In the center of the battlefield, the British front line bore down on the American Continentals.
Major-General Chastellux commented that when the British were on the offensive, their "attack is not hot, but consists in general of a brisk fire, rather than in closing with the enemy." This seems to have been the tactic used on this occasion. The British front line advanced steadily on the Continentals, stopping repeatedly to fire. At the same time, the Continentals repeatedly volleyed at the British. Lieutenant Thomas Anderson of the Delaware Continentals recorded that the British "advanced On boldly under a Very heavy fire until they got Within a few yards of us" [see Note 1].
Tarleton saw that the American Continentals would not easily be driven off. He saw too that the right wing of the main line had fled. Now was the moment to launch the final attack that would end the battle in a decisive British victory.
"As the contest between the British infantry in the front line and the continentals seemed equally balanced, neither retreating, Lieutenant-colonel Tarleton thought the advance of the 71st into line, and a movement of the cavalry in reserve to threaten the enemy's right flank, would put a victorious period into the action. No time was lost in performing this manoeuvre. The 71st were desired to pass the 7th before they gave their fire, and were directed not to entangale their right flank with the left of the other battalion."
In making this maneuver, the two regiments did become entangled. Major George Hanger learned that the 71st "moved up; and when moving up to form in line with the rest of the troops, whether from their not taking ground enough, or from some other circumstance, their right flank brushed the left flank of the 7th regiment, and intermixed one with the other."
Meanwhile, according to Tarleton, "The cavalry were ordered to incline to the left, and to form a line, which would embrace the whole of the enemy's right flank."
The entanglement between the 71st and the 7th was not allowed to slow the attack. In Tarleton’s words, "Upon the advance of the 71st, all the infantry again moved on."
The 71st Foot Enters the Fight. 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 / retreating), 7 = Left Wing of the Militia Line (reforming), 9 = British Front Line, 10 = Captain David Ogilvie's Company, 11 = Other British Legion Dragoons, 12 = 17th Light Dragoons, 13 = 71st Foot, 14 = Main British Legion Dragoon Reserve.
Main Line Fighting (two views; click to enlarge). The events shown in this image overlap with some of those shown in the last post. Ogilvie’s charge is visible in both images. The British front line advances on the Continentals. Meanwhile, the 71st Foot has advanced alongside the 7th Foot and the British Legion dragoon reserve advances towards the American right.
As the British made their final push, the Continentals began to retreat. François-Jean de Chastellux learned that "the whole line… [wheeled] to the right," and wondered at its cause. Other writers noted the retreat but gave no explanation for it. Tarleton, for example, recalled only that "The continentals and back woodsmen gave ground" [see Note 2].
This retreat would become one of the most commented upon features of the battle.
Historian David Stewart assumed that the retreat of the Continentals was related to the retreat of the front line. "the second [line], which had as yet taken no share in the action, observing confusion and retrograding in their front, suddenly faced to the right, and inclined backwards; a manoeuvre by which a space was left for the front line to retreat, without interfering with the ranks of those who were now to oppose the advance of the Highlanders, "who ran in, with characteristic eagerness, desirous to take advantage of the confusion which appeared among the enemy." This description, however, does not mesh well with participant accounts.
More credibly, others claimed that the retreat occurred because the Continentals had been outflanked. Thomas Anderson wrote in his journal that "their line Was So much longer than ours the turn'd our Flanks Which Caused us to fall back Some Disstance." This is also the reason that Daniel Morgan gave in his official report of the battle: "their numbers being superior to ours, they gained our flanks, which obliged us to change our position."
However, there was another reason for the retreat. Morgan admitted "very candidly" to François-Jean de Chastellux, "that the retrograde movement he had made, was not premeditated." The retreat, in other words, was an accident.
Henry Lee, who knew Morgan and Howard, elaborated on this theme in his history of the battle. He noted that the British, "outstretching our front, endangered Howard's right." The threat stemmed from the dissolution of the right wing of the main line and the advance of the 71st Foot. Therefore, Howard "instantly took measures to defend his flank, by directing his right company to change its front; but, mistaking this order, the company fell back; upon which the line began to retire, and General Morgan directed it to retreat to the cavalry. This manoeuvre being performed with precision, our flank became relieved, and the new position was assumed with promptitude."
After historian William Johnson inaccurately described the causes of this retreat (see Flight of the Militia - Part 1), Howard felt compelled to comment on this incident at length. This retreat, he said:
"was not occasioned by the fire of the enemy… I soon observed, as I had but about 350 men and the british about 800 [see Note 3], that their line extended much further than mine particularly on my right, where they were pressing forward to gain my flank.--To protect that flank, I ordered the company on my right to change its front so as to oppose the enemy on that flank [see Note 4]. Whether my orders were not well understood or whether it proceeded from any other cause, in attempting this movement some disorder ensued in this company which rather fell back than faced as I wished them." As a consequence, "first a part, and then the whole of the company commenced a retreat."
