Thursday, March 5, 2009

Flight of the Militia - Part 2

In my last post, I raised the question of how the American militia retreated from the front line during the battle of Cowpens. I pointed out that while a number of histories maintain that the Americans retreated from right to left in front of the Continentals, there is little support for this view in participant accounts (none directly describe the retreat in this manner). I suggested that this view of the retreat arose from a misunderstanding by an early chronicler of the battle.

Although Edwin Bearss accepted the traditional view of how the American militia retreated (see his 1967 book, and especially this map), other modern writers have not. John Moncure, in the online Cowpens Staff Ride and Battlefield Tour book, showed the militia retreating to the left and right around either flank of the main line in apparently equal proportions (see this map), but in his text he claimed that in retreating the militia "streamed around both flanks but mostly around the left."

Lawrence Babit's description of the retreat of the militia in A Devil of a Whipping is more complicated. Like Moncure, he took the view that the militia fell back to positions in the left rear and right rear of the main line with more moving to the left than to the right. However, he also had one part of the militia reforming alongside the main line (the commands of Major John Cunningham and Captain Samuel Hammond) and a second part of the militia remaining engaged with the British after the rest of the militia had fallen back (the command of Major Joseph McDowell).

Babits astutely pointed out the logical problems with having the militia retreat across the front of the Continentals. In particular, such a maneuver would have shielded the advancing British from the fire of the Continentals, and it would have exposed the retreating militia to destruction (those militia units furthest on the right of the militia line, at least, seemingly would have been unable to complete their retreat before the advancing British cut them off).

Babits' solution to this implausibility was to have the greater part of the militia retreating straight backwards from the militia line, through temporary gaps in the main line. He pointed to a statement in David Stewart's (1825) Sketches... of the Highlanders (book link) as support for this position.

Stewart wrote, "the enemy's front line moved off precipitately; and the second, which had as yet taken no share in the action, observing confusion and retrograding in their front, suddenly faced to the right, and inclined backwards; a manoeuvre by which a space was left for the front line to retreat, without interfering with the ranks of those who were now to oppose the advance of the Highlanders."

According to Babits, certain companies in the main line fell back a short distance, allowing the militia to retreat through the main line without disrupting the main line as a whole.

The quote from Stewart does not actually support Babits' account, but rather indicates that the whole line drew back. In fact, when the passage is read in context it is clear that what Stewart understood to be a retrograde movement to make room for the retreating militia was actually the accidental retreat of Lieutenant-Colonel John Eager Howard's Continentals in the climatic moments of the battle.

The full passage is as follows:

"[T]he Highlanders were ordered up; and, rapidly advancing in charge, the enemy's front line moved off precipitately; and the second, which had as yet taken no share in the action, observing confusion and retrograding in their front, suddenly faced to the right, and inclined backwards; a manoeuvre by which a space was left for the front line to retreat, without interfering with the ranks of those who were now to oppose the advance of the Highlanders, "who ran in, with characteristic eagerness, desirous to take advantage of the confusion which appeared among the enemy." But the confusion was only in the front line; for Colonel Howard, commanding the enemy's Reserve, threw in a fire upon the 71st when within forty yards of the hostile force. The fire was destructive; nearly one-half of their number fell."

There are other reasons to doubt that the militia retreated straight back through gaps in the main line. It is generally thought that when the militia line fired at the British, the two forces were only a short distance apart, perhaps as little as 30 yards. If thereafter the militia and the British began moving towards the Continentals at the same speed, then the British should have been able to close to within 30 yards of the main line before the Continentals would have had a clear field of fire. One could argue that the British would have been staggered by the fire of the militia line and that they would have been slow to react to the flight of the militia. However, even if the militia did have a head start, there is still reason to be skeptical of the feasibility of this maneuvre. Babits' maps show two gaps in the main line. The militia units (many of them anyways) had to retreat at an angle to reach these gaps; the British had only to advance straight ahead. In Babits' account, at least 600 men were converging on these two locations, creating the possibility of a significant bottleneck effect at the main line. Further, his maps show the main line units falling back about 30 yards back to allow the militia units to pass. Once the militia were out of the way, these companies would have had to march forward the same distance to close the gaps in the main line. All of this suggests that even if the militia had a head start, some of the advancing British could have either reached the main line, or gotten very close to it, before they were subjected to the fire of the Continentals. The American commander, Brigadier-General Daniel Morgan, is broadly credited for his superb plan at Cowpens; it is difficult to believe that his battle plan would have included such an extremely risky element when simpler alternatives were available.

Morgan's after action report and other sources indicate that the American militia were deployed in two wings separated by a gap squarely in front of the Continentals. Morgan expressly indicated that these wings were intended to protect his flanks. An additional benefit of this formation is that it would have facilitated the retreat of the militia. The gap between the two wings of the militia line allowed the Continentals to check a British pursuit of the retreating militia from the moment that the British came within range of their muskets.

This interpretation is also directly supported by participant accounts.

Last time, I pointed out that Lieutenant-Colonel John Eager Howard's letter to Colonel Henry Lee explicitly indicated that some of the militia in his front retreated to his right rear and implicitly indicated that others retreated to his left rear.

Private John Baldwin, who was in Major Joseph McDowell's battalion of North Carolinians on the militia line recalled that the plan for the militia was "to take aim when they fired, and as they retreated to divide to the right & left & form in the rear."

Private John Thomas, who was in Major Francis Triplett's battalion of Virginians on the main line recalled that the militia "fired five rounds and broke in the centre and flanked the right and left of the musquetry [i.e., the continentals, who carried muskets rather than rifles]. The British then charged bayonets on the musquety."

Major Joseph McJunkin, who was with the South Carolinians on the militia line recalled that when the Continentals counterattacked late in the battle, "the militia comes back, and fall in right and left." This statement suggests that militia units previously in the left rear and right rear joined in the counterattack on either flank of the Continentals.


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

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

John Moncure's online history of the battle, The Cowpens Staff Ride and Battlefield Tour, has his interpretation of the militia retreat and transcriptions of the statements by Morgan, Howard, Baldwin, Thomas, and McJunkin.

David Stewart's 1825 Sketches... of the Highlanders of Scotland.

Related: Flight of the Militia - Part 1, The Militia Line: Composition and Organization, Flight of the Militia - Part 4

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