgan, in striving to rally Pickens' men, sent an
order via Captain Thomas Brandon to Washington to clear his right rear of the
enemy cavalry and to cover the forward movement of the militia once they had
Allegedly, Washington sent Brandon back with his recommendation to Morgan,
"They are coming on like a mob; give them a fire and I will charge
them." This message makes sense if applied to Ogilvie's disordered
troopers around the grove of pines, but is usually interpreted as pertaining to
the enemy infantry. At this point, however, the British infantry, although in
somewhat of a ragged formation, could not be described as a "mob."
They were slowly pushing Howard's Continentals back. Only in the last phase of
Howard's retreat did the British advance degenerate into a disorganized series
of clusters of soldiers as the line constricted on its center - a leaderless
herd of numerous untried recruits seeking the protection and reassurance of
their immediate comrades for a final plunge through the thin American line.
As related in Young's account, Washington's units charged through Ogilvie's
troop which was taken by surprise while in a skirmish formation or disorganized
by its efforts against the militia in the pine grove. After their first pass
through, the white coated Americans wheeled and cut their way back through
again. Outnumbered three to one and surprised, the Provincial legionnaires
hardly knew what hit them. They turned and spurred their horses back to safety,
probably taking the most direct route between the 7lst and Newmarsh's left.
3. The sweep around the British left and rear:
Most accounts state that Washington attacked the enemy infantry by taking
them on their right flank. In light of the remaining cavalry threat to Morgan's
right it would seem more likely that Tarleton's left hook with his cavalry
reserve was countered by a right hook by the American commander. It is
inconceivable that Morgan would have ordered Pickens' slow firing riflemen to
go up against Highlanders with bayonets and Tarleton's saber wielding reserve
(some 240 troopers) without the assistance of Washington's cavalry.
The question of timing is critical. Young gives the impression that the
Americans were already directly in the rear of Newmarsh's infantry when Howard
ordered his famous countercharge. This cannot quite be true because the British
cavalry, in the process of moving forward towards the 71st Regiment, would have
What probably happened was that Washington swung wide around the 71st,
perhaps taking advantage of cover provided by thickets, cane brakes, etc., with
the intention of taking the Legion reserve in the flank or head-on if needed. A
position well in the rear of the 71st was reached. At the gallop (modern
canter) cavalry could cover 480 paces per minute. Thus Washington could have
made a half-circuit of some 1,200 meters around the 71st in just 3 1/2 minutes!
By this time Pickens had deployed his column near the headwaters of Little Buck
Creek and had halted the flanking march of McArthur's Highlanders. Lieut.
Colonel John Eager Howard was facing his Continental Light Infantry about and
began firing into Newmarsh's disordered infantry.
Lieutenant Thomas Anderson of the Delaware Continentals states in his
"Journal" that "At the same time that we charged, Col.
Washington charged the horse which soon give way." Morgan states in his
letter to William Snickers on 26 January that about the time Howard was
launching his bayonet counterattack, "Col. Washington with his Regt.
charged the whole of Tarleton's Cavalry amounted to three hundred & thirty
seven, & put them to flight." These accounts are usually ignored. They
do seem to confirm the theory that Washington's cavalry was well behind the
enemy's infantry and managed to scatter Tarleton's main force of cavalry
without actually coming to blows.
There are several reasons why Washington may have attacked around the
western flank instead of around Newmarsh's eastern flank as Howard implies:
1. A western approach was the most logical route, being the quickest way
to reach the British Legion Cavalry reserve, which had been observed moving up
in preparation for a swing around Morgan's right flank.
2. A route that initially used the wooded ravine through which the
Coulter's/Island Ford Road ran would screen the initial advance until a
position could be reached on high level ground from which a surprise flanking
attack could be made on Tarleton's dragoons. The eastern route probably lacked
vegetative cover and therefore surprise.
