The American skirmishers fell back as the British advanced and took up new positions with the militia line. British historian David Stewart thought that the British were “running;” probably they advanced at the quick step.
Now the men on the militia line steeled themselves for their assigned mission, one massive, lethal blast, delivered at close range. A single shot, fired too soon, had the possibility of triggering a premature volley. Thomas Young on horseback behind these men remembered that “Every officer was crying don't fire! for it was a hard matter for us to keep from it.”
The British Attack the Militia Line. 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, 10 = Captain David Ogilvie's Company, 11 = British Mounted Vanguard, 12 = 17th Light Dragoons, 13 = 71st Foot, 14 = British Legion Dragoon Reserve.
At last, the order was given. Henry Lee wrote that “The enemy, shouting, rushed forward upon the front line, which retained its station, and poured in a close fire.” Fellow American historian William Moultrie thought that the Americans waited “till the enemy came within fifty yards.” Stewart gave the distance as “thirty or forty paces.”
Daniel Morgan wrote that “The whole of Col. Pickens' command then kept up a fire by regiments.” Hammond’s South Carolinians, Cunningham’s Georgians, McDowell’s North Carolinians, and the several small battalions under Brandon, Thomas, and Roebuck all let loose within moments of each other. Thomas Young remembered this as “a whole volley.”
At some point the British fired at the militia as well. William Moultrie noted that the British “threw in a heavy fire upon the militia” before the front-line militia fired. In Stewart’s history, however, they fired second and did so without “vivacity or impression.”
British casualties in this exchange were in all likelihood heavy [see Note 1]. Some losses also occurred among the militia [see Note 2].
In the immediate aftermath, the British had the advantage: they were armed with bayonets while the Americans were not. Private James Collins remembered that “We gave the enemy one fire, when they charged us with their bayonets; we gave way and retreated for our horses” [see Note 3]. Lieutenant-Colonel John Eager Howard, watching the fighting from the main line saw that the British “rushed with bayonets upon the militia who had not time, especially the riflemen to fire a second time.” This is exactly what Morgan had expected. “The whole of Col. Pickens' command then… [began] retreating agreeably to their orders.”
The statements by Collins, Howard, Morgan, and others all imply that the militia quickly retreated, keeping ahead of British bayonets. However, the fighting on the front line may not have been of a single character, and there was perhaps at least one place where the British and Americans entered into close combat. On the left wing of the front line, Captain John Irby recalled that militiaman “Richard Griffin was wounded… by a bayonet in his left thigh by the Enemy and he [the British soldier] would have killed him [Griffin] had he not been shot down by… the Ensign of the Company” [see Note 4].
Thomas Young noted that the militia had “fought for some time, and retreated again.” Once again, the mounted militia interposed between the advancing British and the retreating Americans. Young stated, “I recollect well that the cavalry was twice, during the action, between our army and the enemy.” They did not, however, come to blows with the British infantry. Private William Neel of Virginia was disappointed, observing that “At this battle the South Carolina mounted militia under Colo Brannon proved very defective in the commencement of the action” [see Note 5].
1. American participants, somewhat surprisingly, did not comment on the effects of this volley. Statements indicating heavy British casualties at this point in the battle appeared only in postwar histories.
David Stewart asserted that the British front line was “exhausted by running… it received the fire of the enemy at the distance of thirty or forty paces. The effect of the fire was considerable: it produced something like a recoil, but not to any extent. The fire was returned, but not with vivacity or impression; and it continued ten or twelve minutes in a state of balance, both parties keeping their ground. The light infantry made two attempts to charge, but were repulsed with loss- The action making no progress, the Highlanders were ordered up; and, rapidly advancing in charge, the enemy's front line moved off precipitately.”
William Johnson claimed that “At the assigned distance they [the militia] delivered their fire with unerring aim, and it was the magnanimous confession of a gallant officer of the Maryland line who fought on this day, ‘that here the battle was gained.’ The killed and wounded of the commissioned and non-commissioned officers who lay on the field of battle where the fire of the riflemen Was delivered, and the high proportion which the killed and wounded of this description bore to the whole number, sufficiently justified the assertion.”
Neither of these histories is terribly reliable (see Flight of the Militia - Part 1 for my treatment of Johnson). Stewart claimed that the fighting on the militia line was prolonged. However, participant accounts, both British and American, indicate that the militia retreated quickly. Stewart has the 71st Foot breaking the deadlock on the militia line. Others generally indicate that the 71st entered the fighting at a later point in the battle. The quotation that Johnson supplies from an anonymous Maryland officer is believable, but it is not clear what it indicates. The statement surely means that for once the militia did their assigned duty and this was instrumental in the American victory (no doubt the officer had the battle of Camden in mind for comparison). Whether or not Johnson’s description also indicates that the front-line militia inflicted heavy casualties is less clear.
The British casualties I’ve indicated for this moment in the battle (3 miniatures; these will be more clearly visible in future images) are modest compared with the losses suggested by Stewart's and Johnson's histories. I arrived at this number first by making an estimate of total British casualties and second by dividing those casualties across the various phases of the battle in a manner that is primarily consistent with participant statements (and, to a lesser extent, later histories). There are other points in the battle at which the British received a greater volume of fire and for which heavy British casualties are more strongly indicated. Even if this one volley was particularly well aimed, it is difficult to see how it could have inflicted many more casualties, for example, than the British received in advancing on the Continentals. About as many men fired at the British on the main line as did on the militia line. However, the militia were only able to deliver a single volley, while the main line fired repeatedly.
2. It is quite likely that the militia suffered considerably fewer casualties than the British, despite being outnumbered. From Lexington and Concord until the final battles of the war, American sources spoke disparagingly about the accuracy of British musket fire. Many militiamen also likely stooped low to the ground or stood behind trees as a means of protecting themselves. Casualties, however, did occur. Lawrence Babits reviewed and cited pension applications from former militiamen that strongly imply they were shot on the militia line.
3. Collins' statement was given special consideration in a previous post. See Flight of the Militia - Part 3.
4. Babits placed Irby in Hayes’ regiment. However, in reviewing the composition of Hayes’ regiment, I noted that participant accounts do not appear to link Irby’s company with Hayes’ regiment (see Little River Regiment). Rather, Irby appears to have commanded a company of Georgia Refugees and as such likely served with Captain Samuel Hammond and Major John Cunningham on the left wing of the militia line. Griffin was from Georgia. It’s not clear that this passage refers to an incident that took place at this time during the battle. Also possible (but in my view less likely) is that Griffin was wounded during the American counterattack late in the battle.
5. Colonel Thomas Brandon did not command the mounted militia. However, Young links Brandon with the mounted militia at a later point in the battle, and Captain Benjamin Jolly, who commanded one of the two companies of mounted militia, was in Brandon’s regiment.
David Stewart's 1825 Sketches... of the Highlanders of Scotland
John Moncure's online history of the battle, The Cowpens Staff Ride and Battlefield Tour, has a transcription of the statement by Young, Collins, and Howard, among other sources.
Henry Lee's 1812 Memoirs of the War in the Southern Department of the United States
William Moultrie's 1802 Memoirs of the American Revolution
James Graham's (1856) The Life of General Daniel Morgan has a copy of Morgan's report.
Will Graves transcribed the pension application of Richard Griffin (which contains the statement by Irby) (.pdf file).
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.