Saturday, February 28, 2009

Fitting Large Numbers on the Militia Line

This is the last in a series of posts defending the view that a relatively small number of Americans fought at Cowpens.

The militia line, according to Lawrence Babits in A Devil of a Whipping consisted of four South Carolina militia regiments commanded by Brandon, Hayes, Roebuck, and Thomas. (I previously presented an alternative scheme). Babits noted (p. 36) that there were 5 battalions in these 4 regiments, and that each battalion had 120-250 men. This means, by extension, that the militia line had between 600 and 1,250 men. Elsewhere (p. 189, n. 11) he said that the 4 regiments had 150-200 men each, which means that the militia line had between 600 and 800 men.

In his maps depicting the militia line, each of the 4 regiments (including Brandon's two-battalion regiment) is shown as having a length of 190 feet. If there were 600 men in the 4 regiments, then each man in the ranks would have occupied 1.27 feet of frontage (190 feet / 150 men per regiment). If there were 800 men in the 4 regiments, then the number falls to .95 feet. These numbers do not make allowances for spacing between companies or the presence of trees.

I previously commented on open-order and closed-order formations and produced the estimate that soldiers standing in open order would occupy something like 42 inches, or 3.5 feet (see Modeling Notes). Soldiers standing in close order would occupy something like 33 inches, or 2.75 feet. However, this applies only to a single rank. If the soldiers were standing in two ranks, then each soldier occupies, in a sense, 1.75 feet in open order, and 1.38 feet in close order. Both values are well above the space allotment indicated by Babits' diagrams.

Two Versions of the American Deployment (click to enlarge). My interpretation appears on the left, and is as described above. Babits' interpretation appears on the right; the positioning of the units per his account is approximate. On the right, 1 = American Cavalry; 2 = Main Line; 3 = Militia Line; 4 = Skirmish Line. The two accounts also differ in terms of the location of the Green River Road. The road in my version follows Bearss and is shown in brown. Babits showed the Green River Road following a different course, which I have partially sketched out in black on the right panel.

In my order of battle, I have approximately 315 men on the American militia line (see Cowpens in Miniature 3). Babits not only placed many more men on the militia line, but he placed them in a smaller area. On his maps, the right end of the American line is bounded by a shallow "ravine." This feature does not appear on my topographic map, which is not a reason per se to discount its value as a military barrier. However, other writers well familiarized with the battlefield, namely John Moncure (map) and Edwin Bearss (map), did not indicate a barrier to troop movement in this area.

If Babits had ignored the ravine and gave more room for his large number of militia, then of course, the militia would not be so closely pressed together. However, even if Babits' militia line were spread out across the distance shown in my diagram or the distances covered in the Moncure and Bearss maps, the problem created by such hypothesized large numbers of militiamen might not be entirely eliminated. A moderately wider deployment might allow his numbers of militia to have been deployed in open-order, but it would still have been necessary for the militia to have been deployed in two ranks. Private William Neel of Virginia claimed that the Virginia militia were deployed in one rank (see transcribed statement on John Moncure's website). It's not unlikely that the South Carolinians were deployed in a comparable manner.

Related: Introduction, How Many Fought at Cowpens?, Morgan and Seymour

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Morgan and Seymour

This is the fourth in a series of posts defending the view that a relatively small number of Americans fought at Cowpens.

There are only a few participant accounts of the battle of Cowpens that were written around the time that the battle was fought. Brigadier-General Daniel Morgan's after action report was written two days after the battle. Lieutenant Thomas Anderson and Sergeant William Seymour of the Delaware company serving at the battle maintained journals, so too did the Loyalist Alexander Chesney. Of these, Morgan and Seymour mentioned the number of Americans serving at the battle. Both stated that the American force was around 800 men. One of the challenges that Lawrence Babits faced in arguing in A Devil of a Whipping that the American force was much larger than has been usually claimed was addressing Morgan's and Seymour's relatively small estimates.


Babits pointed out that Morgan may have had cause to be deceptive in his public description of American strength at Cowpens. By suggesting that the number of militia was relatively small, the continentals would be seen as having played an especially important role in the victory. Leaving aside Morgan's intentions, which of course are difficult to explore, it at least can be pointed out that what Morgan said in his public report did not differ from what he said in his private correspondence. Two days before the battle, Morgan wrote to Major-General Nathanael Greene asking that his detachment be recalled from western South Carolina because it was too small to fight off whatever detachment the British might send against it:

“Upon a full and mature deliberation, I am confirmed in the opinion that nothing can be effected by my detachment in this country which will balance the risks I will be subjected to by remaining here. The enemy's great superiority of numbers and our distance from the main army, will enable Lord Cornwallis to detach so superior a force against me, as to render it essential to our safety to avoid coming to action; nor will this always be in my power. No attempt to surprise me will be left untried by them, and situated as we must be, every possible precaution may hot be sufficient to secure us. The scarcity of forage makes it impossible for us to be always in a compact body; and were this not the case, it is beyond the art of man to keep the militia from straggling. These reasons, induce me to request that I may be recalled with my detachment; and that General Davidson and Colonel Pickens may be left with the militia of North and South Carolina and Georgia. They will not be so much the object of the enemy's attention, and will be capable of being a check on the disaffected, which is all I can effect.”

Alternatively, it could be argued that Morgan might not have fully understand how many militiamen were with him. This argument cannot be taken too far, however, considering how effectively he used his forces in defeating the British. Furthermore, if Morgan was in error, then it stands to reason that his statement would have been corrected during or after the war by the commanders of the Southern militia. Instead, Governor John Rutledge, the commander-in-chief of the South Carolina militia wrote to Morgan of, "This total defeat of chosen Veteran British Troops by a number far inferior to theirs." Colonel Andrew Pickens, the commander of the militia line at Cowpens, corresponded after the war with Colonel Henry Lee. Lee published two histories of the Southern Campaign; in the first of these he mentioned Morgan's "inferiority in numbers." Pickens corresponded with him during this period, but rather than correct a misunderstanding, he wrote to Lee, "You know the particulars of the battle of the Cowpens."


I previously provided the text of Morgan's report. Below is the text from Seymour's journal relating to the battle of Cowpens. (You can find this online here and here).

"We lay on this ground [Morgan's camp on the Pacolet River] from the twenty-fifth December, 1780, till the fourteenth January, 1781, and then proceeded on our march farther up the river towards the iron works in order to frustrate the designs of the enemy who were coming round us, Colonel Tarleton on one side and Lord Cornwallis on the other. We encamped on the Cowpen plains on the evening of the sixteenth January, forty-two miles, being joined by some Georgia volunteers and South [Carolina] militia, to the number of between two and three hundred.

"Next day being the seventeenth January, we received intelligence a while before day, that Colonel Tarleton was advancing in our rear in order to give us battle, upon which we were drawn up in order of battle, the men seeming to be all in good spirits and very willing to fight. The militia were dismounted and were drawn up in front of the standing troops on the right and left banks, being advanced about two hundred yards. By this time the enemy advanced and attacked the militia in front, which they stood very well for some time till being overpowered by the superior number of enemy they retreated, but in very good order, not seeming to be the least bit confused. By this time the enemy advanced and attacked our light infantry with both cannon and small arms, where meeting with a very warm reception they then thought to surround our right flank, to prevent which Captain Kirkwood with his company wheeled to the right and attacked their left flank so vigorously that they were soon repulsed, our men advancing on them so very rapidly that they soon gave way. Our left flank advanced at the same time and repulsed their right flank, upon which they retreated off, leaving us entire masters of the field, our men pursuing them for the distance of twelve miles, insomuch that all their infantry was killed, wounded, and taken prisoners. This action commenced about seven o'clock in the morning and continued till late in the afternoon.