3. Tarleton's statement that his panicky cavalry reserve was ordered to
rally 400 yards to the right (i.e. the east) of the oncoming American infantry
would only make sense if the British cavalry were running away from a threat
that materialized from the west.
4. Howard just barely mentions a cavalry charge, and his language seems to
be a weak imitation of Morgan's in his battle report. And Morgan clearly is
describing the attack on the 17th Light Dragoons earlier in the battle with no
specific mention of a grand assault behind Tarleton's lines. But one week later
Morgan was writing that a massive attack had indeed been made on Tarleton's
entire cavalry force of 337 men.
5. An American attack around the low ground to the east of Howard's
position would require an uphill attack against a superior enemy cavalry force
who could probably see them coming from quite a distance.
Major McJunkin's statement that Washington messaged to Howard to charge
the infantry while he would attack the cavalry seems to contradict modern
accounts that insist on an eastern route and an attack on Newmarsh's routed
infantry. If Washington had moved around Howard's flank he would immediately
have been tempted to assault the fleeing infantry to prevent their escaping;
and this of course, would have exposed him to an attack by Tarleton's
entire cavalry from his rear. A sweep around Pickens' flank, on the
other hand, was meant to neutralize the enemy cavalry threat, not that of
McArthur's Highlanders, who were greatly outnumbered by Pickens' militia posted
on higher ground. Once the enemy cavalry were defeated, the infantry could be
forced to surrender with little trouble.
Once the Legion Cavalry had been repulsed, the American cavalry easily
reached a blocking position to the rear of the fleeing infantry of Major
Newmarsh. Initially, they may have tried to avoid the Royal Artillery, but it
was soon discovered that the two pieces were being drawn off by drag ropes and
posed no threat. With their own men surrendering in front or fleeing past them
into the waiting sabers of the American cavalry, the artillery could not fire
canister for fear of hitting their own troops.
4. The capture of Newmarsh's infantry and attack on Tarleton's suite:
Most of the soldiers of the Legion Infantry, the light companies, and the
7th Royal Fusiliers probably surrendered within 200 yards from where Howard
launched his counterattack. Washington's troopers formed a chain through which
it was almost impossible to escape. Those that did not immediately surrender
and tried to break through were quickly cut down or forced to submit.
By the time Tarleton was able to lead his staff and the 17th Light Dragoons
forward, it was too late to rescue the desperate Royal Artillerymen much less
McArthur's Highlanders. They were charged piecemeal by a part, then gradually
all of Washington's horse. They had no choice but to save themselves by flight.
There is more detail on this in the section on the British cavalry.
BRITISH STRENGTH AND DISPOSITIONS AT THE
Determining the strengths of the various British units at the Cowpens is
made much easier as a result of the existence of several key documented sources
that we lack when trying to determine the American order of battle. General
Morgan's sources as to the enemy's strength undoubtedly came from captured
It is stated that Tarleton had 1150 British troops (must be rank & file)
and 50 militia (loyalist r & f). Deducting these militia and 63 British
that comprised the baggage guard (approx 10 % of force) yields the 1,037 rank
and file that British officers admitted were in the battle. Another figure that
must also have come from P.O.W.'s was that of Tarleton's cavalry which Morgan
says was 337 strong in his letter of 26 January, 1781, to William Snickers.
Subtracting the cavalry from the total gives 700 infantry.
British official returns from the 1st and l5th of December, 1780, and
especially the 1st of January, 1781, give us a basic cadre strength for each
unit to which slight adjustments must be made in order to make the total equal
700 rank and file. These adjustments are an assumed return to the ranks of some
recovered sick and some men on command. For infantry units a deduction must be
made for the baggage guard. The results are summarized in the chart on the next
Tarleton's main line of battle consisted of three small battalions, each of
four companies. On the right was the light infantry battalion made up of the
light company of the 16th Regiment of Foot, two light companies from the 71st
Regiment, and the light company of the Prince of Wales American Regiment. The
former commander of the battalion, Captain Duncan Campbell, having been killed
at Fishing Creek the previous August, the command may have devolved upon an
officer of the British Legion Infantry, perhaps Captain James McDonald (?).
