Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Cowpens in Miniature 19

Part 19: “A Close and Murderous Fire”

As the Continentals about-faced and moved off in retreat, the British infantry surged towards them, cheering and wielding their bayonets. According to Henry Lee, "Considering this retrograde movement the precursor of flight, the British line rushed on with impetuosity and disorder." It was fortunate for the Americans that their commanders kept a cool head at this interval and marked out a spot where their men would halt and renew the fight. It was fortunate too that the American rank and file did not realize that the retreat was in error. Morgan and Howard acted "as if the retrograde movement had been really preconcerted" [see Note 1].

The British infantry were near the Continentals, and perhaps closing the distance with the Continentals, but the British could not overtake them. Lieutenant Roderick Mackenzie complained that "The infantry were not in condition to overtake the fugitives" [see Note 2]. The British, more so than the Americans "had been in motion day and night" in the days leading up to the battle. "A number [of the British]… had already fallen… fatigue, however, enfeebled the pursuit, much more than loss of blood… the infantry, though well disposed, were unable to come up with his [Howard’s] corps [see Note 3].

Lieutenant-Colonel John Eager Howard, in command of this battalion commented that "This retreat was accidental but was very fortunate as we thereby were extricated from the enemy."

They had fallen back approximately 100 yards [see Note 4], wheeling to their right during the retreat [see Note 5].

The Continentals Halt (click to enlarge).

At this point, according to Howard, "The enemy were now very near us." The distance may have been less than 30 yards [see Note 6].

Howard gave the command "to halt and face about." And with that "the line was perfectly formed in a moment."

For the pursuing British, here was a great shock. One moment they were on the verge of vanquishing their enemy, the next they were eye-to-eye with a wall of infantry.

There was a moment’s pause, and then the next command was given.

According to Anderson, we "then give them a full Volley."

This volley can be regarded as the climatic moment of the battle, an instant that both sides recognized as a turning point. The American after action report stated that we "gave them a fortunate volley, which threw them into disorder." The British after action report echoed this remark "General Morgan's Corps faced about & gave them [the British troops] a heavy fire. This unexpected event, occasioned the utmost confusion" [see Note 7].

A Fatal Volley (click to enlarge).

Henry Lee observed that the British were "Stunned by this unexpected shock," and "the most advanced of the enemy recoiled in confusion." The Americans, for their part, did not relent. The Continentals, in Howard’s words, gave the British "a few rounds" of "a very destructive fire."

Meanwhile, the British were also inflicting heavy losses, but on the American militia.

Major Joseph McJunkin stated that during the battle, "Tarleton… made a charge on the right & left wings, treading & cutting till he got in the rear of Howard's command." The first attack, by Ogilvie, had already been repulsed. The second one, by Lieutenant Henry Nettles and the 17th Light Dragoons, had cut through Triplett’s Virginians. Beyond Triplett’s men, and in the rear of the American position, was a host of targets for the 17th Light Dragoons. The dragoons attacked them all.

Nettles' Attack. 1 & 2 = American Cavalry, 3 = Right Wing of the Main Line (broken), 4 = Continental Infantry, 5 = Left Wing of the Main Line (Triplett's former company has been broken, but the rest of the line is intact), 6 = Right Wing of the Militia Line (reforming), 7 = Left Wing of the Militia Line, 9 = British Front Line, 10 = Captain David Ogilvie's Company (reforming), 11 = Other British Legion Dragoons, 12 = 17th Light Dragoons, 13 = 71st Foot, 14 = Main British Legion Dragoon Reserve.

Captain Connelly, who was fleeing with his company from the right wing of the main line towards the militia horses recalled that the British cavalry attacked "our company when just about to catch up [to] our horses which was tied about four hundred paces in the rear of the line of Battle." They "fell upon us with great fury."

Some men from the right wing of the militia line were also in this area [see Note 8]. These men had already reached their horses when the dragoons attacked. One of these men Private James Collins of South Carolina recalled, "Tarleton's cavalry pursued us; ("now," thought I, "my hide is in the loft;") just as we got to our horses, they overtook us and began to make a few hacks at some, however, without doing much injury. They, in their haste, had pretty much scattered, perhaps, thinking they would have another Fishing creek frolic."

The heaviest blow fell upon the men of Colonel Andrew Pickens’ regiment of South Carolina militia. After serving on the militia line, they had reformed behind Triplett’s Virginians….

Jeremiah Files claimed he "was wounded by Tarleton's Dragoons on the head--on the left Arm and on the right Hand each wound was made with a sword… the wounds Greatly Disabled [him] & stuned him for some time." Private James Pettigrew saw that his, James Caldwell, "was cut almost to death by Tarlton's horsemen so much so that he had to be borne from the field." Michael Cain was wounded "on the head by a sword." His Captain, Andrew Miller, was killed [see Note 9]. Charles Holland "was wounded by a sword thrust through the body."

Private Robert Long, who was on the other side of the battlefield, heard that "At that time Tarleton brought 200 or 300 cavalry round in the rear of our left wing of militia." Nettles in fact had nowhere near this many men. This statement conveys something of the shocking power of this attack, coming upon the militia when and where it was least expected.


1. From Francois-Jean de Chastellux’s 1781 interview with Daniel Morgan. During the retreat, Morgan saw that "the English, with more confidence than order, advanced to the attack." His own troops, meanwhile, were able to "keep their ranks." Therefore, Morgan "suffered them [the Continentals] to retreat a hundred paces, and then commanded them to halt and face the enemy, as if the retrograde movement had been really preconcerted."