"In the action were killed of the enemy one hundred and ninty men, wounded one hundred and eighty, and taken prisoners one Major, thirteen Captains, fourteen Lieutenants, and nine Ensigns, and five hundred and fifty private men, with two field pieces and four standards of colours. Their heavy baggage would have shared the same fate, if Tarleton, who retreated with his cavalry, had not set fire to it, burning up twenty-six waggons. This victory on our side can be attributed to nothing else but Divine Providence, they having thirteen hundred in the field of their best troops, and we not eight hundred of standing troops and militia.

"The troops against us were the 7th or Royal English Fuzileers, First Battalion of the 71st, and the British Legion, horse and foot.

"The courage and conduct of the brave General Morgan in this action is highly commendable, as likewise Colonel Howard, who at all times of the action rode from right to left of the line encouraging the men; and indeed all the officers and men behaved with uncommon and undaunted bravery, but more especially the brave captain Kirkwood and his company, who did that day wonders, rushing on the enemy without either dread or fear, and being instrumental in taking a great number of prisoners.

"Our loss in the action were one Lieutenant wounded, and one Sergeant, and thirty-five killed and wounded, of which fourteen were of Captain Kirkwood's Company of the Delaware Regiment."

Seymour twice referred to the number of American combatants. The first statement is "on the evening of the sixteenth January... [we were] joined by some Georgia volunteers and South [Carolina] militia, to the number of between two and three hundred."

On the morning of January 16th, the regulars and the militia minus a few detachments were encamped together. That day they marched for the Cowpens. The regulars and militia, however, began their march at different times. Josiah Martin of McDowell's battalion wrote (see this .pdf) that "Early in the morning the regulars commenced march, the militia being on horseback started about 12 O'clock & overtook the regulars the evening before the battle of the Cowpens." No doubt what Seymour is describing is these horse-riding militiamen catching up with the regulars in the evening. The 200-300 militiamen he mentions as joining them that evening is therefore basically the entirety of the militia serving on the front line, plus some of those that were on the main line (at least in my version of events: see here, here, and here), and probably the greater part of the mounted militia. This estimate can be disputed (see How Many Fought at Cowpens?). It should be remembered that given his relative position with the army he may have had no better information than the estimate provided by his eyes and the camp rumors that reached his ears. Perhaps he had heard that the militia with them were from South Carolina and Georgia and he did not realize that some were also from North Carolina. Nevertheless, Babits ascribed to Seymour's statement a very specific meaning. According to Babits (p 177-178, n 28), these 200-300 men were "McCall's South Carolina Regiment... three Georgia companies under Major James Jackson... [and those of] Hayes' Little River Battalion not on rear guard." Claiming that Seymour's 200-300 men referred to a small portion of Morgan's total force is convenient to Babits' argument that Morgan's total force was large. However, this is one of the more implausible readings of Seymour's statement. Seymour's account was very concise; he mentioned only the major facts. Why would he pick out one small part of the American force, a part that he was not in, nor served near him during the battle, nor played a crucial role in the victory? Why would he describe only its strength and not that of other militia units?

The other statement by Seymour is that, "This victory on our side can be attributed to nothing else but Divine Providence, they having thirteen hundred in the field of their best troops, and we not eight hundred of standing troops and militia." Seymour mentions 800 men in the American force, just like Morgan did in his report.

Here is Babits on the meaning of Morgan's and Seymour's 800 (p 151), "Morgan claimed 800 men won against 'chosen' British troops... Morgan's 'regulars,' Continentals, and long-service Virginia militia, numbered about 600 men; 300 Continental infantry, 82 Continental dragoons, 160 Virginia militia under Triplett, and about 50 Virginia State Troops. This total does not include Carolina and Georgia militia, nor does it include state troops. On paper, at least, Morgan counted his 'regulars," and perhaps threw in another 200 men to allow for the militia."

In an upcoming post I will present my version of the American order of battle. When I do so I will argue that the continentals, long-service militia, dragoons, and Virginia state troops totaled about 535 men. If there were 800 men in total, this would leave 265 men unaccounted for -- about the midpoint of the 200-300 Georgian and Carolina militia that Seymour witnessed. If Morgan was in fact mistaken about militia totals, his error, like Seymour's, would seem to be on the order of an honest mistake rather than deliberate subterfuge.

Babits continued by saying, "Sergeant Major William Seymour of the Delaware Company validates this interpretation by stating explicitly that "we [had] not eight hundred of standing troops and militia." If Seymour meant 800 regulars ("standing troops") augmented by militia, then Morgan, Seymour, and Tarleton agree. Eliminating the militia made the victory seem more important because American regulars won the battle."

Read in context, Seymour's statement does not validate this interpretation but indicates quite the opposite. He is comparing one total force to another, and he emphasizes the weakness of the American force by indicating not only that was it smaller in size but also that it was partially comprised of militia. It cannot be credibly argued that Seymour used his journal (which was first published long after his death) to mislead the public about the contribution of the Continentals to the victory at Cowpens. Rather, Seymour surely believed the same thing that Morgan, Greene, Pickens, Rutledge, Colonel Otho Williams, and the United States Congress believed (see the passages described in this post as well as the statements quoted above) -- that Morgan's army was substantially outnumbered by Tarleton's command.

Related: Introduction, Problems with Pensions, Veteran Survival, Little River Regiment

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Little River Regiment

This is the third in a series of posts defending the view that a relatively small number of Americans fought at Cowpens.

I think Lawrence Babits' efforts to use pension applications to better understand the battle of Cowpens is commendable, even though I disagree that a very large number of Americans fought at Cowpens, and I've previously taken issue with the argument that either the sheer number of pension applications, or pension-derived estimates of unit size convincingly show that a large number of Americans were present. In this post I take issue with a third argument in favor of a large American total, which involves "counting captains."

To illustrate my concerns, I focus on one militia regiment in particular, the "Little River Regiment," of Lieutenant-Colonel Joseph Hayes. About this regiment Babits said (A Devil of a Whipping, p 39):

"The Little River Regiment was composed of five companies under Captains James Ewing, William Harris, James Dugan, Samuel Sexton, and James Irby. Captain James Ewing commanded the right flank company located on the Green River Road. Captain William Harris served under Hayes during the fight at Blackstock's Plantation. Captain James Dugan was reported as a major at Cowpens, but his brother appears to have held that rank... Captain James Lindsay commanded a platoon in Dugan's company."

He then further described the companies of Sexton and Irby, which I brought up in my last post.

Babits believed each of these companies to be of a decent size, although considerably less than a full strength company of Continentals. He noted (p 31), "The immediate impression is that a captain commanded about twenty to thirty men."

Under this formula, the five companies would combine to create a regiment of about 100 to 150 men. This falls short of the 150 to 200 men he attributed to each regiment (p 189, n. 11). However, if Sexton was correct that he had 24 men and Irby was correct that he had around 65 men, then the range would be more like 149 to 179.

In working on this project, I've read quite a few of the pension applications that have been transcribed and publicly posted on the website There are, at this writing, a little over 5,500 applications online (and the number has been increasing almost by the day), mostly for veterans that served with units from Virginia and the Carolinas. Many of these veterans claimed service at Cowpens*

*A search for the term Cowpens generates at the moment 598 results, although not all of these "hits" involve applications in which the veteran claimed service at the battle of Cowpens. Some applications mentioned Cowpens because it was a staging ground before the battle of King's Mountain; in some other cases the term refers to an entirely different locale.

