Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Cowpens in Miniature 16

Part 16: The First Crisis

Thomas Young and the American mounted militiamen had adhered closely to the front line militia during the fighting on the skirmish line and militia line. After the British assailed the militia line, these militia “retreated again-and then formed a second line” behind the main line. The mounted militia covered the second retreat and then took post even further in the rear, near Washington’s dragoons.

Young commented that “After the second forming [of the militia], the fight became general and unintermitting.” The American cavalry could plainly see the British front line bearing down on the Continentals to their front. Smoke billowed from the infantry lines and there was a continuous flash and roar from the hundreds of discharging muskets.

Oblivious to the disaster that was unfolding to their right, the Continentals continued the desperate and unequal contest with the British front line. By all accounts, both British and Americans fought well. Tarleton stated in his memoir that “The fire on both sides was well supported and produced much slaughter.” Lee wrote in his postwar history that when “Tarleton pushed forward… [he] was received… with unshaken firmness. The contest became obstinate, and each party, animated by the example of its leader, nobly contended for victory” [see Note 1]. In the case of the Americans, two leaders stood out. Seymour recalled that “The courage and conduct of the brave General Morgan in this action is highly commendable, as likewise Colonel Howard, who at all times of the action rode from right to left of the line encouraging the men.”

As the British front line became engaged with the Continentals, Lieutenant-Colonel Banastre Tarleton looked to his left. There he had the greatest advantage. The 71st Foot was relatively fresh and well positioned to attack the American right flank, and the ground was more elevated than on his right.

To begin the attack on the American right, he ordered Captain David Ogilvie’s troop of British Legion dragoons to assault the American militia to their front: the right wing of the main line [see Note 2]. Tarleton recalled that the dragoons “executed the order with much gallantry.”

The right wing of the main line outnumbered Ogilvie’s dragoons by a margin of 2 or 3 to 1. Nevertheless, they were at a severe disadvantage. The men of the right wing were not deployed in a compact mass and they lacked bayonets to protect themselves. They also were without support as the American mounted militia had retired to the rear after the front-line militia had reached safety. As Ogilvie’s men thundered down the slope towards them, the American militia quickly sized up the situation, turned, and fled through the trees [see Note 3].

Loyalist Alexander Chesney recorded this event in his journal: “[the] Regiment of Cavalry called the British Legion [i.e., Ogilvie’s company]… supported by a detachment of the 71st Regt under Major McArthur [i.e., the first battalion of the 71st Foot] broke the Riflemen without difficulty” [see Note 4].

Hayes’ regiment was closest to the oncoming dragoons and perhaps the first in the right wing to break. Robert Long, who was with this regiment, implied that his regiment had intended to rally alongside Captain Patrick Buchanan’s company of Virginians, however, “the Virginians broke before we got to them” [see Note 5].

Ogilvie's Attack. 1 = Continental Light Dragoons, 2 = Mounted Militia, 3 = Right Wing of the Main Line (broken by Ogilvie's charge), 4 = Continental Infantry, 5 = Left Wing of the Main Line, 6 = Right Wing of the Militia Line (reforming), 7 = Left Wing of the Militia Line (reforming), 9 = British Front Line, 10 = Captain David Ogilvie's Company, 12 = 17th Light Dragoons, 13 = 71st Foot, 14 = Main British Legion Dragoon Reserve.

The Right Wing Breaks (two views; click to enlarge). As the Continentals begin to fire on the advancing British, Ogilvie's British Legion dragoons charge the American right, sending the right wing of the main line into flight. Meanwhile, other militia units are reforming.

According to Lieutenant Roderick Mackenzie: “Captain Ogilvie, with his troop… cut his way through their line.” Pension applications do not strongly indicate that the men in this line were cut down by the British dragoons. Most, it would seem, got out of the way in time. However, upon driving off the right wing of the main line, the dragoons soon encountered an even larger quarry – the right wing of the militia line. These men had reached the rear, and were preparing to reform. They were, however, still disorganized and utterly unready to defend against a cavalry attack. Ogilvie’s men plunged in.

Some of the injuries reported by these militiamen were horrific. Joseph Rogers James, who was with McDowell’s North Carolinians, stated that he “was then charged on by a British Dragoon and struck on the head with his sword and left on the ground for dead… his ribs were broken loose from his back as he supposes by the horse of the Dragoon.” John Whelchel, who was with Brandon’s South Carolinians, stated that he “was attacked by Tarleton's horse.” He “was severely wounded receiving four cuts on the head and three or four stabs.” He “was left on the ground it being supposed that he would die of his wounds – that the wounds in the head opened the skull to the brains.”

Major Joseph McJunkin of South Carolina vividly recalled seeing “Two dragoons assault a large rifleman, Joseph Hughes by name. His gun was empty, but with it he parries their blows and dodges round a tree, but they still persist. At the moment the assault on Hughes began John Savage was priming his rifle, Just as they pass the tree to strike Hughes he levels his gun and one of the dragoons tumbles from his horse pierced with a bullet, The next moment the rifle carried by Hughes, now literally backed over, slips out of his hands and inflicts such a blow upon the other dragoon that he quits the contest and retires hanging by the mane of his horse.”