2. Mackenzie’s thoughts here and elsewhere are expressed in such a way as to defame Tarleton. The retreating Continentals were not "fugitives," but rather maintained order. Mackenzie is insinuating that Tarleton could not even defeat an already-beaten foe.

3. Mackenzie claimed that "not less than two-thirds of the British infantry officers," "and nearly the same proportion of privates," had been shot. The British had amassed serious casualties by this point, but this is an exaggeration. The casualties Mackenzie alleges to have occurred by this time are greater than those suffered by the British during the entirety of the battle. This is another example in which Mackenzie’s wording implies Tarleton’s mishandling of the battle.

4. According to Howard; others stated different distances. Morgan claimed that "We retired in good order about fifty paces." Francois-Jean de Chastellux claimed that Morgan told him that he let the Continentals "retreat a hundred paces." Private John Thomas of Virginia claimed that the Continentals "retreated from aboutt 80 yards."

5. The postwar histories by Francois-Jean de Chastellux and David Stewart both describe the whole Continental line wheeling. Howard stated that the retreat began on his right flank; the wheeling movement may have resulted from the Continental line breaking off the engagement from right to left (Lawrence Babits, in a Devil of a Whipping, describes in considerable detail how this could have occurred). Whether ordered or accidental, this wheeling motion was particularly fortunate to the Americans because it prevented the 71st Foot from gaining their right flank. The wheeling movement also helps explain why different sources differently estimated the distance of the Continentals’ retreat; in such a maneuver, some parts of the line would have fallen back further than others. A distance of 100 yards for at least part of the line seems likely as this was the distance between the Continentals and Triplett’s Virginians (see The Main Line: Organization). If the Continentals had retreated further, Triplett would have been exposed to a British bayonet charge.

6. How close the two lines were has been variously stated (and perhaps was various at different points on the line). Stewart thought that the 71st Foot had come "within forty yards of the hostile force." Howard claimed the British were "within 30 yards of us with two field pieces." Virginia militiaman John Thomas thought that the British were "within aboutt 30 steps of them."

Lieutenant Thomas Anderson of the Delaware Continentals thought that "We let them Come Within ten Or fifteen yards of us." Anderson’s phrase that "we let them come" close, is striking. It is unclear whether Howard intended to have the pursuing British get close to the Continentals. Judging from Anderson’s journal, he was one that evidently believed that "the retrograde movement had been really preconcerted," and perhaps this is his supposition for why his superiors would order such a movement. Chastellux believed something similar before he interviewed Morgan.

7. A number of participants made similar remarks. Howard wrote in one place: "The enemy were now very near us. Our men commenced a very destructive fire, which they little expected, and a few rounds occasioned great disorder in their ranks." In another he said, "The enemy pressed upon us in rather disorder, expecting the fate of the day was decided. They were by this time within 30 yards of us with two field pieces; my men with uncommon coolness gave them an unexpected and deadly fire." Banastre Tarleton claimed in his memoir that "An unexpected fire at this instant from the Americans, who came about as they were retreating, stopped the British, and threw them into confusion." Private John Thomas of Virgina recalled that the Continentals "were ordered to wheele and fire. They did so, the British being within aboutt 30 steps of them." Private John Baldwin of North Carolina recalled that "Morgan defeated the British with his regulars, after they concluded the Americans were all running."

Similar comments also appeared in postwar histories of the battle. For example, Henry Lee wrote that "the British line rushed on with impetuosity and disorder; but, as it drew near, Howard faced about, and gave it a close and murderous fire. Stunned by this unexpected shock, the most advanced of the enemy recoiled in confusion." David Stewart wrote that "Colonel Howard, commanding the reserve, threw in a fire upon the 71st when within forty yards of the hostile force. The fire was destructive: nearly one-half of their number fell." This is an exaggeration (see Note 4, above). The British line was so much longer than that of the Continentals that it seems likely a part of the 71st was not struck at all by this volley. More accurately, Stewart also claimed that "The fate of the action was decided by the destructive fire of the Americans' second line."

8. Henry Lee thought they had been detached by Colonel Andrew Pickens to help secure the miltia’s horses. See Flight of the Militia - Part 3.

9. These claims were made by Cain’s widow. She also identified him with Captain Robert Anderson of this regiment.


Henry Lee's 1812 Memoirs of the War in the Southern Department of the United States.

Marg Baskin's Banastre Tarleton website has a transcription of Mackenzie's and Tarleton's accounts of the battle.

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

James Graham's 1856 The Life of General Daniel Morgan has a copy of Morgan's after action report.

A transcription of the British after action report, written by Lieutenant-General Charles Cornwallis, can be found here.

This issue (.pdf file) of The Southern Campaigns of the American Revolution magazine includes an article by Will Graves that provides a complete treatment of McJunkin's statements.

Will Graves transcribed the pension application of Henry Connelly (.pdf).

Will Graves transcribed the pension application of Jeremiah Files (.pdf file).

Nan Overton West transcribed the pension application of James Pettigew (.pdf file).

C. Leon Harris transcribed the pension application of Michael Cain (.pdf file).

Will Graves transcribed the pension application of Charles Holland (.pdf file).

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

François-Jean de Chastellux's 1787 Travels in North-America, in the Years 1780, 1781, and 1782.

David Stewart's 1825 Sketches... of the Highlanders of Scotland.

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

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

Related: The Fatal Moment, British Cavalry Charges at Cowpens - Part 2, The Militia Line: Composition and Organization

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