Friday, April 24, 2009

Cowpens in Miniature 15

Part 15: Attack on the Main Line

When the British attacked the American militia, they were, in the words of William Moultrie, “soon obliged to give way and retreat behind the second line.” In retreating, Private John Thomas of Virginia saw that the militia “flanked the right and left of the musquetry”[see Note 1].

The Militia 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 (in retreat), 7 = Left Wing of the Militia Line (in retreat), 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 Retreat in Miniature (two views; click to enlarge). Covered by the American cavalry, the front-line militia safely gain the main line. Meanwhile, the ragged British front line is beginning to reform.

The British infantry did not immediately pursue [see Note 2]. To their front was Lieutenant-Colonel John Eager Howard’s Continentals, an enemy that had to be approached with some caution. Besides, as far as the British were concerned, the militia had “quitted the Field,” they could afford caution [see Note 3].

Lieutenant Thomas Anderson with the Delaware Continentals, recorded in his journal that “the Enemy Seeing us Standing in Such good Order Halted for Some time to dress their line.” So effective was this deterrent that the front-line militia, in the words of fellow-Delawarean Sergeant-Major Seymour, were able to retreat “in very good order, not seeming to be the least bit confused” [see Note 4].

The orderly retreat of the militia was a singular accomplishment considering that the British attack had been launched by the exceptionally aggressive Lieutenant-Colonel Banastre Tarleton and relentless pursuit was a part of his modus operandi. Morgan’s plan was, for the moment, working perfectly. The American militia had delivered their lethal volley and were escaping retaliation.

The British infantry stopped to “dress their line,” in Anderson’s words, because of losses inflicted by the militia. Also likely is that the British line became further disordered during the subsequent bayonet charge. As the British reformed and the two opponents sized each other up, Anderson could see that the British line “Outflanked ours Considerably.” Despite heavy losses [see Note 5], The British front line nevertheless still outnumbered the Continentals; their line was also longer because they were deployed in open order whereas the Continentals were in close order. Another threat also loomed. The 71st Foot had moved up to a position behind the left end of the British line, where it was well positioned to crush the right flank of the Americans.

The British infantry then resumed the advance and shortly drew near the Americans. In response, the Continentals let loose a terrific volley, with each platoon firing in rapid succession. Militiaman Thomas Young, now in rear of the main line, remembered that “when the regulars fired, it seemed like one sheet of flame from right to left. Oh! it was beautiful!”

The commander of the Continentals, Lieutenant-Colonel John Eager Howard, stated that “The british advanced until my regiment commenced firing.” Receiving this fire, the British stopped and fired a volley of their own. According to Seymour, “the enemy… attacked our light infantry with both cannon and small arms.”


1. This is a topic to which I’ve given special consideration. See Flight of the Militia - Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4.

2. Based on Anderson’s journal; the key passage is quoted elsewhere in this post. Anderson’s journal is one of the most trustworthy accounts of the battle. According to Moultrie, “The British immediately advanced upon the second line.”

3. Quotation derived from Lieutenant-General Charles Cornwallis' report of the battle.

4. The militia were not panic struck during their retreat. This does not imply, however, that they retired casually to the rear. In all likelihood, the militia were moving very quickly. Lee commented that the militia “gained with haste the second line.”

5. The miniature recreation shows accumulated losses of 15% among the front-line infantry and artillery, but this is very approximate.


William Moultrie's 1802 Memoirs of the American Revolution

John Moncure's online history of the battle, The Cowpens Staff Ride and Battlefield Tour, has a transcription of the statements by Thomas, Anderson, Young, and Howard, among others.

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

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

Related: Flight of the Militia - Part 1, Flight of the Militia - Part 4, The Main Line: Location

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