The Americans watched in awe as the light infantry and British Legion infantry deployed into line and marched forward. Behind this leading edge of the British advance they could see a large column of infantry, artillery, and cavalry.
Private James Collins who was with the front line militia, remembered when “the enemy came into full view. The sight, to me at least, seemed somewhat imposing.”
Although behind the militia, the Continentals could also see the British advance [see Note 1].
Private Henry Wells of Delaware remembered that “At the onset we were much alarmed by the Superiority of the Enemy in numbers.” However, Morgan was with them, and when he spoke, his “powerful and trumpetlike voice… drove fear from every bosom, and gave new energies to every arm.”
Meanwhile, Tarleton had determined on a plan of attack. So far he had advanced his light infantry, British Legion infantry, and one cannon. Together, these units covered a little over half the width of the American front line. He gave orders for the next regiment in column (the 7th Foot) and the cannon behind it to complete the front line. In his words, “the 7th regiment was commanded to form upon the left of the legion infantry, and the other three-pounder was given to the right division of the 7th.”
Tarleton also had on hand the two troops of dragoons he had dispatched to reinforce the advance guard on the approach to Cowpens. He ordered these troops to support the front line. “A captain, with fifty dragoons was placed on each flank of the corps, who formed the British front line, to protect their own, and threaten the flanks of the enemy.”
Other commands were issued bringing forward the 1st battalion of the 71st Foot, and his remaining mounted forces, which would constitute the British reserve.
Tarleton knew little more about the battlefield than what he was able to see from horseback, riding across the front of the American position. However, there was no need to perform a turning movement across unfamiliar terrain. The American force to his immediate front was less than formidable. Tarleton therefore deployed his front-line infantry on a line that more-or-less matched in width that of the American militia. His men were deployed in open order in two ranks; this formation facilitated movement through wooded terrain and would keep casualties relatively low. It also enabled him to keep a large part of his force in reserve.
Tarleton later complemented himself on how well the deployment proceeded. “The disposition was planned with coolness, and executed without embarrassment.”
According to Lieutenant Thomas Anderson of Delaware, the British deployment did not meet with resistance because “We had no artillery to annoy them and the Genl not thinking it prudent to advance from the ground [on which] We had form'd,” Instead, according to Lee, Morgan “waited in stern silence for the enemy.”
In fact, the British deployment was impeded, but by the terrain rather than by the Americans. To complete the British line, the 7th Foot had to advance cross relatively low, boggy ground, away from the road [see Note 2]. Tarleton also directed that his reserve infantry “The 1st battalion of the 71st… extend a little to the left of the 7th regiment, and to remain one hundred and fifty yards in the rear.” The 71st Foot marched into this even lower, boggier ground that possibly was, unlike other parts of the battlefield, covered with underbrush. Lieutenant Roderick Mackenzie recorded that “The seventy-first regiment… who had not as yet disentangled themselves from the brushwood with which Thickelle Creek abounds [see Note 3], were directed to form [i.e., form a line behind the 7th Foot], and wait for orders.”
Morgan and Anderson watched the stationary British front line, perhaps not realizing the difficulties that were occurring with the final stage of their deployment (the British left flank was screened from their view by the crest of the ridge in front). Anderson recalled only that “We [the British and Americans] look'd at each other for a Considerable time.” Morgan may not have had artillery to harass the British, but he did have an abundance of long-ranged riflemen. Taking advantage of the failure of the British to mount an immediate attack, he seized the initiative. Morgan reported that, “The [British] disposition of battle being thus formed, small parties of riflemen were detached to skirmish with the enemy.” Private John Thomas of Virginia noted that, “Gel. Morgan then rode down to the rifle men and gave them orders to fire.”
Major Joseph McJunkin and the South Carolinians on the right wing of the militia line anxiously watched as “Tarleton [was] marching up and filing [his troops] to the right and left, [until they were] formed in battle assay” [see Note 4]. General Morgan then rode up to them and asked “‘Boys, who will bring on the battle?’” According to McJunkin, “Col. Farr [Lieutenant-Colonel William Farr] & Major McJunkin stepped out.” These two commanders then turned to their men and asked, “‘Boys, who will go with us’.” Then “others stepped out until Morgan said there were enough, & said ‘Go & bring on the action & if you are pressed, retreat, & come in on our flank.’”
Morgan also visited McDowell’s North Carolinians and Cunningham’s Georgians and made a similar request [see Note 5].
In the rear of the American position, Lieutenant-Colonel William Washington, observing the skirmishers advance, sent his mounted militia forward to cover them [see Note 6].
The Americans strode forward. Soon there was, according to McJunkin, “a corps of picked riflemen [see Note 7]… scattered in loose order along the whole front” “at a distance of 150 yards” in front of the militia line. At that distance they could fire on the British with impunity [see Note 8].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, 8 = American Skirmishers, 9 = British Front Line (including two three-pounders), 10 = Captain David Ogilvie's Company, 11 = British Mounted Vanguard, 12 = 17th Light Dragoons, 13 = 71st Foot, 14 = British Legion Dragoon Reserve.
