Friday, March 20, 2009

Cowpens in Miniature 1

The Battle of Cowpens in Miniature
Part 1: About this Project

[Rewritten 12/28/09; see this brief explanation]

On January 17, 1781, a British force, under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Banastre Tarleton was decisively defeated by an ad hoc American army under the command of Brigadier-General Daniel Morgan at "Cowpens" South Carolina. This battle is widely regarded as a turning point in the American Revolutionary War in the southern states, and an important step towards the climatic victory of the war at Yorktown.


Background Information (Wikipedia Links)


Recommended Reading

Edwin Bearss. (1967). Battle of Cowpens: A Documented Narrative and Troop Movement Maps.

Lawrence Babits. (1998). A Devil of a Whipping: The Battle of Cowpens.


In working on this project, I began by reading as many first-hand accounts of the battle as I was able to obtain. I then took these, plus relatively reliable second-hand accounts (i.e., those penned shortly after the war, especially by men that had fought in the Revolution) and set about synthesizing them a single account. There are problems intrinsic to such an undertaking: the meaning of participant accounts of the battle may be ambiguous or in conflict with other sources of information. The solution I aimed for was a narrative that was simultaneously as true as possible to the source material while at the same time attempting to minimize apparant contradictions (I think of this as a kind of rhetorical linear regression in which the various participant statements serve as the data points). The result is a version of the battle that is unsurprising in some respects and novel in others.

That the result of my efforts should be novel at all warrants some comment. The Battle of Cowpens has been well described in print, and has been tackled by a number of respected historians. One of those histories, Lawrence Babits' A Devil of a Whipping likewise placed very heavy reliance on participant accounts. Indeed, Babits' book was the inspiration for this project. There are three basic reasons why the accounts should differ.

First, although there is a great deal of overlap in our sources, there are some differences in the sources that were used and in how those sources were used (e.g., in a number of places I quote passages that he did not).

Second, even when the same passages are quoted here and in Babits, we may impart different meanings to those passages. As noted above, much of the source material lends itself to varying interpretations. In a few places I call attention to these differences in how a source was used and I make the case for the particular interpretation I've adopted (see below).

Third, Babits argued that the American forces at Cowpens were more numerous and included a wider variety of units than was previously recognized. This belief appears to have affected how he used the source material. I more-or-less agree with Babits about the variety of units, but I am unpersuaded that the Americans were as numerous as he suggested (see below).


Blog Posts in this Project

Background Information:

Order of Battle:

Arguments in favor of a lesser American troop total:

Before the Battle:

The Americans Deploy for Battle:

Unlike others, I have the Americans initially deployed as two lines of infantry, not three. This is because I became convinced the American skirmishers were detached after the British deployed, not before (this is clearly described in Morgan's report on Cowpens). Unlike many writers, I became convinced that the militia deployed as two wings with a sizeable gap between them. Also unlike many writers, I became convinced that the main line deployed as a line of Continentals supported by two detached wings of militia. I make the novel argument that Morgan purposely left a gap between the Continentals and the militia wings to accommodate the retreat of the front-line militia.

The British Deploy for Battle:

Fighting on the Skirmish Line:

Unlike other writers, I have the retreat of the skirmishers (and later, the militia line) covered by two companies of mounted militia.

Fighting on the Militia Line:

Initial Fighting on the Main Line:

Unlike others, I have the front-line militia retreating straight back towards the main line, passing through the gaps between the Continentals and the two wings of main-line militia. Most histories have the militia retreat around the left flank of the main line. I also took a unique view of the British cavalry charges during the battle. I accepted Babits' argument that two charges were made, but I came to a different view about the purpose, sequence, and timing of these charges.

The American Counterattack:

The defeat of Tarleton's forces is usually attributed to a double envelopment. I don't exactly disagree with this description, but I do argue that that the British line broke first in its center, and that the resulting two parts separately surrendered. I also have a unique take on Washington's charge against the British dragoons.

The Battle Ends:

I have Tarleton's famous countercharge occuring at a later point in the battle than do others. I accepted Babits' assertion that American losses were higher than is usually described in histories of the battle, but I used somewhat different reasoning to arrive at this conclusion.


The animation below shows each of the maps I generated for this project. Please note that the length of time represented by each image is variable. The links above provide a proper explanation of what is occurring at each time point.


Americans are in blue: 1 & 2 = American cavalry, 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. British are in red: 9 = Front line, 10 = Ogilvie's company of British Legion dragoons, 11 = British vanguard / miscellaneous British Legion dragoons, 12 = 17th Light Dragoons, 13 = 71st Foot, 14 = British Legion dragoon reserve.


Additional Thoughts:

A few posts on Cowpens were written subsequent to the 25-post sequence describe above. These include:

On the Representation of the Battle with Military Miniatures

The scale of the representation is 1:20 at a 15mm-miniature scale. The use of the miniatures is primarily to illustrate the action in a way that cannot easily be accomplished with maps alone. I acknowledge, however, that the recreation in miniature is far from a perfect representation of the actual fighting. I haven't built a battlefield before (and I had problems making this one). One of the reasons why I chose Cowpens is that the battlefield was relatively flat and without buildings, fields, or fences. As far as the vegetation is concerned, I kept things simplistic. I made no attempt, for example, to render canebrakes, as has been alleged to have been present around the streams bordering the battlefield. There are likely also fewer miniature trees on the battlefield than should be there. Admittedly, I've put more effort into modeling the fighting than I have into modeling terrain features and vegetation. I also wanted to keep things simple so that I could easily move the miniatures from one spot to another so as to represent the various phases of the battle.

I recognize that while I may be perhaps a competent painter, I'm not a particularly accomplished one, and further that the manner in which the miniatures were originally sculpted and the manner in which I chose to paint them does not perfectly accord with the uniforms and equipment borne at Cowpens. There is no point in criticizing me about gun carriages, trousers, canteens, epaulets, half-spatterdashes, and the like as I am most likely already aware of these errors in the representation. Most of these matters are quite minor (to my mind anyways). If one wishes to find more detailed, handsome, and historically accurate representations of the soldiers at Cowpens, it is best to look elsewhere. I particularly recommend the artwork of Don Troiani.

The representation of the battle includes miniature casualties. It is not a simple matter to divide the number of casualties thought to have occurred across the various units on the battlefield and across the different phases of the battle. On this count, documentation is rather poor. Therefore, my placement of casualties on the battlefield should be taken primarily as an invocation of casualties occurring, rather than as a strict statement about the number of losses occurring within a given unit at a given time. The total losses shown, however, are consistent with historical totals.


I have relied very heavily on online materials in preparing this project. In particular, I have relied greatly upon Edwin Bearss' and John Moncure's well-sourced histories, the latter in particular because it includes numerous transcriptions of the original source material. The Cowpens National Park Service website has also been especially helpful, and it has Bearss' books and other works online. This project also would not have been possible without the website, which is a home to thousands of transcribed pension applications. I owe a debt of gratitude to the volunteers who have made an enormous investiture of their time in preparing those transcriptions. Google Books has also been an indispensable resource, and allows instant access to most of the early histories of the battle. I have also frequented, which is a source of all kinds of useful information about the hobby, and I have found much inspiration in a number of other blogs, especially those listed on my blog roll.