Friday, January 30, 2009

Alexander Chesney's Rivulet

[Minor edits 12/28/09]

One of the few British accounts of the battle of Cowpens was provided by the Loyalist Alexander Chesney. In his Journal, he wrote:

"I rode to my father's who said Morgan was gone to the Old-fields about an hour before; my wife said the same and that they had used or destroyed my crop & took away almost every thing. I immediately returned to Col Tarleton and found he had marched towards the Old fields. I overtook them before 10 oclock near the Cowpens on Thickety Creek where we suffered a total defeat by some dreadful bad management. The Americans were posted behind a rivulet with Rifle-men as a front line and Cavarly in the rear so as to make a third line; Col Tarleton charged at the head of his Regiment of Cavalry called the British Legion which was filled up from the prisoners taken at the battle of Camden; the Cavalry supported by a detachment of the 71st Regt under Major McArthur broke the Riflemen without difficulty, but the prisoners on seeing their own Regt opposed to them in the rear would not proceed against it and broke: the remainder charged but were repulsed this gave time to the front line to rally and form in the rear of their Cavalry which immediately charged and broke the 71st (then unsupported) making many prisoners: the rout was almost total. I was with Tarleton in the charge who behaved bravely but imprudently the consequence was his force disperced in all directions the guns and many prisoners fell into the hands of the Americans."

A curious feature of this account is the statement that, "The Americans were posted behind a rivulet," that is a small stream. An examination of the battlefield shows that there is no such stream interposing between the American and British initial positions. Chesney's account suggests that during the battle he was on the left side of the British line, and more specifically, with Tarleton's dragoon reserve. Lawrence Babits in A Devil of a Whipping pointed out that there is an area of low ground near the Green River Road on the left side of the battlefield, and he suggested that "After winter rains, this low ground was probably a near bog at the time of the battle" (p 63). Boggy ground and a small stream would not seem to be the same thing, but Babits' suggestion is nevertheless appealing. Chesney is considered to be a reliable source, and an explanation along these lines seems preferable to ignoring his statement. Given all the tumult, the large numbers of men about him, and perhaps also that his group was moving with some speed, it's not unreasonable that Chesney's remembrance would be less than perfect. Also possible is that the terrain has changed somewhat since the time of the battlefield.

The American Deployment at Cowpens. "Rivulets" exist on the flanks of the American army, but not in front. 1 = Continental Light Dragoons, 2 = Mounted Militia, 3 = Right Wing of the Main Line, 4 = Continental Infantry, 5 = Left Wing of the Main Line, 6 = Right Wing of the Militia Line, 7 = Left Wing of the Militia Line, 8 = Skirmishers.

Possible Location of Alexander's Chesney's Rivulet. The medium blue line in the bottom half of the map shows the approximate path of Chesney's rivulet, as based on Babits' maps and erosion patterns visible in the topography. (Contour lines are at 20-foot intervals; a more detailed topographic map may suggest a different path).

Chesney indicated that the Americans were posted behind this rivulet. Technically, the map shows this, but Chesney's account implies that the Americans would have been closer to this terrain feature than the map indicates. However, it is again plausible that Chesney was in error and his statement about the Americans being formed behind this barrier may have been no more than supposition on his part. Chesney's statement that he met up with the British "before 10 oclock" may mean that he may have missed the beginning of the battle, as other accounts place the start of the battle considerably earlier (e.g., "about sunrise," according to Brigadier-General Daniel Morgan, and "before one hour of daylight had passed," according to Lieutenant Roderick Mackenzie). In any case, no American account mentions this rivulet and from this it can be inferred that it did not play a role in the Americans' defensive plans.

Babits took Chesney's statement fairly literally. Specifically, he placed the American skirmish line a little more than 100 yards behind the rivulet. This too may seem to be stretching the definition of "behind," but at least the advancing British would have been well within the range of the Americans' rifles at that juncture.

In my view, this interpretation causes two problems.

First, this interpretation does not wholly jibe with Chesney's statement. Chesney did not describe the existence of a separate American skirmish line. His "riflemen" is the American militia line (the regulars, which are not mentioned, are the second line and the "Cavarly in the rear" are explicitly called "a third line"). All writers agree that the militia line was not posted in the supposed vicinity of Chesney's rivulet.

Second, participant accounts indicate that the main line, the militia line, and the skirmishers were spaced at 150 yard intervals (some put the distance at 200 yards). If the skirmishers were near the rivulet, then the militia and main lines must be placed in advance of the positions usually ascribed to them.


The Journal of Alexander Chesney.

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

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

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