The center was held by four companies of the Legion Infantry under the
senior captain Charles Stewart. A three-pounder "grasshopper" was on
On the left of the line was Major Timothy Newmarsh's 7th Royal Fusiliers.
The 7th had been hit hard by sickness with nearly one hundred men still in
hospitals at the start of the campaign; the majority of the men with Newmarsh
were recruits and there was a serious shortage of senior company officers to
assist the major. Presumedly, Major Newmarsh commanded the entire line. The
acting C.O. of the 7th is unknown at this time.
ESTIMATE OF THE BRITISH FORCES AT THE BATTLE OF
||rank & file
|Lt Nettles' Troop
|Lt Coy - 16th Foot
|Lt Coy - 71st Foot
|Lt Coy - Prince of Wales
|British Legion Inf
|7th Rgt of Foot
|1/71st Rgt of Foot
|Royal Art Detach
|Capt Ogilvie's Troop
|British Legion Cav
Protecting the flanks of the infantry were two troops of dragoons,
probably fighting dismounted so as to augment the firepower of the infantry. On
the right was a troop that I have assumed, rightly or wrongly, consisted
primarily of a weakened troop of the 17th Light Dragoons supplemented by an
even weaker troop under Captain Francis Gildart. I feel that Lieutenant Harry
Nettles was the actual commander of the "combined troop" because his
commission as a lieutenant in the Royal Army was superior to a captaincy in the
Provincial auxiliaries. On the left flank would have been Captain David
Ogilvie's troop of Legion dragoons, also in dismounted skirmish order.
Several hundred yards in the rear, drawn up in open battalion column by
companies, was the 1st Battalion/71st Regiment under Major Archibald McArthur.
To their right, drawn up in the Green River Road, was the British Legion
Cavalry reserve under senior captain, Richard Hovenden. They were probably in
open column by sub-divisions (approx. 6 trooper frontage), one troop behind the
other. Troop commanders seem to have been Captains Jacob James, Thomas
Sandford, and Nathaniel Vernon, Jr. The acting C.O. of Hovenden's Troop would
have been Lieutenant Samuel Chapman.
Tarleton's battle plan was straightforward. Eliminate the enemy skirmish
line with minimal casualties (which he did). Push back the militia line with
firepower and bayonets while threatening them with small flanking dragoon
units. Attack and defeat Morgan's regulars with superior firepower from his
longer infantry line and especially his artillery. With the enemy infantry
defeated, the massive cavalry reserve would sweep around their rear, cut down
any militia trying to rally, and surround the Continentals, forcing them to
THE DISPOSITION OF THE AMERICAN ARMY
The dispositions of Morgan's forces at the Cowpens has been lauded by all
scholars as being ingenious and novel. This may be true as applied to American
practice in the War for Independence, but the principal of defense in depth and
the use of skirmishers were well known in Europe during the eighteenth century.
Even Morgan's use of less experienced troops in the front lines was not without
precedence in European and American history. Just five weeks before Cowpens at
the Battle of Long Canes Lieut. Colonel Issac Allen had his front line loyalist
militia fall back through his second line provincial regulars, rally in their
rear, then move back up on both wings to defeat Elijah Clarke's Georgians.
Lieut. Colonel James McCall, an experienced guerilla leader, was present at
this defeat on 11 December, 1780. He could well have described Allen's tactic
to Morgan who used it at Cowpens.
General Morgan's dispositions are subject to much confusion, therefore
educated speculation must be the final arbitrator. As regards the South
Carolina militia, some two dozen "captains" are mentioned as being in
the battle. These officers are named in abstracts of numerous pensioners who
wrote or made statements regarding their wartime service decades after the
war's conclusion. Foggy memory may have ascribed higher ranks to many of these
officers than was the case. Excess captains may have performed the duties of
lieutenants with senior captains actually commanding consolidated companies.
