Saturday, April 18, 2009

Cowpens in Miniature 13

Part 13: Fighting on the Skirmish Line

Private John Savage’s shot rang across the battlefield. The other skirmishers Morgan had sent forward were also in range of the British line and, according to Major Joseph McJunkin, “In a few moments the fire is general.” The American commander, Brigadier-General Daniel Morgan, stated that the skirmishers “gave them [the British] a heavy and galling fire.”

The British commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Banastre Tarleton, responded to the American gunfire by hurrying up the remainder of this deployment and ordering his forces to advance. Tarleton, however, didn’t mention that his men were under fire. He gave as the reason why “he hurried the formation of his troops” was that he was “gratified with the certainty of battle” and “prone to presume on victory.”

Under rifle fire, the 7th Foot and remaining British light infantry formed into line. Major George Hanger learned that “While Lieutenant Colonel Tarleton was reconnoitering the enemy on his right, a scattering fire commenced by some recruits of the 7th, who had but newly joined their regiment, and seen no service.” These men couldn’t help but fire back at their tormentors, even though the Americans were still out of range. Hanger asserted that “This unsteady behaviour he [Tarleton] silenced to the utmost of his power, and then led the line to action” [see Note 1].

Fighting on the Skirmish Line (two views; click to enlarge). Shots are fired by the American skirmishers as the British complete their deployment. Some men of the 7th Foot fire in response.

Because the British left and right deployed at different times and with different degrees of difficulty, a range of opinions formed about the propriety of Tarleton’s decision to advance at this moment. Lieutenant Roderick Mackenzie of the 71st Foot light infantry complained that, “Without the delay of a single moment, and in despite of extreme fatigue, the light-legion infantry and fusiliers were ordered to form in line.” However, Major Hanger, who knew many of those in the battle, learned that “Lieutenant Colonel Tarleton did halt the troops for near half an hour, and made them throw of their knapsacks and blankets to render them lighter for action.”

American sources likewise offer varying descriptions of when the British advance began. As has already been noted, Lieutenant Thomas Anderson of the Delaware Continentals remembered a prolonged wait before the British advance began. However, Private James Collins of South Carolina recalled that the British “halted for a short time, and then advanced rapidly, as if certain victory.” Cavalryman James Kelly echoed Mackenzie when he stated that the British “hardly got formed before Tarlton made his charge.”

The beginning of the British attack was an auspicious moment remembered by a number of participants. Lieutenant Anderson wrote in his journal that the British “about Sunrise… began the attack by the Discharge of two pieces of cannon and three Huzzas advancing briskly On our rifle men that Was posted in front.”

Morgan, who had remained with the militia after sending the skirmishers forward observed that “their whole line moved on with the greatest impetuosity, shouting as they advanced.” Thomas Young, who was nearby with the mounted militia, also watched the advance. “About sun-rise, the British line advanced at a sort of trot, with a loud halloo. It was the most beautiful line I ever saw. When they shouted, I heard Morgan say, "They gave us the British halloo, boys, give them the Indian halloo, by G_"; and he galloped along the lines, cheering the men, and telling them [the men on the militia line] not to fire until we could see the whites of their eyes.”

The two British cannon were lined up with the gap between the wings of front-line American militia. Their fire was directed not at the thin line of militia, but rather at the large block of Continentals further down field. Their fire does not seem to have been particularly accurate, for there is little evidence that the Continentals suffered from cannon fire. Instead, the British round shot flew over or past the Continentals, affecting the Continental light dragoons posted in reserve.

Thomas Young noted “the British line advanced under cover of their artillery… it opened so fiercely upon the centre, that Col. Washington moved his cavalry from the centre towards the right wing” [see Note 2]. This move placed the American cavalry on lower ground and placed the crest of the foremost ridge between the dragoons and the British guns.

The British advanced “in as good a line as troops could move at open files,” according to Tarleton. As they did so, the American skirmishers fell back, preventing the British from getting into range. Thomas Young recalled that “After the first fire [i.e., the first fire after the British began their attack], the militia retreated, and the cavalry covered their retreat.” The mounted militiamen were on hand to protect the skirmishers from a sudden dash by the British cavalry, but as this did not occur, they merely escorted the skirmishers back towards the militia line.

