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:
- 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).
For Thomas Young's accounts of the battle, see:
- Joseph Johnson. (1851). Traditions and Reminiscences Chiefly of the American Revolution in the South.
- The pension application of John Jolly (.pdf file), transcribed by Will Graves.