I have already disagreed with Babits about where Hayes' regiment was on the battlefield. Searching through these pensions I also found evidence for a very different organization for Hayes' regiment. Mindful that the officers comanding a given company could change with some frequency, I assembled a list of those online applications where the application clearly indicated service in Hayes' regiment under a given company commander at the battle of Cowpens. In some cases the applicant makes these connections; in other cases they appear in statements of support appended to the application. Links (all are to .pdfs) are provided for the benefit of the reader that would to examine these applications for himself/herself.

1. Thomas Blasingame's company. Jethro O'Shields and John O'Shields served in this company.

2. James Dillard's company. See Captain James Dillard's pension application. Babits (p 75) says that "Dillard's company became the left, or second, platoon under Ewing," and cites Robert Long's application as evidence. This contention is by no means clear from Long's application.

3. James Ewing's company Robert Long placed himself in this company.

4. William Harris' company. Lewis Saxon, Joel Harvey, and Joseph Griffin served in this company.

5. John Jones' company. Golding Tinsley served in this company. Although in the application of Robert Long, he implies that was in Ewing's company.

6. John Ridgeway's company. John Ridgeway (junior) places himself in his father's company. William Childress also places himself in this company.

7. Samuel Saxton's company. See Captain Samuel Saxton's pension application.

8. Daniel Williams' company. James Tinsley served in this company.

(9). James Dugan's company. This is one of the companies that Babits described. The online records I examined (which are incomplete) did not indicate a clear connection between James Dugan's company and Hayes' regiment at the time of Cowpens.

(10). John Irby's company. Neither Captain John Irby nor Richard Griffin who was also in this company say that they were adjoined to Hayes' regiment. Irby said he was in the Little River area before setting out for Cowpens. Richard Griffin indicated that he was one of the Georgian refugees, which would seemingly place Irby's company on the left wing of the militia line, while Robert Long's statements clearly place Hayes' regiment on the right wing of the main line. Brigadier-General Daniel Morgan stated that Hayes' regiment was on the left wing of the militia line near the Georgian refugees.

In short, a partial inspection of the pension applications indicates 8 companies that with some confidence can be placed in Hayes' regiment at the time of the battle. Following Babits' suggested company size, this would give Hayes' regiment between 160 and 240 men. However, there are 8 different companies described in these 12 applications, and 1 captain for every 6 applications. These numbers suggest an alternative possibility -- that the militia companies at Cowpens were both very numerous and very small.

A clear indication that the militia companies were very small can be found in a statment made by Private Aaron Guyton of Colonel Thomas Brandon's regiment of South Carolinians. Guyton said:

"I was under Col Brandon who had a few Brave Men who stood true for the cause of Liberty in the back part of the State who composed our little Army I was out the most of this time Some times we had 75 Some Times 150 men, and some times we had 4 or 5 Cols with from 50 to 150 men. Each of them had Command of a Regt at home & some times not more than 5 of his men with him. The Cols were Brandon, Hayes, Roebuck, White,--in December 1780 Genl Morgan & Col. Washington of the Cavalry came out and took Camp near Pacolet River was soon joined with what few Malitia was in our part."

In other words, even if there were a handful of South Carolina militia regiments at Cowpens, the total number of men representing those regiment could still have been very small. Babits, I think, interpreted this statement as an indication that each colonel or lieutenant colonel commanded between 50 to 150 men (although in his book he does not give the strength of any of these regiments as being under 150 men). My interpretation is that this number refers to the combined forces of these officers, as suggested by Guyton's phrases "our little Army" and "what few Malitia was in our part [of South Carolina]."

If a regiment at times could be as few as five men and a colonel, then it requires no stretch of the imagination to believe that the individual companies could also be quite small. Indeed, Guyton went on to say that, "we had no Officer in our Company & only two or three or four men, and the morning before the Battle 17 January 1781 we joined Captain John Thompson's Company."

With such small companies in existence, men would perhaps frequently jump from one company to another as the occassion warranted, especially if their officers were not always present. For this reason I was careful in my pension search to make sure that the application clearly indicated that service with a given company commander occurred at the battle of Cowpens.

Babits suggested that a typical militia company contained around 25 men, which does seem like a reasonable estimate. However, evidence for this in regards to Cowpens is poor. Only Samuel Sexton and John Collins mentioned commanding companies of this size at Cowpens, and Sexton's company was seemingly raised under unusual circumstances. John Irby claimed to have commanded a company of 60 to 70 men at the battle, but I gave reasons for why this is dubious.

In my opinion, one cannot reject the possibility that some, if not many, of the militia companies present at Cowpens consisted of groups of 10 men or less.

One also cannot reject the possibility that some of these statements about companies and commanders are inaccurate. For example, North Carolina militiaman James Patterson stated that he, "was at the battle of the Cowpens; engaged in the battle some time near the middle of January—he was under Col. Rutherford in the battle with the militia who retreated in the first attack but he was wounded and cut down but afterwards recovered and joined the regular troops under Col. Howard and assisted during the rest of the battle in defeating the British and joined in pursuit of the enemy." Rutherford's regiment is not regarded as having been present at the battle. Does Patterson's statement mean that historians have overlooked an entire regiment of North Carolinians? Of course not. More believable is that Patterson was in error. Perhaps Patterson was in Major Joseph McDowell's battalion of North Carolina militiamen and misremembered that fact. In the case of a statement about a large formation, the error is easily caught. Statements in error about smaller formations are both more likely to occur and less likely to be discovered.

As is the case with the other arguments I've considered, the argument that a large number of combatants in Morgan's force is indicated by a large number of companies is insufficient in my view to reject other evidence.

Related: Introduction, Problems with Pensions, Veteran Survival

Friday, February 20, 2009

Veteran Survival

This is the second in a series of posts defending the view that a relatively small number of Americans fought at Cowpens.

In arguing for a large total of American combatants, Lawrence Babits in A Devil of a Whipping pointed out that there were too many pension applications from men claiming to have been at Cowpens for the number of participants to have been only 800 (or perhaps even any number less than 1,000, despite what participants and authorities said at the time. So it would seem. But to me at least this argument is insufficiently persuasive.

First, it's not unreasonable to expect that many veterans of the battle would have survived to old age. This may have been a time when the average lifespan was much shorter than it is today, but these were not average men. The soldiers at Cowpens had of course survived childhood (high mortalitiy among infants and children was one of the primary reasons why the average lifespan was much shorter in the past), and furthermore, they were healthy enough as young men to be able to go to war, and many of them had also already survived exposure to camp diseases and participation in some of the war's bloodiest battles. The real question, then, shouldn't be what percentage of Americans born during this time would have survived into old age, but rather, what was the future survival rate of such a select group.

Second, dead men could, in a sense, file pension applications. At least, a number of widows and children submitted applications in the name of a deceased veteran.

Third, the pension applications are not wholly reliable. Of the transcribed pension applications that I've relied upon (and that are available through, some are annotated, and point out probable inaccuracies in the statements. There are a few cases at least when it is possible to discover them: the continental soldier who claimed service at the siege of Charleston, for example, is unlikely to have also been at Camden. For the most part, though, there is no way for the modern reader to confirm or refute the claims made by these would-be pensioners. The typical application contains few details; participation in certain battles is noted but nothing is said about what the participant saw or did. There is, therefore, no way to determine whether the old men submitting these applications (or their widows or children) accurately recalled their service, misremembered details of their service, or even knowingly made a false statement. (Somewhat off topic, see this interesting article on "memory creep," from Boston 1775).

