Lieutenant-Colonel William Washington was stationed, with his dragoons, in rear of the American main line during the battle. His cavalry was the Americans’ last line of defense, and like his counterpart, Lieutenant-Colonel Banastre Tarleton, he used his cavalry sparingly [see Note 1]. Washington sent mounted militia forward at the beginning of the battle to cover the retreat of the militia, but then had them return to a position in reserve [see Note 2]. When Ogilvie charged, he sent forward a portion of his dragoons to prevent the American right from being wholly swept away, but still he did not commit his entire force. However, when the Continental infantry began to retreat, he was left with no alternative than to bring his remaining dragoons forward and use them to guard against a rout of the American center. With his last dragoons deployed, no force was left to counter the charge of the 17th light dragoons. Mounted militiaman Jeremiah Dial saw "the British broke through the leftwing of the Malitia" (i.e., Triplett’s Virginians) and charge into the American rear. There was, however, no immediate relief for those that were attacked.
William Moultrie stated in his postwar history that "Colonel Washington… [was] close to the rear of the second line [i.e., the Continentals] with his cavalry, and spoke to Colonel Howard, 'that if he would rally his men, and charge the enemy's line, he would charge the cavalry that were got among our militia in the rear' [see Note 3]."
Washington at this moment may also have ordered the recall of the detachment of dragoons that had driven off Ogilvie’s company [see Note 4].
Moments later, Lieutenant-Colonel John Eager Howard ordered the retreating Continentals to halt, about face, and deliver a fatal volley into the astonished British.
Both Howard and Washington then ordered charges, respectively, against the British infantry and cavalry.
The volleys Howard’s Continentals delivered at close range brought down many of the British infantry and left the rest reeling. According to Howard, "While [the British were] in this confusion, I ordered a charge with the bayonet, which order was obeyed with great alacrity."
This was also the experience of Lieutenant Thomas Anderson of the Delaware Continentals. He recorded in his journal that we "Charged them home. They not expecting any Such thing put them in Such Confusion that We Were in amongst them With the Bayonets Which Caused them to give ground."
Similarly, Henry Lee stated that "Howard seized the happy moment, and followed his advantage with the bayonet. This decisive step gave us the day. The reserve [i.e., the 71st Foot] having been brought near the line, shared in the destruction of our fire, and presented no rallying point to the fugitives.
Meanwhile, according to Howard, "Washington observing... [the British cavalry] charged them. As well as I can recollect this charge was made at the same moment that I charged the infantry." Anderson made the same observation in his journal "At the Same time that We Charged, Col. Washington Charged the horse Which Soon gave Way" [see Note 5].
In making this charge, according to Howard, Washington "moved to the left from our rear, to attack Tarleton's horse" [see Note 6].
Within moments they passed by elements of the shattered right wing of the main line [see Note 7] and into the ranks of the 17th Light Dragoons.Washington and Howard Charge. 1 & 2 = American Cavalry, 3 = Right Wing of the Main Line (broken), 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 (reforming), 11 = Other British Legion Dragoons, 12 = 17th Light Dragoons, 13 = 71st Foot, 14 = Main British Legion Dragoon Reserve.
Cornet James Simons, one of Washington’s cavalrymen, wrote in a letter to William Washington that "your first charge was made on the enemy's Cavalry, (who were cutting down our Militia) and when, after a smart Action, you instantly defeated, leaving in the course of ten minutes 18 of their brave 17th Dragoons dead on the spot."
Ten minutes was probably too long of a duration for this action. Private James Collins remembered that "in a few moments, Col. Washington's cavalry was among them, like a whirlwind, and the poor fellows began to kneel from their horses, without being able to remount. The shock was so sudden and violent, they could not stand it, and immediately betook themselves to flight." Howard wrote that Colonel Washington charged the enemy's cavalry, who were cutting down our militia, and soon drove them off."The American Counterattack. (two views; click to enlarge). The Continental infantry (under Howard) charge into the heart of the British line. Meanwhile, the American cavalry (under Washington) relieve the militia from the assault of the 17th Light Dragoons.
As the British dragoons retreated, the American cavalry stormed after them in close pursuit. For the British dragoons, according to Collins, "there was no time to rally, and they appeared to be as hard to stop as a drove of wild Choctaw steers, going to a Pennsylvania market. In a few moments the clashing of swords was out of hearing and quickly out of sight." Less colorfully, Howard commented that Washington "never lost sight of them until they abandoned the ground" [see Note 8].
1. In eighteenth century Western-style warfare, the commander that committed his reserves last was often the one that emerged victorious. Tarleton used a part of his mounted force in a limited capacity during the middle phase of the battle, while holding back a large reserve. Washington deployed a large portion of his force on both occassions, but this seems chiefly to reflect the extremity of the circumstances. That the Americans had to fully commit their cavalry before the British might have been disastrous to them. Major George Hanger commented years later that the defeat of Ogilvie (and by extension, Nettles too) was inconsequential compared to Tarleton’s inability to make good use of his reserve late in the battle.
2. Private Thomas Young described the mounted militiamen being used in this capacity. See The American Cavalry - Part 2 for details on the initial deployment of the American cavalry. Whether Washington took the initiative in ordering the mounted militia forward or whether the order originated with Morgan is unknown.
