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Now certain that battle was eminent, Brigadier-General Daniel Morgan began his final preparations. He reported:
“An hour before daylight one of my scouts returned and informed me that Lieut. Col. Tarleton had advanced within five miles of our camp [see Note 1]. On this information, I hastened to form as good a disposition as circumstances would admit, and from the alacrity of the troops, we were soon prepared to receive them.”
Other writers made a similar remark. Lieutenant Thomas Anderson of the 1st Delaware would record in his journal, “Before day Reced Information that Col Tarlton Was Within Five Miles of us With a Strong Body of Horse and Infantry Whereon We got up and put Ourselves in Order of Battle.”
Major Joseph McJunkin of South Carolina remembered that Morgan and Colonel Andrew Pickens walked through the American encampment waking up the men and exhorting them to fight.
“Gen. Morgan being apprised of the approach of Tarleton by faithful spies, began before day to go from mess to mess with Gen. Pickens, saying ‘Boys, get up, Benny's coming; & you that have sweethearts or wives or children or parents, must fight for them and above all you must fight for liberty and for your country,’ which appeared to have the ears of Every true friend of this country, & were alive to action, but a few ‘pet Tories’ whom it seemed like poison to.”
As for the Continentals, as soon as the drums started beating, they rose and hastened into formation. According to McJunkin, “the tattoo being sounded, the line was formed commanded by Col. Howard [Lieutenant-Colonel John Eager Howard].” Morgan then spoke to them collectively, saying “My friends in arms, my dear boys, I request you to remember Saratoga, Monmouth, Paoli & Brandywine, & this day you must play your parts for your honor & liberty's cause.”
The troops then began moving onto the battlefield. It was an unpleasant morning. Private William Neel, who was in Captain Buchanan’s company of Virginians, remembered that, “the Army paraded before day a cold morning.” Captain Henry Connelly recalled, “it was cold weather but inclined to be rainey.”
According to McJunkin, “First the regulars and some companies of Virginia militia are posted to where the final issue is expected.” However, Colonel Joseph Hayes’ small regiment may have been the first onto the battlefield. Perhaps they were directed to mark the spot where the Continentals were to deploy or they were designated to cover the Continentals’ deployment with their long-ranged rifles. Robert Long of Hayes’ regiment watched as the Continentals “marched out in sections, and divided two and two as they got [within] ten paces of Hayes' regiment already formed across the road.”
The Americans Deploy, Part 1. (Click to enlarge). Hayes' regiment is drawn up across the Green River Road. Lieutenant-Colonel John Eager Howard's infantry march down the road behind them, followed by Major Francis Triplett's Virginians.
The Continentals deployed to the southwest of the Green River Road, that is, to the right of Hayes’ regiment [see Note 2]. Thomas Young remembered that, “The regulars, under the command of Col. Howard, a very brave man, were formed in two ranks.”
The Americans Deploy, Part 2. (Click to enlarge). Hayes' regiment is drawn up across the Green River Road. Howard's Continentals have completed their deployment. Major Francis Triplett's Virginians are beginning to deploy as well. Other units can be seen preparing to deploy.
The Virginia militia deployed behind and to the sides of the Continentals, leaving a gap between the Continentals and either wing of militia [see Note 3]. According to Neel, his company of Virginia militia “formed in single file with the Militia on the right of the Regulars, stood in ranks till Sun rise, at which time the battle commenced” [see Note 4].
Sergeant Major William Seymour of the Delaware Continentals recorded in his journal that “we were drawn up in order of battle, the men seeming to be all in good spirits and very willing to fight.”
Next came the more complicated deployment of the balance of the American militia. According to McJunkin, “the main body of militia under Gen. Pickens are drawn up at the distance of 150 yards” in front of the main line [see Note 5]. They were deployed in two wings, which were aligned with the gaps between the Continentals and militia wings on the main line [see Note 6]. The American cavalry, meanwhile, took up position on the elevation behind the Continentals [see Note 7].
The American deployment was now complete. Brigadier-General William Moultrie, an early historian of the battle, wrote that, “General Morgan drew up his men on an open pine barren in the following order… the militia of about four hundred men formed the first line under General Pickens; the continentals of about five hundred (two hundred of whom were six months men, very raw troops) formed the second line [see Note 8], commanded by Colonel Howard, about two hundred yards in the rear of the first. Colonel Washington, with about seventy-five continental cavalry, and- forty-five mounted militia, with swords, under Colonel M'Call, in the rear of the whole: in this disposition did they wait to receive the enemy.