It is possible, at least, to make the total number of applications a more convincing argument than it is now. Imagine that one examines the pension applications for a number of major battles occurring in the South around this time, not just Cowpens, but King's Mountain, Camden, Guilford Courthouse, Hanging Rock, Eutaw Springs, Blackstock's Plantation, and Fishing Creek. Let's say that one then finds that the ratio of pension applications describing participation at these battles to the number of men thought to have actually fought in them is generally X. However, it is found in the case of Cowpens that the ratio is not X, but a larger value (Y). The individual applications may be of questionable reliability, but such a divergence in the overall pattern would seemingly indicate that the conventional wisdom about how many participants fought in that battle is wrong. This in itself would not be decisive evidence (if people were to falsely remember the past, it seems more likely that they would recall in error participation at Cowpens than, say, Fishing Creek). However, it would at least strengthen Babits' case.

Related: Introduction, How Many Fought at Cowpens?, Problems with Pensions

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Problems with Pensions

This is the first in a series of posts defending the view that a relatively small number of Americans fought at Cowpens.

Previously, I reviewed primary sources, and to a lesser extent, secondary sources, and arrived at a rough estimate of the number of British and American participants at the battle of Cowpens. Specifically, I suggested that the British had around 1,150 men, and the Americans had somewhere between 800 and 980 men.

Of note is that Lawrence Babits in his recent and influential history of the battle, A Devil of a Whipping: The Battle of Cowpens, arrived at a very different determination, for at least the American army. Babits concluded that Morgan may in fact have had as many as 2,400 men under him; or three times the number of men Morgan claimed in his after action report.

Unlike a number of earlier histories, such as James Graham's The Life of General Daniel Morgan... (1856), which I brought up before, Babits explained the sources and reasoning behind his totals. His approach both deserves and allows careful consideration.

Babits estimated American numbers using several different approaches. For the number of men in the commands of Captain Samuel Hammond of South Carolina and Major John Cunningham of Georgia, Babits deferred to past authority (he cited a study described in a footnote in the Greene Papers). However, for other units serving on the militia and skirmish lines, namely the commands of Colonel Thomas Brandon, Colonel Joseph Hayes, Colonel John Thomas, Lieutenant-Colonel Benjamin Roebuck, and Major Joseph McDowell, he relied on estimates derived from pension records. His method of using pension records to determine unit size is the focus of this post.

Babits' method of using pension records to estimate unit size is innovative and commendable. His method can be summarized as follows. First, one must identify units where the number of participants is known. Second, one must identify the number of pension applications generated by individuals serving in those units. Third, one must calculate the ratio of pension applications to participants for those units. Fourth and finally, one then estimates the size of other units by extrapolation. That is, the number of pension applications generated by other units is multiplied by the pensioner-to-participant ratio.

So long as the "known" unit sizes are accurate, and the probability that a participant of the battle would have generated a surviving pension application is constant across units, then there are no serious issues with the validity of Babits' method. (Although the estimate would have a smaller margin of error for larger units than smaller ones). Problems begin to arise if the men in some units were less likely to survive into old age and file a pension application than men in other units, or if pension applications were lost or destroyed in subsequent years in a nonrandom manner.

It stands to reason, that the problems I alluded to above would have occurred in some cases. My own cursory inspection of pension records uncovered surprisingly few from Georgians and South Carolinians serving with Major John Cunningham and Captain Samuel Hammond. If Babits had the same experience, then this would perhaps explain why he relied on past authority, and not his own estimate, in determining the number of men for those units. For related reasons, it makes sense to draw a distinction between units of regulars and units of militia as the two bodies of men tended to be drawn from different segments of society and faced differing degrees of hazards during the war. The regulars, presumably, would have been less likely to survive into old age.

In A Devil of a Whipping, Babits identifies several militia units at Cowpens with a known unit size. These are Captain James Gilmore's company of Virginia militiamen (38), Captain Mordecai Clark's company of North Carolinians (25), Captain Samuel Sexton's company of South Carolinians (24), Captain Samuel Otterson's company of South Carolinians (30), Captain John Collins' company of South Carolinians (24), and Captain John Irby's company of South Carolinians (60-70).

There is, unfortunately, a problem with these numbers that is independent of any problems with the method. Babits shows 38 men in Gilmore's company on page 31 and 44 in Table 1 on p 32. For my calculations below I used the smaller of the two numbers. Babits has 20-30 men for Clark's company and 60-70 men for Irby's company, I used the midpoint of those ranges. I haven't checked Babits' numbers for Gilmore and Clark, but I have for Sexton, Otterson, Collins, and Irby. With the exception of Irby, the numbers for these companies may be inaccurate.

Sexton, or rather, Saxton, said in his pension application (pdf) that, "I succeeded in inducing twenty-five men to join me, and was chosen their captain;" this would be a company of 26 men.

Otterson's 30 men were not of a company he commanded, nor did this group fight at the battle. Otterson recalled (pdf), "This applicant states that he omitted to name that he & the regiment commanded by Brandon to which he belonged was under the command of Col. Morgan at the Battle of the Cowpens but that he with several others about thirty were sent out as spies some days before the engagement at the Cowpens & from some cause did not arrive until the Battle was over."

Collins said in his application (pdf), "on the night before the Battle of the Cowpens I again joined General Morgan with 24 fresh men, and fought with my company the next day." This would be a company of 25 men.

Irby's statement can be found here (pdf).

Without making adjustments, Babits' numbers for these militia units include a combined 206 men in the units and 18 pension applications by survivors. This a pension-to-participant ratio of 1:11.4. Now the process of extrapolation begins. Research uncovered a total of 108 pension applications for North Carolinians at the battle (Babits, p 37). Babits noted that one cannot readily tell in many cases which of these were from veterans in Major Joseph McDowell's battalion of North Carolina militia, Captain Henry Connelly's company of North Carolina state troops, or from North Carolina Continental infantry or cavalry. It is safe to say, however, that most of these veterans would have been with McDowell, whose battalion was the only large body of North Carolinians at the battle. Taking the conservative estimate that 75% of the 108 North Carolina pensions were submitted by men that had been in McDowell's command, then it would be projected that there were 923 men in McDowell's command (81 pension applications * 11.4 men per application).

The projected total is likely to be greatly in error. Brigadier-General Daniel Morgan wrote to Major-General Nathanael Greene in late December that, "General Davidson has brought in one hundred and twenty men;" much to Morgan's disappointment Davidson did not furnish additional reinforcements. This force of 120 men was probably McDowell's command at the battle; the number is less than 1/7 the men predicted by the pension method.

How can the pension method provide an estimate that is so far off the mark? As I said before, the logic behind the method is sound. The problem, I think, is that the initial assumptions about unit size are invalid. To take one example, the Captain Irby mentioned above claimed that a band of 60-70 men elected him captain before the start of the battle. This command, in other words, was at least half the size of McDowell's command according to Morgan. Only the pension applications of Irby and one other soldier identify Irby as a company commander at Cowpens. No other account of the battle mentions his company. It is therefore reasonable to conclude that Irby did not actually command a force of 60-70 men at Cowpens. Actually the pension application does not quite say that he did. The relevant excerpt from his pension application is as follows:

"he [Irby] with others fled to the Army of Morgan's Army for protection some time before the Battle of the Cowpens – that there were many refugees then in a similar situation with himself – that they formed a volunteer Company to the amount of 60 or 70 and that he was elected Captain of said Company and was commissioned as such by General Pickens of South Carolina – that he served as Captain of said Company in the Battle of the Cowpens – at which Place Tarleton was defeated."

Irby's election to the captaincy occurred "some time before the Battle" and for all one can tell some of the 60-70 men that elected him might have decided to go back home or join up with other units before the battle occurred. Then there is also the fact that this statement appeared in a pension application written 52 years after the battle. Was Irby's recollection accurate? Might not he have overstated his importance during the battle? After all, he was trying to convince the government to award him a pension. Similar concerns can be raised whenever the "known" unit size depends on a statement in a pension application.

