Friday, April 3, 2009

Cowpens in Miniature 7

Part 7: Initial Contact
Previous: In the Night

According to Lieutenant-Colonel Banastre Tarleton, the British night march was difficult. “The ground which the Americans had passed… [was] much intersected by creeks and ravines.” Tarleton was also wary of encountering an ambush in the darkness, “the march of the British troops during the darkness was exceedingly slow [see Note 1], on account of the time employed in examining the front and flanks as they proceeded.”

At least two groups of Americans were deployed in front of the American encampment. Closest to the British was scouts, probably operating in small groups. There were at least 30 men detached for this service. Colonel Thomas Brandon and Lieutenant-Colonel Benjamin Roebuck operated with them as well, at least for a time.

The other group was comprised of vedettes that would alert the Americans to the approach of the British. These were placed perhaps at a distance of 2 or 3 miles in front of the American camp. They were close enough that the Americans would hear their guns; yet distant enough to allow the Americans time to get up, grab their arms, and assemble before the British reached their camp.

After Tarleton began his march, Colonel Thomas Brandon and Lieutenant-Colonel Benjamin Roebuck returned to the Americans’ encampment. The two officers perhaps first detailed the advanced scouts to harass the British during their march. After returning to camp they most likely conferred with Morgan. They were later able to rejoin the balance of their commands and get some rest [see Note 2].

After Brandon and Roebuck’s return, a fresh batch of observers was dispatched to monitor the British advance. . According to Cornet Simons, “you [Lieutenant-Colonel William Washington] selected Sergeant [Lawrence] Everhart from your Regiment and ten men, whom you sent to reconnoitre Lt. Colonel Tarletons Army" [see Note 3].

Around this time, Tarleton recalled, “Thickelle [Thicketty] creek was passed.” Tarleton then dispatched an “advanced guard of cavalry… to the front.” Like Everhart’s Continentals, this too was a select group. According to Simons, Tarleton’s “advanced guard… were mounted as we understood, and believed, on some of the fleetest race horses which he had impressed from their owners in this Country” [see Note 4].

In the grey light of early morning, the two mounted forces approached each other. Once visual contact was made, the smaller American dragoons turned and raced towards Morgan’s encampment.

Tarleton's Advance Guard Pursues the American Patrol [see Note 5].

According to Tarleton, “The enemy's patrole… was pursued and overtaken.” Simons provided more detail. He said that the British were able “to take Serjeant Everhart and one of the men-but the other, ten men returned, and gave you [Washington] information of the approach of the enemy.” Lieutenant Roderick Mackenzie of the 71st Foot also confirmed that two prisoners were taken: [Around] day light… the enemy were discovered in front. Two of their vedettes were taken soon after” [see Note 6].

Sergeant Everhart was one of the two captured dragoons. He explained that his “horse being shot he was captured early in the morning… our army at this point of time being perhaps three miles in the rear.”

Everhart and the other prisoner were sent back to the British column (about 2 miles away) where Tarleton preceded to interview them. Everhart noted that his captor was “Quarter Master Wade of the British Army with whom he had some previous acquaintance & by him [he was] taken to Col Tarlton.” According to Mackenzie, “these [two men] gave information that General Morgan had halted, and prepared for action.”

Everhart recalled the specifics of his interview. “Dismounting from his horse, that officer [Tarleton] asked the petitioner [Everhart]… if he expected Mr. Washington & Mr. Morgan would fight him that day. Yes if they can keep together only two hundred men was the reply. Then he said it would be another Gates' defeat [see Note 7]. I hope to God it will be another Tarlton's defeat said this petitioner. I am Col. Tarlton, Sir. And I am Sergeant Everhart. My wounds were bleeding at this time [see Note 8] but soon afterwards were dressed by the surgeon. I received from the enemy great kindness.”

Although Everhart’s statement was more-or-less truthful, Tarleton persisted in believing that the Americans were retreating through the night to avoid battle. However, he felt sure at least that his quarry was near. Therefore, Tarleton ordered, “Two troops of dragoons [see Note 9], under Captain Ogilvie, of the legion… to reinforce the advanced guard, and to harass the rear of the enemy.” He hoped Ogilvie’s detachment would delay the American retreat and force them to stand and fight.


1. Mackenzie claimed that “The pursuit… was rapidly continued through marshes and broken ground.” The difference in Mackenzie’s wording was intended to emphasize the heroism of the British soldiery (and implicitly to demonstrate that Tarleton alone was responsible for the British defeat).

2. Lawrence Babits, in A Devil of a Whipping, described how small parties of militiamen seem to have harassed the British during their march. According to Captain Samuel Otterson, many of the scouts missed the battle; South Carolina militiaman Thomas Young's account places Brandon at the battle.

3. Morgan may have feared that he would either not get accurate information from the militia scouts or no information at all if Tarleton’s dragoons swept down on them and made them prisoners. Morgan knew Tarleton was approaching. His greatest fear at this point was most likely whether or not Tarleton would turn away from the direct approach towards his camp and approach from an unexpected direction.

The transcription of Simon's leter in Thomas Balch's 1857 Papers Relating Chiefly to the Maryland Line During the Revolution indicates that the patrol consisted of "Sergeant Everheart" and "thirteen men."

4. Given that the horses were handpicked for this important duty it may be that the men were, too. Babits, however, speculated that this was Captain Hovenden’s company of British Legion dragoons. Babits identified (page 179, n. 50) this “Quarter Master Wade” with Hovenden's company, but cited Tarleton's memoir, which does not contain this information. I have not inspected the muster rolls. Balch claimed that Wade was killed during the battle.

5. At a 1:20 ratio, a single miniature can represent between 10 and 29 men. The American patrol, according to Simons, consisted of 11 men. The strength of the British advance guard is unknown.

6. South Carolina Thomas Young described a different version of what was apparently the same episode. “Three of Washington's dragoons were out on a scout, when they came almost in contact with the advanced guard of the British army; they wheeled, and were pursued almost into camp. Two got in safely; one poor fellow, whose horse fell down, was taken prisoner.”

7. A reference to the American defeat at the battle of Camden.

8. According to Balch, Everhart's left hand was repeatedly cut by a dragoon's sabre. Balch described the initial contact between the British and Americans as "a severe and bloody contest."

9. Although not specifically identified, the two troops were likely Captain David Ogilvie’s own troop of British Legion dragoons and Lieutenant Henry Nettles’ troop of 17th Light Dragoons.


Marg Baskin's Banastre Tarleton website has transcriptions of Tarleton's account and Mackenzie's Strictures.

John Moncure's online history of the battle, The Cowpens Staff Ride and Battlefield Tour, includes a transcription of the statements by Tarleton, Mackenzie, Simons, Everhart, and Young.

Will Graves transcribed the pension application of Samuel Otterson (.pdf).

Lawrence Babits' A Devil of a Whipping: The Battle of Cowpens is available through

Thomas Balch's 1857 Papers Relating Chiefly to the Maryland Line During the Revolution has Simons' letter to William Washington, and extensive information on Sergeant Everhart. His book can be downloaded from this site.

Related: The British Legion, The American Cavalry - Part 1, The American Cavalry - Part 2

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