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

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