Ogilvie Assaults McDowell and Brandon (click to enlarge). After sending the right wing of the main line into flight, Ogilvie's dragoons collide with the reforming front-line militia. Meanwhile, the British and American front lines have become fully engaged.

The militia were on their own at this moment, but help was soon on the way. Young recalled that “In the hottest of it [the main-line fighting], I saw Col. Brandon coming at full speed to the rear, and waving his sword to Col. Washington.” Here was one of the principal commanders of the right wing of the militia line desperately trying to get Washington’s attention. Ogilvie’s charge had gone unnoticed. “In a moment the command to charge was given, and I soon found that the British cavalry had charged the American right. We made a most furious charge, and cutting through the British cavalry, wheeled and charged them in the rear. In this charge, I exchanged my tackey for the finest horse I ever rode; it was the quickest swap I ever made in my life!”

Major Joseph McJunkin was close at hand and remembered seeing “the militia… relieved from the British dragoons by a charge of the American light horse.” Moments later, “The British cavalry… [were] borne from the field.”

Other accounts indicated that it was not only the charge of Washington’s dragoons that drove back Ogilvie, but also the fire of the militia. Tarleton observed that the British cavalry “were drove back by the fire of the reserve, and by a charge of Colonel Washington's cavalry.”

Lieutenant Roderick Mackenzie provided more detail. He claimed that the “legion dragoons were… broke by galling fire of rifle shot;” “exposed to a heavy fire and charged at the same time by the whole of Washington's dragoons,” Ogilvie’s troop “was compelled to retreat in confusion [see Note 6]”

Ogilvie Defeated. The militia rally and, aided by the American cavalry, succeed in driving off Ogilvie's dragoons.


1. Comparable observations were made by Morgan (“When the enemy advanced on our line, they received a well-directed and incessant fire”), Moultrie, (“The British immediately advanced upon the second line, who received them very warmly, and a heavy fire commenced between them”), and Mackenzie (“the second line, now attacked, made a stout resistance“).

2. Tarleton’s memoir indicates that at this time, “The cavalry on the right were directed to charge the enemy's left.” However, Lieutenant Roderick Mackenzie corrected him on this point and stated that “Captain Ogilvie, with his troop, which did not exceed forty men, was ordered to charge the right flank of the enemy.” See British Cavalry Charges at Cowpens - Part 1 .

3. Historians of the battle have relied chiefly on Morgan’s description of events for an American viewpoint. Morgan’s account is very good, but a limitation is that it emphasizes the key actions that positively contributed to the American victory and largely ignores the setbacks and disappointments the Americans experienced en route to that victory. Early histories of the battle have adopted the same tone. For this phase of the battle, emphasis is placed on the brave stand of the Continentals; the existence of a right wing of the main line is not always recognized and its flight has not been hitherto discussed. However, American participants who described only their personal experiences during the battle (and did not craft an account intended for public consumption) provide critical clues indicating that such a collapse occurred. Statements by British observers support this view as well. See The Main Line: The Right Wing Collapses.

4. Chesney’s full statement was that “Col Tarleton charged at the head of his Regiment of Cavalry called the British Legion which was filled up from the prisoners taken at the battle of Camden; the Cavalry supported by a detachment of the 71st Regt under Major McArthur broke the Riflemen without difficulty.” Tarleton did not lead this charge, nor did it involve his entire regiment. It’s possible Chesney had not yet reached the battlefield and was not a direct eyewitness to this event, or possibly he was in a different part of the battlefield at the time. See Alexander Chesney's Rivulet.

5. See The Main Line: Composition for more on the deployment of American forces on the main line.

6. Mackenzie claimed that charge was made “by the whole of Washington's dragoons;” this would appear to be elaboration on Tarleton’s statement that the cavalry was repelled “by a charge of Colonel Washington's cavalry.” The elaboration is in error. Only a portion of the American cavalry participated in this charge. Young is the only dragoon that unambiguously places himself in this attack; Cornet James Simons provided a very detailed account of his movements on the battlefield, and says nothing about this action. It would seem then that Washington committed only some men to this charge. Noteworthy is that Simons "commanded the left division" of Washington’s dragoons and would’ve been furthest from Ogilvie’s attack.


Joseph Johnson's 1851 Traditions and Reminiscences Chiefly of the American Revolution in the South is the original source of Young's account of the battle, and includes a description of Simon's service.

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

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

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

The Journal of Alexander Chesney

See The Statements of Private Robert Long for a transcription of his statements.

Will Graves transcribed the pension application of Joseph Rogers James (.pdf file).

Will Graves transcribed the pension application of John Whelchel (.pdf file).

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.

William Moultrie's 1802 Memoirs of the American Revolution

Related: The Main Line: The Right Wing Collapses, British Cavalry Charges at Cowpens - Part 1, Flight of the Militia - Part 4

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