Thursday, March 12, 2009

Flight of the Militia - Part 4

In a recent series of posts I have considered the question of how the American front line militia retreated safely during the battle of Cowpens. The description of the militia retreat that has most affected my understanding of the battle was provided by Private John Thomas of the Virginia militia.

Thomas recalled that the front-line militia "were 200 yards to the front." Their orders "were to fire... and fall off to the right and flank of the Musquet Line [the Continentals]. When they retreated, they were to pass through "breaks in the Centre... [on] the right and left of the musquetry." This plan is illustrated below.

The Planned American Retreat. 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, 8 = Skirmishers

The traditional view of the retreat, which follows from William Johnson's history is that the entire militia line retreated around the left flank of the main line to a position in the left rear. Then, the militia circled around behind the main line to reenter the fight to the right of the Continentals.

Below I list 10 serious problems with the traditional account of how the American front-line militia retreated and later rejoined the fighting.

1) The retreating militia would have been passing not only across the front of the Continentals, but also across the front of the British infantry. It seems likely that the British would have attacked their vulnerable flank.

2) Most historians have overlooked or discounted that part of Brigadier-General Daniel Morgan's after action report that indicated the front-line militia were deployed in two wings. In other words, they may not have appreciated just how far the militia would have had to march to gain the left flank of the main line.

3) This method of withdrawal was dangerous not only to the militia, but also to the Americans on the main line. So long as the militia were between the British and the main line, the former would have been able to advance on the latter in safety.

4) The alleged path of retreat and return to the battle involved a remarkably circuitous route. For those on the right side of the militia line in particular, the shortest distance to their ultimate destination on the battlefield was more-or-less straight backwards, not around the left flank. Marching an unnecessary distance would have delayed their reentry into the battle.

5) It would have been impractical, if not dangerous, to have the hundreds of militiamen on the front line converge on a single location behind the main line. The various units could well have become intermixed, leading to extra and unnecessary disorder in their ranks.

6) The horses of the militia were located in the left rear of the main line. Bringing all of the front line militia near their horses during the retreat would have facilitated their flight from the battlefield when American success depended on their re-engagement with the British.

7) In no battle of the war did large bodies of American militiamen complete complex maneuvers on the battlefield after the shooting started. Even if such a maneuver were successfully executed on this one occasion, why would the American commanders have planned on such occurrence?

8) The traditional view of the retreat of the further has it that not only did the front line militia undergo this complex maneuver, but they were charged by British dragoons while the maneuver was taking place, and yet this did not greatly impede their ability to successfully execute this maneuver.

9) At the moment that the front line militia were crossing behind the Continentals, the Continentals were themselves heading towards the rear in an accidental retreat. Somehow, the two forces did not collide, nor did the retreat of the Continentals adversely effect the time it took the militia to complete the maneuver.

10) Lawrence Babits, in A Devil of a Whipping, gave good reasons why one should believe that the duration of the main line fighting was relatively short. If his interpretation is correct, then the retreating militia would have received a charge by the British dragoons, sorted themselves back into their proper formation, and marched across the width of the battlefield in mere minutes.


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 statement by Thomas.

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

Related: Flight of the Militia - Part 1, Flight of the Militia - Part 2, Flight of the Militia - Part 3

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