Friday, March 27, 2009

Cowpens in Miniature 3

Part 3: American Order of Battle
Previous: British Order of Battle

There is considerable uncertainty about the number of American participants at the battle of Cowpens, a topic about which I have previously commented on at length. I noted that two trustworthy sources (Brigadier-General Daniel Morgan and Sergeant-Major William Seymour) placed the American total at or below 800 men.

In this post I describe the American order of battle in some detail. In this description, Morgan's command has a total of 950 men.

The chief reason why I chose a larger total concerns the question of how many militia were present at the battle. Why Morgan's and Seymour's accounts imply a very low total, other credible sources explicitly indicate otherwise (see How Many Fought at Cowpens?). These statements include a total in the neighborhood of 350 for just the militia line (Otho Williams) to a total for all of the militia of about 500 (Nathanael Greene), 550 (US Congressional Resolution) or 600 men (William Moultrie). In my scheme there are around 590 militia (45 mounted militia, 230 on the main line, and 315 on the militia line).

My total of 950 men is not likely to sit well with some.

Those readers swayed by contemporary author Lawrence Babits would regard this number as too low. He estimated between 1,800 and 2,400 Americans were present at the battle. His estimate of a comparatively large total is based chiefly on an examination of pension applications filed by veterans after the war. I'm in favor of using pension application as a source of information, but I was unswayed by his analysis. This topic was covered in six previous posts (see How Many Fought at Cowpens?, Problems with Pensions, Veteran Survival, Little River Regiment, Morgan and Seymour, Fitting Large Numbers on the Militia Line).

Conversely, those swayed by early historian James Graham would regard this number as too high. I quoted him before, but a key passage bears repeating.

"It is true, his entire command, including all the militia that arrived previous to the battle, would appear to be about nine hundred and eighty men, if army returns and muster rolls were alone consulted. But every one acquainted with military affairs knows that such evidences of strength always exceed the reality. A number of his regulars were sick at the time, and many of the militia were absent. One detachment had been sent off with the baggage, another had gone to Salisbury in charge of prisoners, and a third guarded the horses of the militia. Besides, after the retreat of the militia from the front line, several of them never again appeared in the field, and a few mounted their horses and fled from the ground. Such men should not be permitted to lesson the glory of the achievement, by sharing in the honors of the victors as well as diminishing the mortification of the vanquished. The forces engaged in the battle under Morgan did not exceed eight hundred and fifty men."

Below I describe in some detail the composition of the American force, and estimate the size of each component. I don't have great confidence in the estimates of the various components, but at least there is some logic behind the decisions and the total is consistent with early sources.

American Deployment at Cowpens (click to enlarge). 1 = Continental Light Dragoons; 2 = Mounted Militia; 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. Each miniature represents approximately 20 combatants.

Cavalry Reserve

Lieutenant-Colonel William Washington, commanding. Units #1 & #2 in the above figure.

Continental Light Dragoons: 72 men (Lieutenant-Colonel William Washington). See The American Cavalry - Part 1 for additional details.

Mounted Militia: ~45 men (served in two companies commanded by Major James McCall and Captain Banjamin Jolly). See The American Cavalry - Part 2 for additional details.

Total: ~117 men

The Main Line Continentals

Lieutenant-Colonel John Eager Howard commanding. Unit #4 in the figure.

1st Delaware Regiment: ~60 men. (one light infantry company under Captain Robert Kirkwood; total is based on Babits' A Devil of a Whipping).

1st Maryland Regiment: ~180 men (three light infantry companies under Captains Richard Anderson, Henry Dobson, and Nicholas Mangers; information from Babits.

Virginian Continentals: ~20 men (one company under Captain Andrew Wallace). William Jewell who fought in this company wrote, "Captain Wallace... marched us to Charlotte in North Carolina where we Joined General Greene: General Morgan was here permitted to select about 20 men to reinforce his own little band of perhaps 300 men against Tarleton at the Cowpens – he was selected as one and after the battle went as guard with the prisoners to Albemarle Barracks in Virginia."