Some captains may have taken charge of the skirmish line or been posted to the
fall back position behind Howard's regulars. Others may have been on command
trying to bring in stragglers or more volunteers.
The names of several of the North Carolina militia captains are known,
particularly those from Burke County, although Lincoln County may be
underrepresented. Georgia presents no special problems but Virginia seems to
have an excess. Given the low numbers of militia contributed by each state,
tactical groupings of three to six companies would be the norm.
Morgan's first line skirmishers, some 120 rank and file, were commanded by
Major Joseph McDowell of North Carolina and Major John Cunningham of Georgia
according to General Morgan. Although it might seem somewhat foolhardy to
challenge Morgan's statement, it seems a little strange to place the senior
leaders of the Georgians and North Carolinians in a skirmish line. More likely
candidates would be Major James Jackson (Ga.) and McDowell's cousin, Captain
Joseph McDowell ("Pleasant Garden Joe"). Another challengeable
statement is that all the skirmishers were from Georgia or North Carolina.
Surley, this was not the case. South Carolinians, some 130 strong, made up 36
percent of Pickens' militia infantry force. They were as skilled with the rifle
as their neighbors and had seen much action. It seems reasonable to assume that
one out of three men would have been sent forward as skirmishers. This was a
normal practice of Prussian line regiments later in the century. Major Joseph
McJunkin's account of the battle indicates that he and Lieut. Colonel William
Farr were posted to the skirmish line as "volunteer sharpshooters"
(no command ?). Both were South Carolinians!
The South Carolina militia held the posts of honor on both flanks of
Pickens' line which covered a front somewhat greater than that of Howard's men,
perhaps 400 to 500 yards in breadth. Obviously, there were wide gaps between
companies, but this made it easier for skirmishers falling back to identify
their own units. The right flank South Carolinians were probably commanded by
Colonel John Thomas, assisted by Lieut. Colonel James Steen. We can speculate
that the senior company officers were Captains Thomas Brandon, John Thompson,
and Benjamin Roebuck. The South Carolinians on the left were apparently led by
Lieut. Colonel Joseph Hayes, seconded by Major Samuel Hammond in the absence of
Lieut. Colonel James McCall, who was leading one of the volunteer mounted
militia companies with Washington's cavalry. The company commanders are
somewhat of a mystery, but the most likely candidates are Captains Robert
Anderson, James Dillard, and John Cowan.
Hammond's and Morgan's accounts, our principal sources, differ somewhat on
the placement of the Georgians and North Carolinians. As it was customary to
give the southernmost state the position of honor, Hammond is probably correct
in stating that Major John Cunningham's Georgians were to the left of Thomas's
South Carolina troops. Major James Jackson was second in command. To the best
of our knowledge the company Captains were Joshua Inman, George Walton, and a
Captain Price and Donnolly (the latter from Hammond's account). Next in line
were the North Carolinians under Major Joseph McDowell. Company officers were
Captains Alexander Ervin, Mordecai Clark, and George Walker from Burke County.
Lincoln County may have been represented by several units. Captain James White
is one likely candidate according to historian William Draper.
Morgan's third line - his main line of resistance - was placed
approximately 200 yards in front of one of the highest point of the battlefield
(297 meters) on the Green River Road. Lieut. Colonel John Eager Howard's
Continental Light Infantry battalion was drawn up two ranks deep and apparently
in open files, thus yielding a front of just under 200 yards. A knoll on the
right flank facilitated the posting of the Virginia militia, most of whom were
riflemen. This high ground is the best argument for believing that all 140
Virginians were on the right. The earliest advocate of this theory was Edward
Carrington. In light of both Morgan's and Hammond's testimony, however, the
odds would seem to favor the posting of the Virginians on both flanks. Samuel
Hammond's account and maps are somewhat confusing, but it may be inferred that
the Virginians were angled slightly in advance of the regulars so as to give
more support to the forward militia. The Marquis de Chastellux indicates this
when he states that the Virginians were drawn up "en tenaille."
