The British column, commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Banastre Tarleton, halted on the edge of the Cowpens battlefield. In front was the British advanced guard, supported by two companies of light dragoons. Tarleton had earlier consulted with his guides as to this position; he now found that it was as the scouts had related to him.
“The ground where General Morgan had chosen for the engagement, in order to cover his retreat to Broad river, was disadvantageous for the Americans, and convenient for the British: An open wood was certainly as proper a place for action as Lieutenant- colonel Tarleton could desire; America does not produce many more suitable to the nature of the troops under his command. The situation of the enemy was desperate in case of misfortune; an open country, and a river in their rear, must have thrown them entirely into the power of a superior cavalry” [see Note 1].
Other British sources agreed with this assessment. Lieutenant Roderick Mackenzie stated that Morgan “had formed his troops… in an open wood, secured neither in front, flank, nor rear.” The British after action report stated, “Everything now bore the most promising Aspect. The Enemy were drawn up in an open wood and, having been lately joined by some Militia, were more numerous; but the different Quality of the Corps under Lieut. Col. Tarleton's Command, and his great superiority in cavalry, left him no room of doubt of the most brilliant Success.”
Tarleton would attack, but he had first to inspect the American position and develop a battle plan. Therefore, he “ordered the legion dragoons to drive in the militia parties who covered the front, that General Morgan's disposition might be conveniently and distinctly inspected.”
It is supposed, in some histories of the battle, that these “militia parties” comprised the skirmish line that first offered resistance to the British attack. In fact this was not so; Morgan indicated in his report that the skirmish line was advanced only after the British deployed for battle. Instead, these “parties” were the stalwarts commanded by Captain Joshua Inman of Georgia, who had resisted the advance of the British vanguard, and who had been driven to the edge of the American position [see Note 2].
The British Vanguard Reaches Cowpens. The British mounted vanguard has halted on the edge of the Cowpens battlefield. Several hundred yards to their front, Captain Joshua Inman's vedettes continue to screen the front of the American position.
As the dragoons advanced, Inman yielded and his men took up their assigned places on the militia line.
Tarleton likely rode with these dragoons, for he claimed to have “discovered that the American commander had formed a front line of about one thousand militia, and had composed his second line and reserve of five hundred continental light infantry, one hundred and twenty of Washington's cavalry, and three hundred back woodsmen” [see Note 3].
Tarleton continued, “This accurate knowledge being obtained, Tarleton desired the British infantry to disencumber themselves of every thing, except their arms and ammunition: The light infantry were then ordered to file to the right till they became equal to the flank of the American front line: The legion infantry were added to their left; and, under the fire of a three-pounder, this part of the British troops was instructed to advance within three hundred yards of the enemy” [see Note 4].The British Deploy for Battle. 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, 9 = British Front Line (including one three-pounder), 10 = Captain David Ogilvie's Company, 11 = British Mounted Vanguard, 12 = 17th Light Dragoons, 14 = British Column of Infantry, Artillery, and Cavalry.
The British Front Line. The British light infantry are posted on the right, the British Legion infantry are posted on the left [see Note 5]. This line was supported by one three-pounder (not shown). The infantry are deployed in open order.
The British Approach. Behind the British front line and advance guard of cavalry, the remainder of the British column waits in the road (from front to back: the 7th Foot, the remaining three-pounder, the 1st battalion of the 71st Foot, and additional British Legion dragoons).
1. Tarleton’s comments in this regard echo those of Winn and Lee.
2. The misunderstanding about these skirmishers, like the misunderstanding about the retreat of the militia, has its origins with William Johnson.
Johnson wrote that Tarleton “ordered the cavalry to advance and drive them [the parties of skirmishers] in. On the advance of the cavalry, the American parties retreated and fell into the first line, and were thus precluded from performing the service for which they were most probably assigned to this advanced position. But they performed another which in the sequel answered nearly as beneficial a purpose. They gave the cavalry a few discharges which made them tremble, for at least that day, at the deadly aim of an American rifleman.”
The misunderstanding is reasonable. Tarleton used the term “small parties” to refer to Inman’s group, while Morgan used the same term to describe the later line of skirmishers.