To be fair, Babits did not quite take the approach that I've described here. His pension-to-participant estimates were based on combined records for regulars and militia. (Counterintuitively, the regulars have a lower pensioner-to-participant ratio than the militia). He also seems to have regarded Irby as an outlier (although he didn't cast doubt on the veracity of Irby's statement). If one adds up the numbers of participants and the numbers of pension applicants for these units (listed in Babits' Table 1, on page 32), one finds a total of 88 pension applications representing approximately 447 men, or 1 application for every 5.1 participants. When this smaller ratio is applied to the North Carolina numbers, the calculated estimate is 413 men for McDowell's battalion. This estimate is still several times larger than the number indicated by Morgan. Babits himself only loosely followed the method he described. He stated that the pensioner-to-participant was about 3 or 4 to 1 (despite the numbers he was using), and he estimated McDowell's battalion as having only 200+ men in it. It is unclear why he estimated McDowell as having so few men. Again assuming that only 75% of the North Carolina applications were from men with McDowell, then the pensioner-to-participant ratio would have had to have been a mere 1:2.47 to arrive at this total.

A counterargument to the position I've adopted would be that it seems unlikely that 81 of the 120 men in McDowell's command would have lived long enough to have been able to file a pension application. I'll concede the point. It doesn't follow, however, that this makes the pension-derived estimates more credible and not less. I will address the issue of pensions and veteran survival in my next post.

Related: The Battle of Cowpens in Miniature, Part 1, How Many Fought at Cowpens?, The Militia Line: Composition and Organization

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Cowpens Battlefield in Miniature

I have more-or-less finished creating the battlefield. As noted previously, the scale that I'm working with is at a 1:20 scale for 15mm miniatures. Here is the original topographic map of the battlefield that I'm working from. (Map link via John A. Robertson et al.'s Global Gazetteer of the American Revolution).

The streams (although not Chesney's rivulet) are represented by the taller, yellowish vegetation. They are probably only a few feet across, and don't need to be represented with artificial water. Probably there should be more trees than are shown; as is, it is a challenge to clearly see the minis when they are on the board, much less move them from one spot to another.

The placement of coniferous and deciduous trees on the battlefield loosely follows from participant statements.

Several accounts mention pine trees in connection with the battle. For example, Private John Thomas of Virginia, who was on the left wing of the main line, recalled that "The battle took place in the woods & the timber was mostly pine." David Stewart claimed that the American front line was "drawn up on a rising ground, thinly covered with pine trees." Major George Hanger and Brigadier-General William Moultrie (both of whom were knowledgeable about the battle, even if they were not present) described the battlefield as a pine barren.

Captain Samuel Hammond mentioned that the area between Elevations 1 and 2 was dominated by deciduous trees:

"The ground on which the troops were placed, was a small ridge, crossing the road at nearly right angles. A similar ridge, nearly parallel with this, lay between three hundred and five hundred yards in, his rear. The valley between was made by a gentle slope; it was, of course, brought within range of the eye; passing from one to the other ridge, the land was thickly covered with red oak and hickory with little if any underbrush. The valleys extending to the right of the general's camp, terminated in a small glade or savanna."

The area that Hammond was referring to included the patch of deciduous trees in the upper left corner of the last picture. The area of the "small glade or savanna" begins at the upper left of the last picture and extends beyond the edge of the picture.


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

David Stewart. (1825). Sketches... of the Highlanders of Scotland.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Building the Cowpens Battlefield

I haven't built a battlefield for miniatures before, so I've been relying on trial and error. I first attempted to arrange shapes under a large Woodland Scenics vinyl mat. This didn't turn out to well. The mat didn't conform well to the shape of the underlying materials, so I gave up on that idea. I decided instead to cut terrain features out of foam board, flock them, and lay them on top of the mat.

Here again is the map of the battlefield. Each successive lighter color represents a 20-foot increase in height.

Here is the battlefield in foam board laying on top of the vinyl mat. Little fighting occurred in the low areas, so I cut out in foam board only the highest points on the battlefield. The road is cardboard cut from a case of soda.

I then painted the foam board with a muddy mix of acrylics and sprinkled flocking material on the paint while it was wet. Then -- trouble. The edges of the foam board curled up forcing me to take a new approach.

Next time, the finished battlefield.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

How Many Fought at Cowpens?

[Revised 12/28/09]

My previous posts have generally focused on specific British and American units that fought at the battle of Cowpens, and how they were deployed during the battle. In this post I explore the question of how many totals soldiers fought at the battle.

British Numbers

Statements about the number of British soldiers at Cowpens fall within a relatively narrow range. The British commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Banastre Tarleton, estimated his total force at about 1000 men. American estimates put the total only a little bit higher. In his after action report, the American commander, Brigadier-General Daniel Morgan, estimated the British force at 1,150 men, including those that had served as a baggage guard. Morgan and his subordinates had the opportunity to converse with a number of British officers after the battle. From this, Morgan learned that, "Their own officers confess that they fought one thousand and thirty-seven.” The specificity of this number makes it seem conclusive, but in fact it's not clear (at least to me) whether this number refers to rank and file only or to all personnel. A letter by Morgan's superior, Major-General Nathanael Greene, confirmed the total of "1150 British troops," but also added "50 Militia." The largest estimate of British forces was provided by Sergeant William Seymour of Delaware, who said that Tarleton had 1,300 men, but it is unlikely that he had access to information that Morgan and Greene did not.

American Numbers

By comparison with estimates of British totals, statements about the number of Americans at Cowpens vary to a greater degree. At the lower extreme is Morgan: in his after action report, he stated that he had only 800 men. Other sources indicate a larger number of men, but a number agree that Morgan had fewer than 900 men in his command. This agreement may be partly aritificial because other sources relied on Morgan for their information. There is, however, enough variability among such sources to suggest that the totals were at least somewhat independently derived.

Colonel Otho Williams of Maryland recorded in his notebook on Jan 23, 1781 that Morgan had "290 Continentals under Lt. Col. Howard, the South Carolina and Georgia volunteers, about 350 men under Col. Pickens," and, "170 Virginia militia under Major Triplett." Morgan seems to have been the source of these numbers, which total 810. This suggests that Morgan's total of 800 leaves out some of the men under his command, including, at a minimum, Washington's light dragoons, and possibly some other commands.

Two days before the battle, Morgan wrote to Greene and complained that, "I have now with me only two hundred South Carolina and Georgia, and one hundred and forty North Carolina, volunteers."* This total, 340, suggests that the 350 militiamen recorded by Williams does include McDowell's North Carolinians at least, and perhaps other militiamen as well (the mounted militia, for example, had not yet been detached to that purpose). Morgan was joined the following day by additional militiamen, but perhaps he saw no reason to later revise his estimated totals. Of the 340 militiamen, Morgan complained in his letter to Greene, "I [do not] expect to have more that two-thirds of these to assist me, should I be attacked, for it is impossible to keep them collected.”

An authoritative report on American numbers appeared in a Congressional Resolution passed on March 9, 1781. The Resolution reads, in part, "The United States, in Congress assembled, considering it as a tribute to distinguished merit to give a public approbation to the conduct of Brigadier General Morgan and of the officers and men under his command on the 17th of January last, when with eighty cavalry and two hundred and thirty-seven infantry of the troops of the United States and five hundred and fifty-three militia from the States of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia he obtained a complete and important victory over a select and well appointed detachment of more than eleven hundred British Troops commanded by Lieut. Col. Tarleton..."