In moving forward, the group of South Carolinians with Farr and McJunkin headed directly toward the still-deploying left-flank of the British line. This group was not well remembered after the battle [see Note 9]. However, they soon would play an important role. These men watched, according to McJunkin, as “the red coats stream before the eyes of the militia. A column marches up in front of Brandon's men [i.e., the South Carolinians] led by a gayly dressed officer on horseback.” This column was either the 7th Foot or the two companies of light infantry assigned to cover the left flank (see Who Did John Savage Shoot?).
According to Thomas Young: This “British Officer rode up towards the advance guard of Morgan's Army [i.e,. the skirmishers] & calling them in a loud voice "dam’d Rebels," ordered them to disperse.”
McJunkin stated that then, “The word passes along the line, "Who can bring him down?" John Savage looked Col. Farr [Lieutenant-Colonel William Farr] full in the face and read yes in his eye. He darted a few paces in front, laid his rifle against a sapling, a blue gas streamed above his head, the sharp crack of a rifle broke the solemn stillness of the occasion and a horse without a rider wheeled from the front of the advancing column” [see Note 10].
Young believed the same thing [see Note 11]. “John Savage instantly raised his rifle & fired & the British Officer fell from his horse mortally wounded.” Thus, “John Savage fired the first gun in this battle.” Or at least, the first gunshot after the two armies had deployed.
1. This point confirms that the tree cover on the battlefield was thin. See Cowpens Battlefield in Miniature.
2. See Alexander Chesney's Rivulet.
3. Mackenzie was mistaken that the men of the 71st were near Thicketty Creek (which was some miles distant), but there still may have been some kind of watercourse in this area. Perhaps he mentioned Thicketty Creek because it was the one local watercourse whose name he heard.
4. In my recreation of the American deployment I placed these South Carolinians a short distance behind the crown of the ridge on which they were placed. I am uncertain whether they would have been able to see, from this position, the British deployment. Some officers, perhaps including McJunkin, were on horseback, which would have helped. However, privates like James Collins also recalled seeing the British deployment. Perhaps the angle of the American militia line should be one that better conforms to the crown of this ridge.
5. Several participant accounts indicate that a portion of McDowell’s battalion was in this force. For example, Richard Crabtree of McDowell’s battalion remembered that “Captain McDowell & his company of which applicant was one was ordered out to meet General Tarleton & bring on the action, this action commenced early in the morning.” Likewise, Richard Swearingen of McDowell’s battalion stated “he was one of the Company who first fired.”
The clearest statement of Cunningham’s involvement is found in Morgan’s report of the battle. Speaking of the entire battalion of Georgians, Major James Jackson wrote in a letter to Morgan that, “The detachment was small; but… you placed them in front of the whole.” This language suggests that all of Cunningham’s men were deployed as skirmishers.
6. This deployment proved to be of minor consequence, and only two participant accounts mention it (those of Thomas Young and William Neel). The key passages from their statements will be quoted in upcoming posts. Young did not specify which American cavalry units were involved; Neel referred only to mounted militia.
7. The skirmishers were not exactly individually handpicked. McJunkin’s account indicates that the skirmishers from his regiment were volunteers. Statements relating to the Georgian and North Carolina skirmishers suggest at least company-sized detachments were sent forward.
8. The skirmishers were in range of the British but the British were not in range of the skirmishers. The skirmishers’ rifles had a much longer range than did the British regulars’ muskets. Lawrence Babits’ A Devil of a Whipping provides an insightful examination of the weapon abilities of contemporary rifles and muskets.
9. Colonel Henry Lee wrote in his history that these skirmishers were only, “Two light parties of militia, under Major M'Dowel, of North Carolina, and Major Cunningham, of Georgia.” Lee thought they had “orders to feel the enemy as he approached.” This would seem to have been the role fulfilled earlier by Inman’s vedettes. McJunkin’s statement suggests that the role of the skirmishers was to provoke, disrupt, and injure the British.
10. According to Young, Lieutenant-Colonel Farr did not directly indicate that Savage should fire. Rather when Farr “was riding to and fro, along the lines… he saw Savage fix his eye upon a British officer; he [Savage] stepped out of the ranks, raised his gun-fired, and he [Farr] saw the officer fall.
11. Young was nearby, but not immediately present. He specifically said “I have heard old Col. Fair [Farr] say often, that he believed John Savage fired the first gun in this battle,” and that “John Savage, in my opinion fired the first gun at the Battle of the Cowpens.”
John Moncure's The Cowpens Staff Ride and Battlefield Tour webpage has a transcription of the statement by Collins, Anderson, Thomas, and others.
Will Graves trancribed the pension application of Henry Wells (.pdf file).
Marg Baskin's Banastre Tarleton website has a transcription of Tarleton's memoir, and Mackenzie's Strictures.
Henry Lee's 1812 Memoirs of the War in the Southern Department of the United States
This issue (.pdf file) of The Southern Campaigns of the American Revolution magazine includes an article by Will Graves that provides a complete treatment of McJunkin's statements.
One of Young's statements appears in the pension application of John Jolly (.pdf file), transcribed by Will Graves.
Will Graves transcribed the pension application of Richard Crabtree (.pdf file).
Will Graves transcribed the pension application of Richard Swearingen (.pdf file).
Theodorus Bailey Myers' 1881 Cowpens Papers has a copy of Jackson's letters.
C. Leon Harris transcribed the pension application of William Neel (.pdf file).
Lawrence Babits' A Devil of a Whipping: The Battle of Cowpens is available through amazon.com.