Others: ~33 men.

As noted previously, some Virginia State troops and North Carolina Continentals may have served on the main line. Like Wallace's men, they may have been handpicked to supplement Morgan's other Continentals. Colonel Otho Williams in a January 23, 1781 letter said that Morgan had 290 light infantry. There were perhaps 237 Maryland and Delaware Continentals (number based on U.S. Congressional Resolution of March 9, 1781), plus 20 men with Wallace. An additional 33 men would produce a total force of 290.

That Howard's light infantry was an amalgam of men drawn from several units rather than a single large regiment is a reflection of the destitute condition of the American army in the South. On December 7, 1780, Major-General Nathanael Greene wrote to General George Washington complaining that:

"Nothing can be more wretched and distressing than the condition of the troops, starving with cold and hunger, without tents and camp equipage. Those of the Virginia line are literally naked, and a great part totally unfit for any kind of duty, and must remain so untill clothing can be had."

It was necessary to handpick men for service with Morgan because so many were incapable of a rigorous campaign.

Total: ~290 men (based on Williams)

Main Line Militia

Units #3 & #5 in the figure.

Major Francis Triplett's Virginia militia battalion: ~170 men (four companies under Captains James Tate, Patrick Buchanan, James Gilmore, and either Captain Combs or Lieutenant Dearing). The total number is based on the aforementioned letter by Williams.

Little River Regiment of South Carolina militia: ~40 men (Colonel Joseph Hayes, commanding). Daniel Morgan's letter of Jan 4, 1781 identified "forty militia horsemen under Col. Hays." A regimental strength of about 40 men can be interpreted as being consistent with statements made by Private Aaron Guyton of South Carolina (see Little River Regiment). Statements by Morgan and Seymour likewise suggest that the South Carolina militia regiments were quite small (see Morgan and Seymour).

Babits pointed out that there were last minute arrivals adding to the strength of the militia on the eve of the battle. However, there were also last minute departures. Major Joseph McJunkin observed that these regiments included a significant number of "pet tories" who were reluctant to fight (and prone to desert), and Morgan complained that he couldn't keep the militia together.

Other Units: ~20 men (conjectural). This includes a company of North Carolina State Troops commanded by Captain Henry Connelly.

As noted previously, some other militia units have been identified with the main line by various sources. Babits noted that his review of pension applications placed two companies (50 men) of Major David Campbell's Virginia militia battalion at the battle. The pension applications in question are lacking in details. It is not clear how many companies were in this battalion, how many men were in each company, whether all or only part of the companies served in the battle, or even whether the claims made in the applications are trustworthy. As these men are not mentioned in other participant accounts, this group, if present, was not likely to have been of a significant factor in the battle.

Total: ~230 men.

Placement of Militia Units on the Main Line

Of the Virginia militia, Combs'/Dearing's company (~42 men; based on a four-way division of Triplett's 170 men) and Tate's company (~42 men) appear to have been on the left wing, while Buchanan's company (~42 men), appears to have been on the right. Hayes' Little River Regiment (~40 men), and Connelly's company (~20 men) also appear to have been on the right wing (see The Main Line: Composition). I have not been able to place Gilmore's company on either wing. To even things out, I tentatively place Gilmore's company on the left wing to bring that total over the desired threshold. This gives the left wing 126 men (all Virginians), and the right wing 102 men (a hodgepodge of units from several states).

Lieutenant-Colonel John Eager Howard noted that at the climax of the battle that he had only 350 men with him. At this time, the right wing of the main line had fled, but the left wing remained in place. By my calculations, he would have had 290 Continental and Virginia state troops plus 126 riflemen under Major Francis Triplett. This total (416 men) is considerably above the 350 men Howard stated. It could be that some of my assumptions are in error. Alternatively, Howard, in arriving at 350 men, may have thought only half of the Virginian riflemen remained (this would have been 85 men) and forgot about the other units. He might also have subtracted about 20-25 men due to the losses he had sustained from British fire up to this point. This would result in a total of about 350 men.

