Sunday, March 8, 2009

Flight of the Militia - Part 3

The American commander, Brigadier-General Daniel Morgan, deployed his infantry in two lines during the battle of Cowpens. He knew that the front line, consisting of militia from Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina, would not be able to hold off a British bayonet charge. Nevertheless, he deployed them in front of his Continentals in the hope that they would inflict significant damage on the British before his main battle line was engaged.

In my last two posts, I explored the question of how the American militia might have retreated from the front line in a manner that 1) would have been minimally disruptive to the main American line and 2) is relatively well supported by participant accounts. In so doing, I indicated that the traditional description of the militia retreat (that the entire front line passed around the left flank of the main line) fails on both counts. Instead, I argued that the model of the militia retreat that is both most plausible and best supported by participant accounts is one in which the left and right wings of the militia line retreated around the left and right flanks of the main line, respectively.

Although the version of events I've proposed has strong features, I'm also cognizant of its limitations. The most significant of these, in my view, concerns the location of the militia's horses. The militia were generally mounted and rode when the Continentals had to walk. A few reliable accounts of the battle of Cowpens mention these horses as being staked or tied up not far from where the Continentals and militia were deployed.

Colonel Henry Lee, in his first history of the Southern Campaign, wrote that, "Washington's cavalry, reinforced with a company of mounted militia armed with sabres, was held in reserve; convenient to support the infantry, and protect the horses of the rifle militia, which were tied, agreeably to usage, in the rear."

Lieutenant-Colonel John Eager Howard, in the letter I quoted previously, wrote that, "The militia all rode to the ground and their horses were tied in the woods in the rear of my left flank." This passage, along with Lee's, suggests that all of the horses had been collected in one spot, and this location was the area east or northeast of the Green River Road, somewhere between Suck Creek (see image below; Suck Creek is at the upper right) and Elevation #3. This area is large enough to have accommodated hundreds of horses.

Three Elevations on the Cowpens Battlefield.

Although I believe the right wing of the militia line (#6 in the image below) retreated to the right rear of the main line (i.e., behind #3), one of the militiamen that I've located on the right side of the battlefield recalled encountering the horses (on the far right of the image) after he retreated.

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.

Private James Collins of South Carolina recalled, "We gave the enemy one fire, when they charged us with their bayonets; we gave way and retreated for our horses, Tarleton's cavalry pursued us; ("now," thought I, "my hide is in the loft;") just as we got to our horses, they overtook us and began to make a few hacks at some, however, without doing much injury."

How could Collins and the men with him encounter their horses?

An answer can be found in Lee's first history. Lee wrote, "The enemy, shouting, rushed forward upon the front line, which retained its station, and poured in a close fire; but, continuing to advance with the bayonet on our militia, they retired, and gained with haste the second line. Here, with part of the corps, Pickens took post on Howard's right, and the rest fled to their horses—probably with orders to remove them to a further distance."

In other words, most of the right wing of the militia line did fall back to a point in the right rear of the main line, where they later returned to the fight, but some (with or without orders) instead ran to the horses. Collins' statement marks him as one of those individuals.

If Collins did cross the battlefield from the right to the left to get to the horses, then this passage surely occurred behind the Continentals, rather than in front of them, and before the Continentals accidentally retreated approximately 100 yards.

Another veteran of the battle that recalled encountering the horses while retreating was Captain Henry Connelly of the North Carolina state troops. Connelly stated in his pension application that he was, "just about to catch up our horses which was tied about four hundred paces in the rear of the line of Battle [when the British dragoons] fell upon us with great fury but we was fortunately relieved by Washingtons legion that hastened to our assistance."

Connelly was not on the militia line, but rather on the right militia wing of the main line. Previously I argued that this formation broke apart during the battle. Perhaps Connelly and his men were also attempting to secure their horses. However, when this formation broke apart the area in the right rear of the main line no longer offered sanctuary. These men may have been running towards their horses solely because they were fleeing from danger.

Connelly specifically noted that the horses were "four hundred paces in the rear of the line of Battle." He did not specify that the horses were tied behind the left rear of the main line, as did Howard.

Location of the Militia Horses Behind the Main Line (click to enlarge).

If Connelly's distance is correct and describes how far the horses were tied up behind Triplett's Virginians (the left wing of the main line), then the horses would have been roughly in the area shown. Connelly's statement does not indicate the exact location because it is unclear what distance he understood to be a "pace," how accurate was his assessment of the distance, and whether he was referring to his company's horses or the horses in general.


Henry Lee's 1812 Memoirs of the War in the Southern Department of the United States

John Moncure's The Cowpens Staff Ride and Battlefield Tour webpage has a transcription of one of Howard's letter, and the statements by Collins and Connelly.

Will Graves transcribed the pension application of Henry Connelly (.pdf).

Related: Flight of the Militia - Part 1, Flight of the Militia - Part 2, Flight of the Militia - Part 4

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