The argument against Johnson’s interpretation is that neither Tarleton nor Morgan mentioned armed conflict at this interval. An inspection of other participant accounts likewise reveals almost no basis for Johnson’s assertion. The best supporting statement that I could find was a comment in William Knight’s pension application that “the attack was brought on by an attack from Tarleton's Regiment.” This is quite ambiguous; “Tarleton’s Regiment” could refer to either the British infantry or cavalry.
Instead, participant accounts indicate that the line of skirmishers were deployed later. Morgan wrote, “The [British] disposition of battle being thus formed, small parties of riflemen were detached to skirmish with the enemy.” Morgan’s account also indicates that it was the British infantry, not the cavalry, that drove in the line of skirmishers.
Lawrence Babits, in A Devil of a Whipping, performed an unparalleled examination of accounts of the battle. Through this examination he seemingly did not find (or at least cite) participant accounts supporting Johnson’s description of the militia retreat or actions on the skirmish line, but he did attempt to reconcile Johnson’s version of events (what has largely become the conventional understanding of the battle) with his own findings.
Babits noted (p. 187, n. 9) that Captain Richard Hovenden’s company lost 17 k between the end of December, 1780 and February 23, 1781. Discounting Morgan, his account has the line of skirmishers in place before the British deployed, and, based chiefly on Hovenden’s losses (tentatively at least) concluded that Hovenden did perform a charge on the skirmishers that resulted in losses.
There is some kind of error with the number that Babits gives for Hovenden’s loss, but I am unable to explain it. The 17 k seems too high. If Hovenden’s company suffered the usual proportion of wounded then his company would have been annihilated – an inauspicious beginning for the British attack, and one that surely would have garnered notice. Ignoring the wounded, Hovenden’s company lost a greater proportion in killed than the British infantry units that assailed the militia and main lines. This also is implausible.
Marg Baskin's Banastre Tarleton website includes a listing of British Legion dragoon losses at Cowpens, prepared by Don Gara and based on at least one set of muster records. On this website, Hovenden’s company is shown as having lost a mere four captured, and none killed. Gara notes that a problem with these numbers is that they do not add up to the known total losses for the Legion at the battle.
Not having inspected the muster rolls for myself, I can only speculate as to the reasons why Babits’ and Gara’s numbers are so different.
3. It is doubtful that Tarleton was able to make such a perfect reconnaissance of the American position. The numbers he gave are not accurate with the exception of his total for the American cavalry. This may be because he held mounted militiaman Thomas Young as a prisoner after the battle and Tarleton received from him an honest answer about American cavalry numbers.
4. Morgan gave the distance between the British and the American front lines as 400 yards. I defer to Tarleton on this count, who was arguably in a better position to judge distance (Morgan was probably with the main line at this point). Tarleton’s distance places the British front line on the more elevated ground in front of Chesney’s rivulet.
5. I defer to Tarleton on questions of the British deployment, but with considerable reservation. Tarleton's description differs in important respects from Morgan’s reliable account.
In regards to the placement of the light infantry, Tarleton stated that “The light infantry were… ordered to file to the right till they became equal to the flank of the American front line;” this statement implicitly places all of the light infantry on the right flank of the British line.
Morgan indicated that the British light infantry were divided equally between the two flanks. A newspaper account of the battle based on Morgan's report specified that there were 100 men in each flanking party of light infantry, or 200 in total. In my order of battle for the British, the light infantry totaled 148 men. There is enough agreement in these numbers to lend credence to the view that the British light infantry were divided into two parts. This impression is reinforced by an account of the battle implying that the 71st Foot surrendered on the left of the British line along with two companies of light infantry (see British Light Infantry at Cowpens - Part 2).
However, I found through attempting to recreate the battle in miniature that it is difficult to have one group of light infantry sidle repeatedly to the left (first to gain the left of the 7th Foot, then again to gain the left of the 71st). Tarleton's account is followed less because it is well supported by source materials than because it is much simpler to execute.
Marg Baskin's Banastre Tarleton website has a transcription of Tarleton's memoir, Mackenzie's Strictures, and documents pertaining to the British Legion.
James Graham's (1856) The Life of General Daniel Morgan has a copy of Morgan's report.
William Johnson's 1822 Sketches of the Life and Correspondence of Nathanael Greene.
Will Graves transcribed the pension application of William Knight (.pdf file).
Lawrence Babits' A Devil of a Whipping: The Battle of Cowpens is available through amazon.com.
Theodorus Bailey Myers' 1881 Cowpens Papers has the New Jersey newspaper account of the battle.