If Morgan and Hammond agree that the Virginians were on either flanks of
the Continentals, they disagree on the posting of the units on these wings.
Major Francis Triplett of Fauquier County was the commander of the battalion.
As such, he and his company would normally be positioned on the right flank,
the post of honor (Morgan says the left flank). Captain David Beattie's
Washington County riflemen may have been on this wing. Captain Robert Craven's
Rockingham County rifles are listed as being the third company from the right
in the pension abstract of Christian Peters. The left wing was commanded by
Captain James Tate of Augusta County. With his unit was another one from
Augusta, Captain Patrick Buchanan's. Captain James Gilmore was also present
with his Rockbridge County militia, armed principally with muskets despite
their appellation, "Gilmore Rifles."
Accounts of the battle are strangely silent on the tactical handling of
the Virginia militia. Assuming many of Triplett's and Tate's soldiers were
ex-Continentals and carried muskets for the most part, they may have been
ordered to close in on Howard's flanks to bolster his firepower against
opposing infantry. Their initial "echeloned" and open formation would
have exposed then to certain defeat if attacked by strong cavalry.
What probably happened, although I cannot prove it, is that the Virginians
were swept away by the panic of Pickens' scattered fugitives. All the militia
tried to rally two hundred yard. so behind Howard in accordance with the battle
plan, but only the Virginians held fast when Lieutenant Nettle's troop of
dragoons attacked the rallying force. Morgan may have ordered them to shift to
the exposed left flank to dissuade the enemy dragoons with a couple of vollies.
They performed their duty, but the enemy horse veered off and continued their
plunge into the American rear before being chased away by Washington's cavalry.
As General Morgan rode to the rear to help rally Pickens' men, I believe he
ordered the Virginians to hold their ground as a mobile reserve that could move
to assist Howard should fresh cavalry attack his right or come at him from the
rear. When Captain Ogilvie attacked some 15-20 minutes later, Triplett and Tate
only had to shift a short distance to the west to protect Howard's right, then
form a line facing the rear to prevent Ogilvie from attacking Howard's rear.
When Howard's Continentals made their final withdrawal towards the copse
of pines and the knoll some 250 yards behind the position to which they had
first been pushed, the Virginians were already close to the intended position.
Morgan only had to order them to fall back and circle around the knoll so as to
take position on Howard's left flank along with several companies of Pickens'
troops. Morgan was already deploying the rest of Pickens' militia at the
headwaters of Buck Creek to block the Highlanders' approach. Thus, Morgan's
final position consisted of two wings of militia with a wide gap in between
into which the Continentals were to take a position on falling back. I do not
know Howard Wilson's source or whether he was speculating when he described
Triplett's movement, but it makes sense: "Triplett's Virginians had been
ordered to swing around the side of the hill to meet the advance of the now
longer British line."
THE STRENGTH OF MORGAN'S AMERICAN ARMY
The numbers vary for Morgan's forces at the Cowpens from 800, given by
Morgan in his battle report, to 1,200 men in Henry Lee's "Memoirs."
We are not told whether force estimates are expressed in rank and file totals
(privates & corporals only) or all ranks (r & f & non-coms, music,
field officers). This author prefers to work with rank and file strengths - the
true fire power potential of a unit - as the rest of a unit either had no
missile weapons or did not fire them if they did (eg. sergeants).