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.
Colonel Henry Lee made similar observations in his early history [see Note 9]. He concluded, “Erroneous as was the decision to fight in this position, when a better might have been easily gained, the disposition for battle was masterly.”
Morgan indicated in his report of the battle that Hayes’ regiment was deployed on the left wing of the militia wing. However, Robert Long stated that his regiment was deployed on the right wing of the main line (see The Statements of Private Robert Long). Either Morgan or Long was mistaken in their recollection, or Hayes' regiment was ordered to the militia line, but then moved to the main line due to some last-minute adjustment in the deployment.
Why would men have been drawn from the left wing of the militia line to reinforce the right wing of the main line? It is noteworthy that the left wing of the militia line bordered a branch of Suck Creek, while the right wing of the militia line was posted on a high point on the battlefield. Perhaps it was determined that while the left wing could have fewer men without endangering the American position, but the right wing could not be reduced.
No participant account directly says that some men were shifted off of the front line to supplement the main line. However, Robert Long, of Hayes’ regiment did describe his regiment performing some peculiar pre-battle maneuvers. He stated that after the Continentals deployed,
“Hayes regiment then moved to the right of the infantry [the Continentals],” or onto the other side of the battlefield. Once they were there, there seems to have been some confusion over exactly where Hayes’ regiment was to deploy. At first Hayes’ regiment was “70 or 80 yards in advance” of the Continentals, and “70 or 80 yards” behind “Major McDowell, of North Carolina.” In other words, they were midway between the militia line and the main line. The rest of the main line militia were deployed behind the Continentals.
The Americans Deploy, Part 3. (Click to enlarge). Hayes' regiment is on the right of the Continentals, midway between the Continentals' right and Major Joseph McDowell's North Carolinians. At this stage, the American deployment is largely complete.
Eventually, the deployment was sorted out. Long noted that “Hayes' regiment having advanced too far were to retreat.” They then fell back to a more appropriate position, perhaps next to Connelly’s company. At that point, Long stood “in the center line on the right wing in Captain Ewing's company commanded by Colonel Joseph Hayes, next to Colonel Howard's Infantry.”
The right wing of the main line was described by few participants. For example, Thomas Young wrote that, “The battle field was almost a plain with a ravine on both hands, and very little under growth in front or near us. The regulars, under the command of Col. Howard, a very brave man, were formed in two ranks, their right flank resting upon the head of the ravine on the right. The militia [of the main line] were formed on the left of the regulars… their left flank resting near the head of the ravine on the left.”
Howard remembered that he had “two companies of Virginia Militia or volunteers, one commanded by Capt Tripolet [Major Francis Triplett] from Fauguhar [Fauquier County], the other by a capt Tate from Rockbridge or one of the western Counties.” He wrote, “I am positive that Triplett and Tate were on my left,” but said nothing about militia units on his right.
The right wing of the main line was on lower ground than the Continentals and the other militia units; perhaps Howard and others didn’t see them there. Alternatively, as the right wing failed to distinguish itself during the battle, their presence, while known at the time, was later forgotten.
Final 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.
1. The scout could be either a militiaman or one of Washington’s dragoons. As noted in my previous post, Sergeant Lawrence Everhart claimed that he was captured when 3 miles away from Morgan’s camp; this suggests that the main British column was 2 miles distant from the site of the initial conflict.
2. This is indicated in the pension application of Sergeant Benjamin Martin of the Virginia militia. Martin stated that "I was in the road all the time of the action... Lieutenant Ewen [James Ewing] was on the left of the Maryland Troops near me." This places Martin on the left of the Continentals, and the Continentals to the southwest of the Green River Road. A number of illustrations of the battle of Cowpens show the Americans deployed equally to either side of the Green River Road. However, the ground was more elevated to the southwest of the road than to the northeast (see The Cowpens Battlefield). Martin’s statement suggests that the American deployment was governed more by the topography of the battlefield than by the location of the road.
3. The description of the American deployment provided here is unlike that in many histories of the battle, but it is not wholly unique. A similar arrangement can be found in Edwin Bearss' 1967 Battle of Cowpens: A Documented Narrative and Troop Movement Maps.
Two Interpretations of the American Deployment (click to enlarge). My interpretation appears on the left, Bearss' on the right. The positioning of the units per Bearss' account is approximate. 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.
