This is the second in a series of posts defending the view that a relatively small number of Americans fought at Cowpens.
In arguing for a large total of American combatants, Lawrence Babits in A Devil of a Whipping pointed out that there were too many pension applications from men claiming to have been at Cowpens for the number of participants to have been only 800 (or perhaps even any number less than 1,000, despite what participants and authorities said at the time. So it would seem. But to me at least this argument is insufficiently persuasive.
First, it's not unreasonable to expect that many veterans of the battle would have survived to old age. This may have been a time when the average lifespan was much shorter than it is today, but these were not average men. The soldiers at Cowpens had of course survived childhood (high mortalitiy among infants and children was one of the primary reasons why the average lifespan was much shorter in the past), and furthermore, they were healthy enough as young men to be able to go to war, and many of them had also already survived exposure to camp diseases and participation in some of the war's bloodiest battles. The real question, then, shouldn't be what percentage of Americans born during this time would have survived into old age, but rather, what was the future survival rate of such a select group.
Second, dead men could, in a sense, file pension applications. At least, a number of widows and children submitted applications in the name of a deceased veteran.
Third, the pension applications are not wholly reliable. Of the transcribed pension applications that I've relied upon (and that are available through southerncampaign.org), some are annotated, and point out probable inaccuracies in the statements. There are a few cases at least when it is possible to discover them: the continental soldier who claimed service at the siege of Charleston, for example, is unlikely to have also been at Camden. For the most part, though, there is no way for the modern reader to confirm or refute the claims made by these would-be pensioners. The typical application contains few details; participation in certain battles is noted but nothing is said about what the participant saw or did. There is, therefore, no way to determine whether the old men submitting these applications (or their widows or children) accurately recalled their service, misremembered details of their service, or even knowingly made a false statement. (Somewhat off topic, see this interesting article on "memory creep," from Boston 1775).
It is possible, at least, to make the total number of applications a more convincing argument than it is now. Imagine that one examines the pension applications for a number of major battles occurring in the South around this time, not just Cowpens, but King's Mountain, Camden, Guilford Courthouse, Hanging Rock, Eutaw Springs, Blackstock's Plantation, and Fishing Creek. Let's say that one then finds that the ratio of pension applications describing participation at these battles to the number of men thought to have actually fought in them is generally X. However, it is found in the case of Cowpens that the ratio is not X, but a larger value (Y). The individual applications may be of questionable reliability, but such a divergence in the overall pattern would seemingly indicate that the conventional wisdom about how many participants fought in that battle is wrong. This in itself would not be decisive evidence (if people were to falsely remember the past, it seems more likely that they would recall in error participation at Cowpens than, say, Fishing Creek). However, it would at least strengthen Babits' case.
Related: Introduction, How Many Fought at Cowpens?, Problems with Pensions