The heart and soul of the American army was its Continental Light Infantry
battalion, its battalion of Virginia militia (many ex-Continentals armed with
muskets), and one squadron of light dragoons. There does not seem to be a
controversy as to their numbers so we should be fairly accurate in our
Morgan was entrusted with 320 Continentals and 200 Virginia militia at the
commencement of the Cowpens campaign in mid December, 1780. Given the normal
wastage of troops on campaign from sickness, desertion, and detachment, it is
reasonable to assume that Morgan had only 290 Continental rank and file at the
Cowpens on 17 January, 1781, and 140 Virginians. A mysterious Major Rose is
mentioned by Otho H. Williams as being attached to Morgan's Light Brigade.
There is no hint that he and his 60 riflemen fought at the Cowpens, but he was
with Morgan again during the final stage of the retreat through North Carolina.
He was probably either left behind at Charlotte when Morgan marched out or
detached by Morgan to escort the loyalist P.O.W. captured at Hammond's
Storehouse to Charlotte. This Major Rose was probably Alexander Rose of Amherst
Lieutenant Colonel William Washington's Light Dragoons only consisted of
two understrength troops instead of the six full troops in a normal regiment.
One troop probably contained the survivors of the lst Continental Light
Dragoons. The other troop were the survivors of the 3rd Regiment. Based upon
Morgan's battle report of 19 January and a field return of 10 February, 1781,
Washington's cavalry would have numbered 80 rank and file.
The North and South Carolina militia, and those from Georgia, present us
with our biggest problem as to the size of Morgan's army. It is hard to trust
any one source. Morgan's letter of 15 January, two days before the battle, says
that he has only 140 North Carolinians and 200 from South Carolina and Georgia.
But not all the militia were present. Colonel Pickens had the equivalent of
several companies watching the movements of Tarleton along the Pacolet River.
Morgan contradicts himself in a letter to General Horatio Gates on the 26th. He
says his militia to the south of Virginia numbered about 5OO men.
The Continental Congress officially set Morgan's army at 870 men; 317
regular cavalry and infantry, and 553 militia. The figures for the regulars is
an obvious mistake. A transcriber probably made an error in reversing the seven
and the one. Assuming the 553 figure is for rank and file and is correct, we
can deduce the number of men in Pickens' second line. Trusting that 1) the
first line consisted of 120 skirmishers, 2) the volunteer militia cavalry under
Majors McCall and Jolly (both S.C.) numbered 40 troopers, and, 3) the Virginia
militia were 140 rank and file, we are left with 253 Georgian, and North and
South Carolinians in Pickens' second line. This figure is in accordance with
Carrington's estimate of 250 and close to Judge William Johnson's 270 men. The
above figures yield a total of 923 rank and file for the army.
Breaking down the militia by states is even more complicated. The militia
to the south of Virginia all arrived at Morgan's Grindal Shoals campground in
the days immediately following Christmas, 1780. Thereafter, their number would
only decrease through sickness, desertion, and detachments. Although subject to
a great deal of confusion, apparently the first units to join were the
Georgians under Major Cunningham (approx. 110 r & f) and Major McCall's
Long Canes militia (one company of 20 r & f).
Perhaps the next day Major Joseph McDowell's Burke County volunteers from
North Carolina trotted into camp. Judge Schenck lists this command as 190 men
and added to the 120 Lincoln County militia that General Davidson brought in on
the 28th/29th, would have given 310 North Carolina troops. These figures may
have been misunderstood by Schenck in his effort to ascribe greater glory to
the Tar Heel State. It is very unlikely that Burke County furnished 190 militia
given the Indian insurrections that were breaking out. Seventy would seem more
appropriate, and when added to the Lincoln men would give 190 which would fall
to 140 at the time of the battle. Furthermore, Schenck underestimates the
Georgians, giving them only 55 men in the battle.
Dr. Robert Bass insists that Pickens' main body of militia from Long Canes
(perhaps 75 r & f) arrived at Morgan's camp on the last of December.