The Resolution identifies a total of 870 American participants at Cowpens, a total that exceeds Williams' numbers because it enumerates the American dragoons. There are also some differences between Williams and the Congressional Resolution on the numbers of continentals and militia. Williams recorded 290 Continental light infantry, and the Resolution referred to 237. Williams recorded 520 militiamen, and the Resolution referred to 553. The specificity of the Resolution numbers seems compelling, but it is not clear on what information they were based and it seems unlikely than an exact count of the militiamen serving at Cowpens could have been performed.

James Graham, in The Life of General Daniel Morgan... (1856), reported that at Cowpens there were 280 continentals, 120 militiamen with Triplett, 80 dragoons with Washington, 40 mounted militiamen, and 350 men in the militia line. Like the Resolution numbers, this is also a total of 870 men. He further noted that, "his [Morgan's] entire command, including all the militia that arrived previous to the battle, would appear to be about nine hundred and eighty men, if army returns and muster rolls were alone consulted. But every one acquainted with military affairs knows that such evidences of strength always exceed the reality. A number of his regulars were sick at the time, and many of the militia were absent. One detachment had been sent off with the baggage, another had gone to Salisbury in charge of prisoners, and a third guarded the horses of the militia. Besides, after the retreat of the militia from the front line, several of them never again appeared in the field, and a few mounted their horses and fled from the ground. Such men should not be permitted to lesson the glory of the achievement, by sharing in the honors of the victors as well as diminishing the mortification of the vanquished. The forces engaged in the battle under Morgan did not exceed eight hundred and fifty men."

I am generally distrustful of Graham's history, especially because, like other early histories, he generally does not provide evidence to support his assertions. However, he does at least make a fair point that the number of men on the books and the number of men that actually stand in line on the day of battle may be quite different.

American Brigadier-General William Moultrie wrote an earlier history of the battle that can be deemed more reliable. William Dobein James in A Sketch of The Life of Brig. Gen. Francis Marion (1821) suggested that Lieutenant-Colonel William Washington was the source of Moultrie's information. Moultrie recorded that the Americans had "two hundred and ninety infantry, eighty cavalry and about six hundred militia," or 970 men. This is about equal to the 980 men Graham reported, "if army returns and muster rolls were alone consulted."

Other American accounts confirm that the Americans were outnumbered at Cowpens. Private Henry Wells of Delaware remembered that, "Our whole force at this time numbered Some thing less than 900 men a greater proportion of whom were militia & less than 100 horse… we fell in with a much Superior force of the enemy, at the Cowpens under Col. Tarleton. He outnumbered us with infantry and he had three or four times as many Cavalry”* (also see this .pdf file). Major McJunkin of South Carolina recalled that, "His [Morgan's] force was considerably inferior to that arrayed against him." Governor John Rutledge of South Carolina congratulated Morgan shortly after the battle and wrote that, "This total defeat of chosen Veteran British Troops by a number far inferior to theirs will for Ever distinguish the gallant men by whom the Glorious Victory was obtained, & endear them to their country."

The exact number of Americans at Cowpens may not be knowable, but it seems safe to conclude in any case that the total was less than 1,000 men for certain, and maybe even less than 900 men.

The only sources to suggest a larger total of Americans were those of the British commanders.

Major General Charles Cornwallis, in reporting the battle, wrote that, "his [Morgan's] Corps by the best accounts I could get, consisted of about five hundred men, Continentals & Virginia State Troops, & one hundred Cavalry under Colonel Washington, & six or seven hundred Militia, but that Body is so fluctuating, that it is impossible to ascertain its number, within some hundreds.” This is a total force of about 1,200 to 1,300 men, or a number slightly superior to the British total.

The British commander at Cowpens, Lieutenant-Colonel Banastre Tarleton, was one of the primary sources for Cornwallis' report. The reputations of both men were tarnished by the defeat. If Tarleton had discovered that the American army was larger than the British had expected, it is unlikely that Cornwallis would have left this out of his report.

Cornwallis' estimate is much less reliable than those provided by American sources. The British in general, and Cornwallis in particular, habitually overestimated the size of American forces they faced. It's possible that the Americans were deliberately feeding them bad information. One David George of South Carolina wrote Tarleton on January 1, 1781 that, "My Wife's sister Last Night came to my house out of strong Rebel Settlement up at Princes fort; by her I have heard the Design & Intention of the Rebels... Morgan with five or six Hundred Light horse had Crossed broad River at Smiths ford... and Washington with their artillery and foot men was to Cross broad River at the same ford... they say they will have Three Thousand men."* At this point, the Americans did not have anywhere near 500 or 600 horsemen (even counting militia, who often rode the horses they owned), and at no point did they have artillery. Bad information like this, however, would have helped keep the British unsure and on the defensive while American plans unfolded.

Tarleton reported a much higher American troop total in his postwar memoir than had previously appeared in Cornwallis' report. Tarleton wrote that “He [Tarleton] discovered that the American commander had formed a front line of about one thousand militia, and had composed his second line and reserve of five hundred continental light infantry, one hundred and twenty of Washington's cavalry, and three hundred back woodsmen.” This is a total force of 1,920 men, or approximately 700 more Americans than the British claimed on January 19, 1781. It's possible that Tarleton acquired new information in the months or years after the battle, but it's not clear where this would have come from. If he relied on American sources, he would have read only about smaller totals, not larger ones. My suspicion is that he either misread Cornwallis' report, or his numbers were invented.


Marg Baskin's Banastre Tarleton website has a transcription of Tarleton's postwar memoir.

William Dobein James (1821). A Sketch of The Life of Brig. Gen. Francis Marion.

James Graham. (1856). The Life of General Daniel Morgan. (Has a copy of Morgan's account of the battle).

Will Graves trancribed the pension application of Henry Wells (.pdf file).

For Joseph McJunkin's accounts of the battle, see:

John Moncure's excellent Cowpens Staff Ride and Battlefield Tour webpage has copies of most of the accounts described here.

William Moultrie. (1802). Memoirs of the American Revolution.

A transcription of William Seymour's journal can be found on this Battle of Camden website.

A summary of the Otho Williams papers can be found here.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

The American Cavalry at Cowpens - Part 2

[Minor edits 12/28/09]

Last time, I began to describe the American cavalry at Cowpens. At the end of that post, I noted an estimate that there were 45 mounted militiamen that served at the battle. Thomas Young of South Carolina provided details about the composition of the mounted militia. He said that there were, "two volunteer companies of mounted militia." A comment by the Major-General François-Jean de Chastellux, in which he stated that, "the American horse detached by Colonel Washington," consisted of, "two little squadrons," seems consistent with Young's recollection.

One of these companies was under the command of Major James McCall. According to the pension application of Manuel McConnell, prior to the battle, "Capt. McCall and his company, of which this applicant was a member, Joined Col. Morgan's Army where he was encamped at Pacolet River where they met a hearty welcome from the Old Waggoner [i.e., Morgan] & Col. Washington. Here Capt. McCall and his company were rec'd as regular troops, were furnished with swords and other arms as such and we were attached to the command of Col. Washington … This applicant with Capt. McCall's company remained attached to the command of Col. Washington and fought under his immediate command during the whole time of the famous battle of the Cowpens, so bravely fought and gloriously won gained on the 17th of January 1781."
An estimate of the size of McCall's company can be found in the pension application of Captain Samuel Hammond of McCall's regiment. "the few [of this regiment] 25--to 30 that were equipped as Horsemen were placed under Col MCall and attached to Col Washington Command.”
Thomas Young served in the other militia company, which was commanded by Captain Benjamin Jolly. He recalled, "Two companies of volunteers were called for. One was raised by Major Jolly of Union District [South Carolina], and the other, I think, by Major McCall. I attached myself to Major Jolly's company. We drew swords that night, and were informed we had authority to press any horse not belonging to a dragoon or an officer, into our service for the day.”

