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.

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