Pickens was thrown forward some ten miles to the Fair Forest settlement in
order to cover the Hammond's Storehouse expedition. Here he was probably
reinforced with Captain Thomas Brandon's Spartanburg District troops and those
from the Fair Forest area under Colonel John Thomas, Jr. Other small units came
into camp. It would seem reasonable to conclude that South Carolina provided at
least 170 rank and file at the Cowpens, of whom 130 were infantry and 40 were
There are no known precise returns of British or American casualties at
the Cowpens. As can be seen in the chart below, there are quite a few estimates
and the subject is made more complicated because we do not know if we are
dealing in total casualties or just rank and file. Tarleton's figure of 300
British casualties probably includes all officer ranks and is general agreement
with Morgan's estimate of 310 total casualties. However, the usual figure of
100 British killed seems a little on the high side, even when allowing for
officers, non-coms, and musicians. The typical killed to wounded ratio applied
to eighteen century warfare is 1 to 3.5. Short but bloody little engagements
like the Cowpens could effect this ratio. A ratio of 1 to 2.75 would seem to be
reasonable. Most of the casualties were in the infantry as relatively few
cavalry (two troops) were engaged. My estimates of British casualties are
summarized in the second chart and are fairly conservative. Tarleton lost
approximately 140 cavalry rankers in the campaign, perhaps some one third of
these deserting and quietly returning to their homes. Nearly 100 troopers were
swept up by the victorious Americans in an effective pursuit.
American casualties are usually given as 12 killed and 60 wounded. But
this is for the Continental Light Infantry only. Assuming these figures include
all ranks, some 20 percent of the regulars were casualties. Pension abstracts
for the South Carolinians in the battle indicate that 5 were killed and 26 were
wounded (31 out of approx. 208 or 15%). Hugh McCall in his History of
Georgia, vol 2 (p. 359) states that 3 Georgians were killed and 5 wounded
(approx. 7% of all ranks). assuming the North Carolinians and Virginians lost
15 percent, a total of 100 militia casualties would be added to the usual
BRITISH CASUALTIES FROM VARIOUS SOURCES
|| KILLED OFF MEN
|| WOUNDED OFF MEN
|| TOTAL CASUALTIES
||PRISONERS OFF MEN
|| TOTAL LOSSES
|CORN- WALIS I
|CORN- WALIS II
ESTIMATE OF BRITISH CASUALTIES
*** INFANTRY AND ARTILLERY ***
||TOTAL IN BATTLE
*** CAVALRY ***
||TOTAL IN BATTLE
|MISSING OR CAPTURED
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UNITS SHOWN ON TROOP DISPOSITION MAPS
Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton's British Army:
1. Right Wing Light Dragoon Troop (Lieut. Harry Nettles' Troop (?) of 17th
L.D. plus attached understrength troop of Capt. Francis Gildart (?) from
2. Light Infantry Companies (4 companies perhaps commanded by Capt. James
3. British Legion Infantry (4 companies under Capt. Charles Stewart)
4. 7th Regiment of Foot (Major Timothy Newmarsh - also C.O. of infantry
5. Left Wing Light Dragoon Troop (Capt. David Ogilvie of British Legion)
6. 1/71st Regiment of Foot (Major Arthur McArthur)
7. British Legion Cavalry Reserve (4 troops commanded by Capt. Richard
+ Royal Artillery pieces (5 pounders)
Brigadier General Daniel Morgan's American Army:
A. Continental Light Infantry Battalion (Lieut. Colonel John Eager Howard)
B. Virginia Militia (Major Francis Triplett)
C. Virginia Militia (Capt. James Tate)
D. 3rd Continental Light Dragoons (Lieut. Colonel William Washington) and
South Carolina Volunteer Horse (Lieut. Colonel James McCall)
E. South Carolina Militia (Colonel John Thomas)
F. Georgia Militia (Major John Cunningham)
G. North Carolina Militia (Major Joseph McDowell)
H. South Carolina Militia (Lieut. Colonel Joseph Hayes)
I. Skirmish Line Riflemen (Major James Jackson (?) and Capt. Joseph