If there were 45 mounted militiamen in total at Cowpens, and 25-30 men in McCall's company, then there would have been 15-20 men in Jolly's company. The 45 mounted militiamen combined with the 72 continental cavalry described in my previous post suggests a total American cavalry force of approximately 117 men. This total corresponds well with British estimates. Major-General Charles Cornwallis estimated the American cavalry at 100 in his report of the battle (see Cornwallis' Report). Lieutenant-Colonel Banastre Tarleton stated that the Americans had 120 cavalrymen in his postwar memoir. Private Henry Wells, who was with the continental light infantry, offered a lower estimate in his pension application, "Our whole force at this time numbered Some thing less than 900 men a greater proportion of whom were militia & less than 100 horse…"

Aside from McConnell and Young, other veterans claimed service with the mounted militia at Cowpens. Their placement in the American order of battle is more difficult to determine. They could well have been a part of either Jolly's or McCall's companies. For example, George Gresham of Georgia recalled that, “We reached the General the evening preceding the battle of the Cowpens and were placed under the command of Colonel Washington.” Jeremiah Dial of South Carolina remembered that in "the winter of 1780," he and "others taken with him," were "attached to Washington company to pilot him through some parts of South Carolina in the pursuit of the tories." He was also one of the mounted militiamen at Cowpens. "Washington's Cavalry with whom this applicant fought during the engagement were stationed in the rear of Morgan's forces and when the British broke through the leftwing of the Malitia Washington's cavalry made an attack upon them and defeated them with considerable loss..."

All accounts agree that the American cavalry was stationed at some distance behind the regulars. American Brigadier-General Daniel Morgan stated:

“The light infantry, commanded by Lieut. Col. Howard, and the Virginia militia under the command of Major Triplett, were formed on a rising ground, and extended a line in front. The third regiment of dragoons, under Lieut. Col. Washington, were posted at such a distance in their rear, as not to be subjected to the line of fire directed at them, and to be so near as to be able to charge them should they be broken." (see Morgan's Report).

From this, one might conclude that the American cavalry were positioned directly behind the continentals. However, Thomas Young recalled that "The cavalry formed in rear of the centre, or rather in rear of the left wing of the regulars." Similarly, cavalryman James Kelly wrote that "Washington and his men" were "on the wing."

Presumably, the Continental dragoons and the mounted militia were posted near each other so that Washington could readily command them both. Captain Samuel Hammond of South Carolina recalled that Morgan ordered that:

"The main guard will hold its present position, and be commanded as at present by Colonel Washington's cavalry, with such of Colonel McCall's regiment of new raised South-Carolina State troops, as have been equipped for dragoons, will be a reserve, and form in the rear of Colonel Pickens, beyond the ridge, one or two hundred yards, and nearly opposite the main guard, north of the road."

This statement can be interpreted several different ways, especially as it is unclear whether Hammond correctly knew where Pickens was stationed during the battle (see: The Hammond Map). My interpretation is that the American cavalry were positioned 100-200 yards behind the crest of Elevation #2, with the Continental dragoons behind the left of the Continental infantry and the mounted militia "nearly opposite" them, per Hammond, but "north of the road." See the diagram below.

The American Deployment at Cowpens. 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.


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

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

Will Graves transcribed the pension application of George Gresham (.pdf file).

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

Will Graves transcribed the pension application of James Kelly (.pdf file).

Will Graves transcribed the pension application of Manuel McConnell (.pdf file).

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

Joseph Johnson. (1851). Traditions and Reminiscences Chiefly of the American Revolution in the South has Hammond's description of Morgan's orders.

John Moncure's The Cowpens Staff Ride and Battlefield Tour webpage has a transcription of the statement by Young, Cornwallis, Tarleton, and Wells.

Friday, February 6, 2009

The American Cavalry at Cowpens - Part 1

[Minor edits 12/28/09]

Brigadier-General Daniel Morgan commanded a mixed force of Continentals and militia at the battle of Cowpens. The majority of these men fought on foot. However, a number of his men fought on horseback, and these men played a critical role in the American victory. In this post I concentrate on the American cavalry.

Varying estimates have been provided as to the number of Continental dragoons present during the battle. The number stated by different sources includes:

  • 50 - Brigadier-General Edward Stevens (in a letter to Thomas Jefferson in the Jefferson Papers; source not online).
  • 60 - Major-General François-Jean de Chastellux.
  • 70 - Private Benjamin Copeland of the American 3rd light dragoons; mounted militiaman Thomas Young
  • 75 - Brigadier-General William Moultrie.
  • 80 - Brigadier-General Daniel Morgan, U.S. Congressional Resolution of March 8, 1781.
Perhaps the most definite statement appeared in the pension application of North Carolina rifleman Josiah Martin, who stated that “Col. Washington was there with his company of Cavalry which amounted to 72 as counted by the applicant the day before the battle.”

The men in Washington's command appears to have been derived from several sources. Washington himself was an officer in the 3rd Light Dragoons, and most of the Continental cavalry at the Cowpens were from this regiment as well. However, the Americans had few properly equipped dragoons in the south at this period. Lawrence Babits, in A Devil of a Whipping, pointed out that pension applications place some men of the 1st Light Dragoons and Virginia State Dragoons were attached to Washington's regiment as well. The pension application of James Busby indicates that Washington may also have had some veterans of Pulaski's and Armand's legions.

Presumably, Josiah Martin's 72 men includes all of 1st and 3rd Light Dragoons, and perhaps also whatever number of uniformed Virginia State Dragoons were present. It's possible that the reason why some sources stated that there were fewer than 70 men with Washington is that they were counting only the number of men from the 3rd Light Dragoons present at the battle.

General Morgan understood that this small mounted force was insufficient to cope with the approximately 300 mounted men available to his British counterpart. Therefore, at the end of December he wrote General Greene to say that, "I have sent for one hundred swords, which I intend to put into the hands of expert riflemen, to be mounted and incorporated with Lieut. Col. Washington's corps.” Whether he actually received 100 swords is unknown. The number of militia dragoons employed at the Cowpens appears to have been a considerably smaller number. According to Major Joseph McJunkin of South Carolina, “On the night before the battle forty-five militia soldiers were enrolled as dragoons and placed under the command of Col. McCall and annexed to Washington's cavalry." McJunkin's statement confirmed that these were the "expert riflemen" that Morgan was looking for. "These officers and men, in the respective commands, were far from being tyros in the art of war. They were marksmen and had generally been in the war from the commencement.”

American Cavalry at Cowpens. Washington's regulars are on the left; the mounted militia are on the right. The 3rd Light Dragoons are believed to have worn a white uniform with blue facings. The blue-coated dragoon represents other Continental dragoons and/or state troops attached to Washington's command.


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

Will Graves transcribed the pension application of James Busby (.pdf).

For Joseph McJunkin's accounts of the battle, see:

John Moncure's The Cowpens Staff Ride and Battlefield Tour webpage has a transcription of the statements by Copeland, Young, Martin, and McJunkin.

William Moultrie. (1802). Memoirs of the American Revolution.

Theodorus Bailey Myers. (1881). Cowpens Papers (Has the number by Morgan and a copy of the U.S. Congressional Resolution).

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

The re-created 3rd Light Dragoons depicts the regiment as it appeared during the Southern Campaign.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Who Did John Savage Shoot?

[Minor edits made 12-18-09]

In my last post, I described how early in the battle of Cowpens, the American Brigadier-General Daniel Morgan ordered forward detachments from the militia line to engage the enemy.

