Friday, April 10, 2009

Cowpens in Miniature 9

Part 9: Morgan's Plan
Previous: The Americans Deploy

Major Joseph McJunkin stated that after “The [Americans] lines formed… the plan of battle [was] disclosed.” On the night before the battle, Morgan shared the details of his battle plans with the senior leadership. Now that the infantry were on the battlefield, they too were informed of his plan.

Morgan placed many of his militiamen in front of his Continentals, forming what is known as a defense-in-depth. His hope wasn’t that the militiamen would hold off the British, rendering the main line superfluous. He expected the British to drive off the militia. Instead, his hope was that the front line militia would inflict significant damage to the British before their onslaught could reach the main line.

The American Deployment at Cowpens (click to enlarge). 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.

There were two threats facing the front line militia. The British, under Lieutenant-Colonel Banastre Tarleton, might choose to assail the militia with either their massive force of cavalry or their several regiments of bayonet-wielding infantry.

Because the British attacked with infantry, Morgan’s planned defense against a cavalry charge has been largely forgotten. William Johnson [see Note 1] claimed that Morgan’s orders were for “every third man to fire and two to remain in reserve, lest the cavalry should continue to advance after the first fire; or to be used if they wheeled to retire.” Under this scheme, one part of the militia would have had loaded guns at all times and provided protection for others to reload. In this manner, the militia would have been able to keep up a more-or-less continuous fire. If anything would have prevented a massacre, something of this kind would have succeeded. There may have been additional features to Morgan’s plan for this contingency, such as a countercharge by the American cavalry, but they have not been recorded.

Against an infantry attack, the militia were to deliver a single lethal volley at close range before retreating. The two wings of the militia line were roughly centered on the two gaps in the main line. When the militia retreated, they were to fall straight back through these gaps. Their initial withdrawal would be covered by the fire of the Continentals. As they moved to their final destinations and began to reform, they would be covered by the left and right militia wings of the main line. The gaps in the main line between the militia wings and the Continentals served another purpose as well, and helped ensure that the Continentals would not be struck by “friendly fire” from the riflemen behind them.

The Planned American 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, 7 = Left Wing of the Militia Line, 8 = Skirmishers

This plan was remembered by several participants in the battle.

Private John Thomas, who was on the left wing of the main line provided the clearest description. He learned that “not a gun was to be fired without orders.” Then, the militia in front “were to fire and… [pass] breaks in the Centre [i.e., the main line] and fall off to the right and flank of the Musquet Line [i.e., the Continentals].”

Private Richard Swearingen who was in Major Joseph McDowell’s battalion of front-line North Carolinians recalled that: “The commander General Morganton [Morgan] gave orders for the militia to fire on the enemy & then retreat & give room for the regulars.” Private John Baldwin, who was also in this battalion, remembered receiving the orders through McDowell. “McDowell told his men to take aim when they fired, and as they retreated to divide to the right & left & form in the rear.” Private Robert Long, who was on the right wing of the main line learned his regiment’s mission was to “cover” “the North Carolinians… [when they] were retreating” [see Note 2].

Thomas Young remembered hearing Morgan say on the night before the battle that the militia only needed to deliver “three fires” to fulfill their duty. At the time, this may have made the task of the militia seem easy. However, in the exposed position assigned to them, it would have been difficult for the militia to fulfill this role. Perhaps Morgan’s statement reveals that he was mentally preparing the militia to reenter the fight after their initial retreat (they would feel obligated to fire the additional shots Morgan had asked for).

Morgan had more than one way to bring the militia back into the fight after they had reformed in the rear of the main line. If the British attempted to turn the flanks of the main line, he could use the militia to counter this maneuver. If the British advanced on a wide front but did not attempt to turn the American flanks, he could bring the front-line militia forward to augment the firepower of the main-line militia. If the British advanced on a narrow front, he could bring the militia forward around the main-line militia to assail the British flanks.


1. I deem Johnson an unreliable source (see Flight of the Militia - Part 1). It’s impossible to say whether Johnson’s information on this point is accurate, but it is at least a reasonable plan.

2. In my interpretation, the entirety of McDowell’s battalion was to retreat to the right rear of the main line, therefore Baldwin’s statement must describe the plan for the entire militia line and not just McDowell’s battalion. This view of McDowell’s planned retreat is supported by Long’s statement.


This issue (.pdf file) of The Southern Campaigns of the American Revolution magazine provides a complete treatment of McJunkin's statements.

William Johnson's 1822 Sketches of the Life and Correspondence of Nathanael Greene.

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

Will Graves transcribed the pension application of Richard Swearingen (.pdf file).

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

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

Related: The Militia Line: Composition and Organization, Flight of the Militia - Part 1, Flight of the Militia - Part 4

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