In both cases, heavy emphasis has been placed on Morgan's after action report and Hammond's description of Morgan's plan (see Morgan's Report, The Hammond Map). I interpreted Hammond somewhat differently than did Bearss. Other differences arose because I drew upon pension applications as a source of information.
One recent history that indicates a very different American deployment than that shown here is Lawrence Babits' 1998 A Devil of a Whipping: The Battle of Cowpens.
Comparison of Two Versions of the American Deployment (click to enlarge). My interpretation appears on the left, and is as described above. Babits' interpretation appears on the right; the positioning of the units per his account is approximate. On the right, 1 = American Cavalry; 2 = Main Line; 3 = Militia Line; 4 = Skirmish Line. The two accounts also differ in terms of the location of the Green River Road. The road in my version follows Bearss and is shown in brown. Babits showed the Green River Road following a different course, which I have partially sketched out in black on the right panel.
There are a number of reasons for the differences in the present account with that by Babits. Chief among these is that Babits concluded (while I did not) that Morgan's and Hammond's descriptions of the American deployment referred to a temporary battle plan that was developed the night before the battle and then greatly modified before the actual fighting began. (see Morgan's Report and The Hammond Map for a transcription of their accounts).
I have devoted a number of previous posts to arguing for the version of the American deployment shown here. In regards to the main line deployment, see in particular The Main Line: Organization, The Main Line: Composition, and The Main Line: Location.
4. Aside from Neel, the only participant to comment on the number of ranks was Thomas Young, who said that “the regulars… were formed in two ranks.” He did not indicate this deployment for the militia. Indeed, that he should have mentioned this fact at all suggests that he found such a deployment to be exceptional. A single rank for the militia line leads to their covering well the high ground between Suck Creek and Island Creek. Perhaps all of the militia were formed in a single rank, although it's not unreasonable to believe that the men also would have doubled up behind large trees where they were near the line.
5. Some sources say that distance was 150 yards, others that it was 200 yards. In the images the distance between the first and second lines is a little greater than 150 (scale) yards.
6. This is indicated in participant accounts. As noted above, Martin’s statement indicated that gap between the Continentals and the left wing of the main line would have been near the Green River Road. Hammond’s description of the militia line deployment places his regiment on the northeast of the Green River Road and Major John Cunningham’s men on the southwest of the road. In other words, the left wing of the militia line was roughly aligned with the left gap in the main line. I assume, by extension, that the same was true of the right wing of the militia line. See The Hammond Map.
7. For details about where the American cavalry were deployed, see The American Cavalry - Part 2.
8. Moultrie mistakenly referred to 200 of the troops as Continentals that were in fact Virginia militia with long terms of service. They were, in any case, “raw troops.”
9. Lee said that “The main body of the militia composed… [the front] line, with General Pickens at its head. At a suitable distance in the rear of the first line a second was stationed, composed of the continental infantry and two companies of Virginia militia, under Captains Triplett and Taite, commanded by Lieutenant- Colonel Howard. Washington's cavalry, reinforced with a company of mounted militia armed with sabres, was held in reserve; convenient to support the infantry, and protect the horses of the rifle militia, which were tied, agreeably to usage, in the rear.”
John Moncure's online history of the battle, The Cowpens Staff Ride and Battlefield Tour, includes a transcription of the statements by Morgan, Anderson, McJunkin, Neel, Connelly, Young, Seymour, Howard, and Hammond.
James Graham's (1856) The Life of General Daniel Morgan also has a copy of Morgan's report.
This issue (.pdf file) of The Southern Campaigns of the American Revolution magazine provides a complete treatment of McJunkin's statements.
Will Graves transcribed the pension application of Henry Connelly (.pdf).
A transcription of William Seymour's journal can also be found on this Battle of Camden website.
William Moultrie's 1802 Memoirs of the American Revolution
Henry Lee's 1812 Memoirs of the War in the Southern Department of the United States
Joseph Johnson's 1851 Traditions and Reminiscences Chiefly of the American Revolution in the South is the original source of Hammond's statement.
Will Graves transcribed the pension application of Benjamin Martin (.pdf).
Edwin Bearss' 1967 Battle of Cowpens: A Documented Narrative and Troop Movement Maps.
Lawrence Babits' A Devil of a Whipping: The Battle of Cowpens is available through amazon.com.