Saturday, May 2, 2009

Cowpens in Miniature 18

Part 18: The Third Crisis

Daniel Morgan had put into place a well-thought out plan for defeating the British. At the opening of the battle, that plan was executed perfectly, and significant losses had been inflicted on the British. The improvisation of sending skirmishers forward to gall the British before they reached the militia line had also worked well. After the British advanced on the main line, however, his became completely unraveled. Morgan was now galloping across the battlefield addressing a series of crises.

The first crisis was the charge of Ogilvie’s dragoons, which shattered his right flank. That crisis had been contained when Lieutenant-Colonel William Washington sent forward a detachment of light dragoons to counter Ogilvie’s charge. Morgan also assisted in rallying the broken militia. According to Robert Long of Joseph Hayes’ regiment, "We were not rallied until Gen. Morgan did it in person."

The second crisis was when the 71st Foot advanced towards the right of the Continentals, which triggered an accidental retreat of the Continental infantry. To address this crisis, Morgan ordered a stopgap measure: the Continentals were to halt and form a new line near Washington’s dragoons. His right flank, however, remained vulnerable.

Meanwhile, a new crisis erupted on the American left. As the Continentals retreated towards the rear, Tarleton ordered forward his last unengaged unit on the front line. In Tarleton’s words, "The British rushed forwards: An order was dispatched to the cavalry to charge" [see Note 1].

Lieutenant Henry Nettles’ company of 17th Light Dragoons rounded the right flank of the British line and stormed up the Green River Road. Lieutenant-Colonel John Eager Howard could only watch as the dragoons rushed past his infantrymen and into the rear of the American position: "about the time of our retreat, a large body of british cavalry passes round my left flank and pursued the flying militia to their horses" [see Note 2].

The dragoons first encountered Major Francis Triplett’s company of Virginia militia, which were posted, in part, on the road. Within moments, the dragoons inflicted devastating losses on the Virginians with their sabers and pistols [see Note 3].

Charge of the 17th Light Dragoons. 1 & 2 = American Cavalry, 3 = Right Wing of the Main Line (retreating / reforming), 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, 11 = Other British Legion Dragoons, 12 = 17th Light Dragoons, 13 = 71st Foot, 14 = Main British Legion Dragoon Reserve.

The Third Crisis (two views; click to enlarge). The Continentals retreat, pursued by the British infantry, while the British Legion dragoons take up a new position in reserve. On the American right, the remnants of Captain David Ogilvie's company retreat in confusion. On the American left, the 17th Light Dragoons collide with Major Francis Triplett's Virginians.

Private Isaac Way remembered that he "was severely wounded on the side, back, arms, head and in the face by the cut of the sword of a British dragoon." Both of the company’s officers were also struck down. John Thomas remembered that "Lieutenant Dearing… was wounded through his hand on this occasion and bled to death. He died the next day." Private George Rogers remembered that "the Captain of the Company to which he belonged at this time was John Combs who was killed." Sergeant Benjamin Martin also remembered Combs’ death: "I was in the road all the time of the action I was covering Capt. Combs he was killed." Martin presumably took over what was left of the company.


1. Lieutenant Roderick Mackenzie assumed that Tarleton was referring to the British Legion dragoons and said that "This order, however, if such was then thought of, being either not delivered or disobeyed, they stood aloof, without availing themselves of the fairest opportunity of reaping the laurels which lay before them." It seems unlikely that this is what Tarleton meant. He had previously ordered "a movement of the cavalry in reserve to threaten the enemy's right flank," but they had not gained that flank.

In the images accompanying this post, the British Legion is shown forming a line on the British left, behind the 71st Foot, rather than advancing around the American flank. The movements of the British Legion dragoon reserve during the battle are not well documented, but this is a likely occurrence. Two plausible reasons for why the dragoons took this action are as follows:

First, the officers commanding the dragoon reserve may have thought this is what Tarleton wanted. By forming a line behind the 71st, they were more-or-less threatening "the enemy’s right flank." Moving beyond or around the 71st may have seemed ill advised because this would have taken them into low ground that included the headwaters of Island Creek.

Second, it’s worth reconsidering the comments by Colonel Richard Winn to Daniel Morgan (originally described in Cowpens in Miniature 6). Winn said that Tarleton’s "mode of Fighting is to Surprise, by doing this he sends up two or three Troops of Horse and if he can throw the party into Confusion with his reserve he falls on and will cut them to pieces." Perhaps this movement of the reserve "to threaten the enemy's right flank" was intended to exploit the damage inflicted by Ogilvie’s charge. However, by the time that the Legion dragoon reserve reached the area, Ogilvie’s men were retreating in confusion and the opportunity was lost. Therefore, the dragoon reserve may have chosen to halt and wait for new orders.

2. The left wing of the militia line had retreated through this same gap a short while earlier. They had meanwhile reformed in rear of Triplett’s Virginians, near the horses of the militia. It’s unclear whether Howard was referring to these men or the militia "flying" past his retreating Continentals from the broken right wing of the main line.

3. This company is particularly well represented in participant accounts of the battle. Perhaps this traumatizing moment helped compel the survivors to leave a record of their experience.


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

Marg Baskin's Banastre Tarleton website has a transcription of Tarleton's memoirs, and Mackenzie's critique of them.

John Moncure's online history of the battle, The Cowpens Staff Ride and Battlefield Tour, has a transcription of the statements by Howard and Thomas, among others.

Will Graves transcribed the pension application of Isaac Way (.pdf file).

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

Will Graves transcribed the pension application of Benjamin Martin (.pdf file).

Will Graves transcribed the statement by Colonel Richard Winn (.pdf file).

Related: British Cavalry Charges at Cowpens - Part 2, 17th Light Dragoons, Flight of the Militia - Part 4

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