Friday, January 23, 2009

The Main Line at Cowpens: The Right Wing Collapses

[Minor edits 12/28/09]

In my last post I reviewed the statements of Private Robert Long of the South Carolina militia. Long's statements place him on the right wing of the main line. His statements also indicate that this wing of militia fled shortly after the militia line retreated.

Historians have not recognized an incident of this kind occurring. However, Robert Long is not alone in indicating that such a collapse of the right wing of the main line occurred.

Captain Henry Connelly, who commanded a company of North Carolina state troops wrote that:

"The company which belonged to this applicant was placed under Col Howard, on the extreme right of the division, and this applicant commanded a company in the center. Our company, when just about to catch up our horses which were hid about four hundred paces in the rear of the line of battle, [was attacked by the enemy which] fell upon us with great fury, but we were fortunately relieved by Washington's Legion that hastened to our assistance."

Connelly first places his company on the right wing of the main line ("under Col Howard"), then indicates that his men broke and were overtaken by the British cavalry while in flight. This experience matches those of units in the militia line, but not that of Howard's Continentals or Triplett's Virginians (at least those on the left wing).

British accounts do not describe the right wing of the main line, much less its rout during the battle, but this omission is less significant than it seems. The few extant British accounts of Cowpens are vague in their description of how the Americans were deployed. However, British participants did describe an attack against the main line that can easily be interpreted as breaking the right wing of that line.

Lieutenant Roderick Mackenzie claimed that “the second [American] line, now attacked, made a stout resistance. Captain Ogilvie, with his troop, which did not exceed forty men, was ordered to charge the right flank of the enemy. He cut his way through their line, but, exposed to a heavy fire, and charged at the same time by the whole of Washington's dragoons, was compelled to retreat in confusion.”

Loyalist Alexander Chesney recorded in his journal that “the British Legion… supported by a detachment of the 71st Regt under Major McArthur broke the Riflemen without difficulty.” In other words, Ogilvie's dragoons attacked the American right flank, cut through their line, and broke them without difficulty. This occurred at the same time that the 1st battalion of the 71st Foot was advancing against the right side of the American main line.

The collapse of the right wing, as suggested by the accounts of Long, Connelly, Mackenzie, and Chesney, can be understood as an important event in setting the stage for the climax of the battle. In the words of Lieutenant-Colonel John Eager Howard:

"[When the British] formed their line they shouted and made a great noise to intimidate, and rushed with bayonets upon the militia who had not time, especially the riflemen to fire a second time. The militia fell into our rear, and part of them fell into the rear of my right flank where they afterwards renewed the action. The british advanced until my regiment commence firing. I soon observed, as I had but about 350 men and the british about 800, that their line extended much further than mine particularly on my right, where they were pressing forward to gain my flank.--To protect that flank, I ordered the company on my right to change its front so as to oppose the enemy on that flank. Whether my orders were not well understood or whether it proceeded from any other cause, in attempting this movement some disorder ensued in this company which rather fell back than faced as I wished them."

Howard did not explicitly describe a collapse of the right wing of the main line. However, a comparison of Howard's account with William Johnson’s history does implicitly indicate he believed that there was a cavalry attack against the militia on his right. Also, the statement that the British "line extended much further than mine particularly on my right," is consistent with his having lost the covering force on his right flank. The loss of this force also helps explain why he felt compelled to refuse his right.

Crisis at Cowpens. Only Howard's Continentals (#4) and Triplett's Virginians (#5) remain in line to stem the British attack. Howard has begun to refuse his right flank (triggering the accidental retreat of the Continental infantry). Scattered elements of the right wing of the main line (#3), and the right (#6) and left (#7) wings of the militia line are attempting to reform in the rear. The militia are protected by the American cavalry (#1 and #2).

An interesting aside is that when accounts of the battle are compared, the only officers mentioned as commanding several militia units on the main line are Major Francis Triplett of Virginia and Colonel Andrew Pickens of South Carolina. Howard pointed out that Triplett commanded on his left. Pickens commanded the front-line militia. If Triplett remained throughout the battle on the left wing of the main line then perhaps no one had overall command of the various units on the right wing. Perhaps this lack of command and control was responsible for the initial incorrect deployment of Hayes' regiment (see The Statements of Private Robert Long) and was also a contributing factor in the collapse of the right wing.


Will Graves transcribed the pension application of Henry Connelly (.pdf).

See The Statements of Private Robert Long for a transcription of his statements.

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

The Journal of Alexander Chesney.

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