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 surrender.

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.


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.


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.


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 flight."

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 their ranks.

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 the ground.

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.


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 move out.

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.


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 an eventuality.

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 most accounts.

Late in his life JAMES P. COLLINS related his experiences in the battle as a teenager:
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 from it.

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 running!

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' troop.

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 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 Ogilvie.

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 reformed.
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 been encountered.

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.


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 P.O.W.'s.
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 page.
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 each flank.

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.


maj capt lt ensign adjutants qt masters surgeons mates sergeants drummers rank & file baggage guard net rank
& file
net infantry net cavalry
Lt Nettles' Troop 1 1 1 2 1 49 49 49
Lt Coy - 16th Foot 1 7 2 43 3 40 40
Lt Coy - 71st Foot 1 1 7 2 72 4 68 68
Lt Coy - Prince of Wales 1 1 9 5 37 3 34 34
British Legion Inf 4 3 3 10 8 160 15 145 145
7th Rgt of Foot 1 2 6 1 1 1 13 10 180 16 164 164
1/71st Rgt of Foot 1 2 6 7 1 1 1 25 8 255 22 233 233
Royal Art Detach 1 16 16 16
Capt Ogilvie's Troop 1 1 1 3 1 49 49 49
British Legion Cav 3 5 5 2 4 1 17 7 239 239 239
Totals 2 1 2 2 3 7 2 2 9 4 1 1 7 3
Baggage Guard -1 -4 -2 63
Net Totals 2 12 23 20 3 7 2 2 90 42 1100 1037 700 337

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 surrender.


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 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 estimates.

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 County, Virginia.

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 volunteer cavalry.


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 seventy-two.


TARLETON 300 400 700
MORGAN 10 100 200 310 27 500 837
GREENE 150 200 350 30 500+ 880+
GRAHAM 10 70 150 230 27 600 857
CARRING- TON 129 600 729
LEE 10 90 100 23 500 623
CLARK 10 200 3 150 363 25 502 890
WARD 39 61 229 329 600 929



KILLED 5 4 1 67=77 43 68 33 700
WOU DED 16 10 1 185=212
CAPTURED 22 54 31 448=555

*** CAVALRY ***

KILLED 1 1 5=7 26 22 9 337
WOUNDED 2 1 14=17


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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 British Legion)

2. Light Infantry Companies (4 companies perhaps commanded by Capt. James McDonald)

3. British Legion Infantry (4 companies under Capt. Charles Stewart)

4. 7th Regiment of Foot (Major Timothy Newmarsh - also C.O. of infantry line)

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 Hovenden)

+ 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 McDowell (?))