Major Joseph McJunkin of South Carolina recalled that General Morgan rode up to where he was posted and asked, "Boys, who will bring on the battle?" When McJunkin and a number of others volunteered, Morgan told them to, "Go & bring on the action." According to McJunkin, soon "A column" marched towards them, "led by a gayly dressed officer on horseback." This officer, according to Thomas Young, began "calling them in a loud voice 'dam’d Rebels,'" and, "ordered them to disperse." At this point, John Savage, one of the riflemen with McJunkin, "darted a few paces in front, laid his rifle against a sapling," and fired. "[A] blue gas streamed above his head, the sharp crack of a rifle broke the solemn stillness of the occasion and a horse without a rider wheeled from the front of the advancing column." According to Young, "John Savage, in my opinion fired the first gun at the Battle of the Cowpens."

So who was this British officer, the likely first casualty of the battle of Cowpens? There is of course no way to know for certain, but it is possible through deduction to produce some likely candidates.

Presumably, this officer would have been with one of the first British units to approach the Americans. The first British troops on the scene, according to the memoir of British commander Lieutenant-Colonel Banastre Tarleton, was a vanguard of dragoons. However, McJunkin referred to an "officer on horseback," leading "a column." This strongly suggests an officer at the head of a column of infantry (to say he was mounted would otherwise have been redundant).

Next to arrive were several companies of light infantry. The light infantry would also not seem to be a good place to find John Savage's victim. Tarleton's account indicated that the light infantry were deployed on the extreme right of the British line, while Morgan's report indicated that the South Carolinia regiment to which Savage belonged was opposite to the British left.

Therefore, it would seem that Savage's victim was most likely with the 7th Regiment of Foot, which deployed in the vicinity of these skirmishers. The men in the 7th Foot were relatively inexperienced and an officer of that regiment could plausibly have been "gayly dressed," as described by McJunkin, or exhibited the fatal hubris described by Young.


John Moncure's The Cowpens Staff Ride and Battlefield Tour webpage has a transcription of some of the statements made by Samuel Hammond, Thomas Young, Banastre Tarleton, and Daniel Morgan in connection with Cowpens.

James Saye. Memoirs of Major Joseph McJunkin, Revolutionary Patriot.

Will Graves. (2005). What Did Joseph McJunkin Really Saye? Southern Campaigns of the American Revolution, Volume 2, Issue 11. (.pdf file).

Will Graves transcribed the pension application of John Jolly, which includes a supportive statement by Thomas Young. (.pdf file).

Monday, February 2, 2009

The American Skirmishers at Cowpens

[Minor edits 12/28/09]

Descriptions of the American deployment at the battle of Cowpens traditionally refer to three groups of infantry. Closest to the British was a group of skirmishers. Behind them was the largest grouping of American militia, forming what is known as the first line, or the militia line. Behind them was a grouping of Continentals supported by additional militia, forming what is known as the second line, main line, or center line. Finally, in rear of the infantry was the American cavalry reserve (Alexander Chesney termed the cavalry "a third line").

Brigadier-General Daniel Morgan noted that skirmishers were detached from the militia line to engage the British at the start of the battle:

“The disposition of battle being thus formed, small parties of riflemen were detached to skirmish with the enemy, upon which their whole line moved on with the greatest impetuosity, shouting as they advanced. McDowall and Cunningham gave them a heavy and galling fire, and retreated to the regiments intended for their support.”

Statements by other participants are more vague about the composition of the American skirmishers, but they at least confirm the impression that this was a small force. For example, Major Joseph McJunkin of South Carolina described the skirmishers as "a corps of picked riflemen... scattered in loose order along the whole front.”

One of the clearest statements about the composition of the skirmishers can be found in Colonel Henry Lee's (1812) Memoirs of the War in the Southern Department of the United States. Lee may not have been present at the Cowpens, but he was a battlefield commander during the war (including in South Carolina) and he personally knew the American leaders at Cowpens and spoke and corresponded with them both during and after the war.

About the skirmishers, Lee wrote:

"Two light parties of militia, under Major M'Dowel, of North Carolina, and Major Cunningham, of Georgia, were advanced in front, with orders to feel the enemy as he approached; and, preserving a desultory well-aimed fire as they fell back to the front line, to range with it and renew the conflict. The main body of the militia composed this line, with General Pickens at its head. At a suitable distance in the rear of the first line a second was stationed, composed of the continental infantry and two companies of Virginia militia, under Captains Triplett and Taite, commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Howard... The American light parties quickly yielded [as the British advanced], fell back, and arrayed with Pickens. The enemy, shouting, rushed forward upon the front line, which retained its station, and poured in a close fire; but, continuing to advance with the bayonet on our militia, they retired, and gained with haste the second line."

However, a close description of participant statements suggests that Lee's description may be incomplete. Two South Carolinians, Major Joseph McJunkin and Private Thomas Young, indicated that the first shot fired by the Americans came from one of Thomas Brandon's South Carolinians, a regiment that was on the front line, but mentioned by Morgan or Lee in connection with the skirmishers.

Thomas Young, in a postwar statement, observed, “The militia fired first. It was for a time, pop--pop--pop--[i.e., the skirmishers] and then a whole volley [i.e., the militia line]... I have heard old Col. Fair [Lieutenant-Colonel William Farr of the South Carolina militia] 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.”

In a supporting statement to the pension application of John Jolly, Young noted that, "John Savage, in my opinion fired the first gun at the Battle of the Cowpens -- a British Officer rode up towards the advance guard of Morgan's Army & calling them in a loud voice "dam’d Rebels," ordered them to disperse -- John Savage instantly raised his rifle & fired & the British Officer fell from his horse mortally wounded. This fact has fixed the services of Savage indelibly upon my memory -- John Savage was much older then I was -- and I think he was in the service during the time I was & I think before. He has always had the Reputation of having served during the war."

Major Joseph McJunkin has two postwar statements attributed to him. In one statement, McJunkin reputedly said, "At this time Tarleton marching up and filing to the right and left, formed in battle assay, when Gen. Morgan said "Boys, who will bring on the battle?" When Col. Farr & Major McJunkin stepped out & said, "Boys, who will go with us" when others stepped out until Morgan said there were enough, & said "Go & bring on the action & if you are pressed, retreat, & come in on our flank." which we did."

In the other statement, McJunkin reputedly said, "…soon the red coats stream before the eyes of the militia. A column marches up in front of Brandon's men led by a gayly dressed officer on horseback. The word passes along the line, "Who can bring him down?" John Savage looked Col. Farr full in the face and read yes in his eye. He darted a few paces in front, laid his rifle against a sapling, a blue gas streamed above his head, the sharp crack of a rifle broke the solemn stillness of the occasion and a horse without a rider wheeled from the front of the advancing column. In a few moments the fire is general. The sharpshooters fall behind Pickens and presently his line yields.”

If the first shot from the American skirmishers was fired by one of Brandon's South Carolinians, why did Morgan and Lee mentioned only Major McDowell of North Carolina and Major Cunningham of Georgia in connection with the skirmishers? One possibility is that McDowell and Cunningham contributed the greater part of the skirmishers, and other, smaller parties were overlooked or not deemed worthy of specific notice. Alternatively, it might be that McDowell and Cunningham were specifically mentioned because Morgan gave them joint command of the various small parties of skirmishers, not because their men were the only participants on the skirmish line.


The Journal of Alexander Chesney.

James Graham. (1856). The Life of General Daniel Morgan has a copy of Morgan's after action report.

Henry Lee. (1812). Memoirs of the War in the Southern Department of the United States.

For Joseph McJunkin's accounts of the battle, see:

For Thomas Young's accounts of the battle, see: