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 southerncampaign.org. 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