3. It is difficult to discern exactly who did what at this critical point in the battle. Moultrie’s statement indicates Washington was the key actor in rallying the Continentals, while the accounts by Morgan and Howard each chiefly credit themselves.
4. Thomas Young recalled that "At this moment the bugle sounded. We about half formed and making a sort of circuit at full speed, came up in the rear of the British line, shouting and charging like madmen. At this moment Col. Howard gave the word "charge bayonets!" and the day was ours."
One reading of this statement is that the group of American dragoons that had driven off Ogilvie charged around the vulnerable left flank of the British line and passed into the ground behind the 71st Foot. I regard Young as a trustworthy source and have put a great deal of reliance on his account elsewhere, but this part of his statement is difficult to reconcile. Young’s account suggests that his small group of dragoons were the first to counterattack when other sources give that honor to Lieutenant-Colonel John Eager Howard’s Continentals. He also seemingly places his small group of dragoons in an unlikely position between the British infantry and the British cavalry reserve before either had been beaten. The experience of the 71st Foot was described in detail by David Stewart and Roderick Mackenzie, but neither mention such a charge; nor too did other American cavalrymen.
An alternative interpretation is that Washington recalled the dragoons on his right ("the bugle sounded"), these cavalry then followed in the wake of Washington’s own charge, moving behind the Continentals from the right side of the battlefield to the left ("making a sort of circuit at full speed") and then joined with Washington in the charge that helped shatter the British left and broke into the British rear (we "came up in the rear of the British line, shouting and charging like madmen"). This reading is not problematic so long as "this moment" when "Col. Howard gave the word "charge bayonets!"" preceded the moment when the dragoons "came up in the rear of the British line."
5. Respected histories of the battle, such as those by Edwin Bearss and Lawrence Babits, place Washington’s charge against the British cavalry soon after the militia retreated and well before the Continentals counterattacked. That the charges occurred at the same time is strongly indicated by Howard and Anderson. Another participant, Robert Long, recalled that "Col. Washington charged them with his cavalry; at the same time our infantry charged the British with the bayonet." Henry Lee’s history of the battle stated that "part of the enemy's cavalry, having gained our rear, fell on that portion of the militia who had retired to their horses. Washington struck at them with his dragoons, and drove them before him. Thus, by simultaneous efforts, the infantry and cavalry of the enemy routed."
6. That Washington was charging a British cavalry force to his left (and not Ogilvie’s dragoons, which had been to his right) is indicated in several accounts. Daniel Morgan’s report of the battle stated that "Lieut. Col. Washington, having been informed that the Tarleton was cutting down our riflemen on the left, pushed forward, and charged them." Private Jeremiah Dial stated in his pension application that "Washington's Cavalry with whom this applicant fought during the engagement were stationed in the rear of Morgan's forces and when the British broke through the leftwing of the Malitia Washington’s cavalry made an attack upon them and defeated them with considerable loss."
Howard also emphasized that the charge was made toward the American rear, rather than towards the British infantry: "Washington's charge had no connexion with mine as his movement was to the rear in a quite different direction."
7. These men, according to the present account of the battle, first broke when Ogilvie charged, and, in retreating for their horses, fell in the path of Nettles’ charge. William Neel of Captain Patrick Buchanan’s company recalled seeing that, "the South Carolina mounted militia," who he had earlier denigrated (see Cowpens in Miniature 14) had "rallied and assisted to complete the victory." Captain Henry Connelly remarked that "we was fortunately relieved by Washingtons legion that hastened to our assistance."
8. François-Jean de Chastellux asked Morgan "how Tarleton's cavalry were employed during the engagement." He learned that "whilst the infantry were engaged, they endeavoured to turn the flanks of General Morgan's army, but were kept in awe by some riflemen, and by the American horse detached by Colonel Washington, to support them, in two little squadrons." The manner in which I have depicted the charges by Ogilvie and Nettles as well as their defeat by the American militia and cavalry is consistent with this description.
Will Graves transcribed the pension application of Jeremiah Dial (.pdf file).
William Moultrie's 1802 Memoirs of the American Revolution.
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 Young, among others.
Henry Lee's 1812 Memoirs of the War in the Southern Department of the United States.
Thomas Balch's 1857 Papers Relating Chiefly to the Maryland Line During the Revolution has Simons' letter to William Washington. His book can be downloaded from this site.
Marg Baskin's Banastre Tarleton website has a transcription of Hanger's and Mackenzie's accounts of the battle.
David Stewart's 1825 Sketches... of the Highlanders of Scotland.
Edwin Bearss' 1967 Battle of Cowpens: A Documented Narrative and Troop Movement Maps.
Lawrence Babits' 1998 A Devil of a Whipping: The Battle of Cowpens is available through amazon.com.
See The Statements of Private Robert Long for a transcription of his statements.
James Graham's 1856 The Life of General Daniel Morgan has a copy of Morgan's report.
C. Leon Harris transcribed the pension application of William Neel (.pdf file).
Will Graves transcribed the pension application of Henry Connelly (.pdf file).
François-Jean de Chastellux's 1787 Travels in North-America, in the Years 1780, 1781, and 1782.