The skirmishers meanwhile kept “up a warm fire… [while] gradually retreating,” according to Major James Jackson. Sergeant-Major William Seymour thought that the militia “stood very well for some time.” His superior, Lieutenant Thomas Anderson, was also impressed. “[The riflemen] Fought Well Disputing the ground that Was between them and us, Flying from One tree to another” [see Note 3]. Private John Thomas of Virginia thought that these militiamen fired, in total, “five rounds.”

The British Attack the Skirmishers. 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, 10 = Captain David Ogilvie's Company, 11 = British Mounted Vanguard, 12 = 17th Light Dragoons, 13 = 71st Foot, 14 = British Legion Dragoon Reserve.

The Skirmish Line Retreats (two views; click to enlarge). The American skirmishers fire their finals shots as the British advance on the militia line.

Henry Lee wrote that the skirmishers, after “preserving a desultory well-aimed fire… fell back to the front line, to range with it and renew the conflict.” There, they “arrayed with Pickens” [see Note 4]. Watching from the main line, Private William Neel of Virginia saw that the militia, “broke in the centre.” Neel did not realize that the Americans were merely following orders. According to Morgan, the skirmishers under “McDowall and Cunningham… retreated to the regiments intended for their support.” This meant that the men under McDowell and Cunningham took up positions on the right and left wing of the militia line, respectively, leaving a gap between them [see Note 5].

As for the mounted militia, Thomas Young noted that when the militia “were again formed… we retired to the rear,” meaning to a new station behind the militia line. Once again, the mounted militia were expected to cover their comrades when they retreated.


1. Hanger provided most detail about this incident. There are subtle differences between Tarleton's and Hanger's versions. Tarleton's account implies that the 7th stopped to fire at the skirmishers after the British attack began. Tarleton also did not claim to have personally stopped the recruits from firing.

2. This statement serves as another indication that there was relatively thin tree cover on the battlefield.

3. With a gap between the two wings of the militia line directly in front of the Continentals, these skirmishers were in fact the only militia troops between them and the British.

4. Most participant accounts of the battle do not distinguish between the front-line militia and the skirmishers, but rather indicate that there was only one militia line. This is a very strong indication that the skirmishers served double duty. All of the British accounts (Tarleton, Hanger, Mackenzie, Cornwallis, Stewart, Chesney) are of this view. Descriptions of skirmishers that were in some sense distinct from the militia line appear principally in Morgan, and the detailed participant accounts by McJunkin and Young, and in reliable postwar histories by nonparticipants, like Lee and Moultrie.

The strongest contraindicative statement is by Major Joseph McJunkin, who wrote that “The sharpshooters fall behind Pickens.” This could mean that the skirmishers (or at least the group with McJunkin) did not participate in the militia line fighting. Alternatively, he may have meant only that the skirmishers stopped retreating only when they cleared the militia line; there they could reload their rifles in peace.

5. There is no reason why the gap built into the militia line would also have been present on the skirmish line. Indeed, a position in front of the gap between the two wings of the militia line was an ideal place for the skirmishers to fight. From there they could retreat to their comrades without obstructing their comrades’ view of the enemy.


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.

James Graham's (1856) The Life of General Daniel Morgan has a copy of Morgan's report, and a copy of Jackson's letters.

A transcription of William Seymour's journal can also be found on this Battle of Camden website.

Marg Baskin's Banastre Tarleton website has a transcription of Tarleton's, Mackenzie's, and Hanger's accounts of the battle.

John Moncure's online history of the battle, The Cowpens Staff Ride and Battlefield Tour, has a transcription of the statement by Anderson, Collins, Young, Thomas, and Neel, among other sources.

C. Leon Harris transcribed the pension application of James Kelly (.pdf file).

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

A transcription of Lieutenant-General Charles Cornwallis' statement about the battle can be found here.

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

The Journal of Alexander Chesney

William Moultrie's 1802 Memoirs of the American Revolution

Related: The American Skirmishers, The Militia Line: Composition and Organization, Who Did John Savage Shoot?

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