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.

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