Militia Line (Left Wing)

Unit #7 in the figure.

Georgia Refugees: One battalion under Major John Cunningham.

South Carolina State Troops: One regiment under Captain (Major) Samuel Hammond. Hammond is referred to as both a captain and a major. Hammond himself noted that he had been promoted to major, but technically he remained a captain, because he had not yet received his commission. Hammond stated that he

"Commanded on the left of the front line as Major of McCall's Regiment. It is here necessary to observe that Col. McCall had been promoted to the command of a Regiment of Cavalry authorized to be enrolled for six months & Applicant appointed to the Majority neither had yet been commissioned & only few armed with swords & pistols. The Refugee militia attached to their respective commands enrolled in the regiment and were promised by the Governor to be provided with clothing & arms as soon as they could be procured --- not a day was lost in recruiting nor was the full number made up before the Battle. The few 25 to 30 that were equipped as Horsemen were placed under Col. McCall and attached to Col. Washington's command. Those who were not so equipped were armed with Rifles & placed under the Applicant."

Upper Ninety-Six Regiment of South Carolina militia: I argued in a previous post that the left wing of the militia line likely included Colonel Andrew Pickens' regiment of South Carolina militia and perhaps also other volunteers from Georgia and South Carolina not affiliated with either Cunningham or Hammond. (see The Militia Line: Composition and Organization).

Total: ~115 men. I have not found information about the number of men in these units, therefore, I defer to Babits' number, which in turn comes from an unpublished study described in the Greene Papers. I haven't read the study and so I can offer no comment other than that the number seems plausible.

Militia Line (Right Wing)

Unit #6 in the figure.

Major Joseph McDowell's battalion of North Carolina militia: ~120 men. This total is based on a letter from Daniel Morgan to Nathanael Greene, dated December 31, 1780.

1st Spartan Regiment of South Carolina militia: ~40 men (Colonel John Thomas, commanding). The estimate is an extension of that for Hayes' regiment (see above).

2nd Spartan Regiment of South Carolina militia: ~80 men (two battalions; Colonel Joseph Brandon and Lieutenant-Colonel Benjamin Roebuck, commanding). Again, the estimate is an extension of the reasoning applied to Hayes' regiment.

The battalions of McDowell, Thomas, Brandon, and Roebuck are estimated to have had a total force of 240 men. However, there were some significant detachments. Captain Samuel Otterson of Brandon's battalion indicated that 30 men were detached as serving as spies and missed the battle. Captain Benjamin Jolly, also of Brandon's battalion, commanded a company of mounted militia contained men drawn, in part, from the South Carolinians' ranks (see The American Cavalry - Part 2).

Total: ~200 men (240 men - detachments).

Grand Total

  • Cavalry: ~117 men
  • Main Line Continentals: ~290 men
  • Main Line Militia: ~230 men
  • Militia Line (Left Wing): ~115 men
  • Militia Line (Right Wing): ~200 men

Total ~950 men


Lawrence Babits' A Devil of a Whipping: The Battle of Cowpens is available through

Will Graves transcribed the pension application of William Jewell (.pdf file).

A summary of the Otho Williams papers can be found here. The item in question is a letter from Williams to Dr. James McHenry, dated January 23, 1781.

A transcription of the letter from Greene to Washington can be found here.

January 23, 1781 letter from Major-General Nathanael Greene to Brigadier-General Francis Marion (not available online).

Theodorus Bailey Myers' 1881 Cowpens Papers has the U.S. Congressional Resolution, a copy of the statement by Jackson, and various statements by Morgan.

This issue (.pdf file) of The Southern Campaigns of the American Revolution magazine provides a complete treatment of McJunkin's statements.

Will Graves trancribed the pension application of Samuel Hammond (.pdf file).

Will Graves transcribed the pension application of Samuel Otterson (.pdf file).

James Graham's 1856 The Life of General Daniel Morgan

Related: How Many Fought at Cowpens?, The Main Line: Composition, The Militia Line: Composition and Organization

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