Regarding the cause of the confusion, Howard (fairly or not) placed the blame firmly on the company commander:
"This company on my right were Virginians, commanded by Capt. Wallace who some time previous had formed a connexion with a vile woman of the camp, and the infatuation was so great that on guard or any other duty he had this woman with him and seemed miserable when she was absent. He seemed to have lost all sense of the character of an officer. He was in this state of mind at the time of the action. As well as I can recollect Morgan afterwards reprimanded him severely & forced him to break off the connexion."
In any case, the effect of this error was not limited to Wallace’s company. "The rest of the line expecting that a retreat was ordered, faced about and retreated but in perfect order."
Lieutenant Thomas Anderson recorded what happened next: "The Enemy thinking that We Were broke set up a great Shout Charged us With their bayonets but in no Order."
The British had paid a steep price in blood, but now at least victory seemed imminent. The Continentals, the last significant form of resistance on the battlefield, were retreating. They would not be allowed to retreat peacefully. The British infantry stormed after them.
According to Howard, "Morgan, who had mostly been with the militia, quickly rode up to me and expressed apprehensions of the event; but I soon removed his fears by pointing to the line, and observing that the men were not beaten who retreated in that order. He then ordered me to keep with the men, until we came to the rising ground near Washington's horse; and he rode forward to fix on the most proper place for us to halt and face about.
Howard clearly indicated that he was ordered to take a position near Lieutenant-Colonel William Washington’s dragoon reserve, or at least that portion not engaged with Ogilvie. "At this moment Genl. Morgan rode to me and ordered me to retreat to Washington's horse about 100 yards, and there form."
Other sources, however, indicate that not only were the Continental infantry retreating to the rear, but that Washington’s dragoons approached the Continental infantry as they were retreating.
William Moultrie stated in his postwar history that "Colonel Washington perceiving this [retreat], immediately rode up close to the rear of the second line [i.e., the Continentals] with his cavalry… Colonel Washington, riding up so close to the rear of our second line stopped the British for a moment, which gave time to Colonel Howard to rally his men."
On the British side, Lieutenant Mackenzie also believed this is what occurred. Morgan "ordered Colonel Washington, with his dragoons, to cover his [Howard’s] retreat, and to check the pursuit."
The Continentals in Retreat. The Continentals are retreating to the rear and wheeling to the right. A portion of the American cavalry marks the spot where they will halt. Meanwhile, the British infantry pursue.
1. That the Continentals fired repeatedly on the advancing British is also indicated in the statement by John Thomas, who lost track of the number of volleys. He noted that when the British began their attack, "The musquetry [i.e., Continentals]… had orders to fire but doesn't know how many times they fired before they retreated."
2. Tarleton knew that the right wing of the main line had retreated. Unclear from this or other statements is whether the left wing of the main line retreated at the same time as the Continentals. It seems unlikely that they did. Virginian rifleman John Thomas notably used "they" rather than "we" to describe the retreat of the Continentals. Lawrence Babits also quotes a Virginian riflemen by the name of Jeremiah Preston who claimed to have "fired 17 rounds," which also suggests that Triplett’s Virginians remained in place (and continued to fire on the British as the Continentals retreated). Triplett’s Virginians probably would have remained behind the Continentals, after the latter completed their retreat, which makes it plausible that Triplett would have remained in place.
4. In my order of battle, I noted that Wallace’s Virginians numbered only 20 men. This number would seem to be far too few to have effectively checked the more than 250 men of the 71st Foot. It’s possible that Wallace’s small company was augmented with some of the miscellaneous troops assigned to Howard’s battalion (specifically, the North Carolina continentals and Virginia State Troops; see the American order of battle for details). However, even in that case this company would still have been outnumbered 5-1. A retreat, it would seem, was unavoidable.
François-Jean de Chastellux's 1787 Travels in North-America, in the Years 1780, 1781, and 1782.
John Moncure's online history of the battle, The Cowpens Staff Ride and Battlefield Tour, has a transcription of the statements by Anderson, Howard, and Thomas, among others.
Marg Baskin's Banastre Tarleton website has a transcription of Tarleton's, Hanger's, and Mackenzie's accounts of the battle.
David Stewart's 1825 Sketches... of the Highlanders of Scotland
James Graham's 1856 The Life of General Daniel Morgan has a copy of Morgan's report.
Henry Lee's 1812 Memoirs of the War in the Southern Department of the United States.
William Johnson's 1822 Sketches of the Life and Correspondence of Nathanael Greene.
William Moultrie's 1802 Memoirs of the American Revolution
Lawrence Babits' A Devil of a Whipping: The Battle of Cowpens is available through amazon.com.