Saturday, May 9, 2009

Cowpens in Miniature 21

Part 21: Collapse
Next: Flight

After Howard charged, several specific things happened at this time so close together that it is difficult to sort out the exact timing of each.

On the British left, the 71st Foot was disorganized, but still dangerous. David Stewart wrote that "They were checked; but they did not fall back immediately, probably expecting that the first line and cavalry would push forward to their support" [see Note 1].

It is likely that the 71st Foot still extended beyond the right flank of the Continentals. There was, on at least one part of the line, enough separation with the Continentals to permit, in Stewart’s words, "some irregular firing between them [the 71st Foot] and Colonel Howard's reserve [the Continentals]" [see Note 2].

This portion of the 71st may also have continued to advance, even as other parts of the British line were falling back. Sergeant Major William Seymour recorded in journal that the British "thought to surround our right flank," but they were foiled in this effort because "Captain Kirkwood with his company wheeled to the right and attacked their left flank [i.e., the 71st Foot] so vigorously that they were soon repulsed, our men advancing on them so very rapidly that they soon gave way" [see Note 3].

In the British center, the Americans pitched into the ranks of the British infantry with their bayonets, making prisoners of some, striking down others, and driving back the rest. This created a clean break in the British line with the British infantry there either scattering or falling back towards the flanks and rear [see Note 4]. Just as a part of the Continentals had wheeled to the right to attack the 71st Foot, others wheeled to the left and fell upon the other end of the broken British line. According to Sergeant-Major William Seymour, "Our left flank [i.e., the left side of the Continentals] advanced… and repulsed their right flank [i.e., the right half of the British line]."

In this moment of crisis, Tarleton ordered his last reserve, the British Legion dragoons, to advance. He "sent directions to his cavalry to form about four hundred yards to the right of the enemy, in order to check them." With the British infantry beginning to retreat, Tarleton perhaps thought that by placing this massive cavalry force on the flank of the American line he could compel them to fall back and adopt a defensive posture. However, "The cavalry did not comply with the order" [see Note 5]. Meanwhile, Tarleton personally attempt to turn around the British infantry, but he was stymied: "Exertions to make them advance were useless" [see Note 6].

As the 7th Foot and British Legion infantry fell back, they left exposed the two cannon belonging to the Royal Artillery.

Howard recalled that "As the [Continental] line approached [the British], I observed their artillery a short distance in front, and called to Captain Ewing, who was near me, to take it. Captain Anderson… hearing the order, also pushed for the same object, and both being emulous for the prize, kept pace until near the first piece, when Anderson, by placing the end of his espontoon forward into the ground, made a long leap which brought him upon the gun, and gave him the honour of the prize" [see Note 7].

Tarleton was on hand and "endeavoured to rally the infantry to protect the guns… [but] the effort to collect the infantry was ineffectual: Neither promises nor threats could gain their attention; they surrendered or dispersed, and abandoned the guns to the artillery men, who defended them for some time with exemplary resolution" [see Note 8].

On the British right, Washington burst onto the scene as he pursued the fleeing 17th Light Dragoons. Howard wrote that "as soon as we got among the enemy & were making prisoners I observed the enemy's cavalry retreating the way they had advanced, by our left flank, and Washington in pursuit of them and he followed them some distance."

Howard recalled that "My attention was now drawn to an altercation of some of the men with an artillery man, who appeared to make it a point of honour not to surrender his match. The men, provoked by his obstinacy, would have bayonetted him on the spot, had I not interfered, and desired them to spare the life of so brave a man. He then surrendered his match" [see Note 9].

The British Line Collapses. 1 = American Cavalry, 3 = Right Wing of the Main Line (reforming), 4 = Continental Infantry, 5 = Left Wing of the Main Line, 6 = Right Wing of the Militia Line, 7 = Left Wing of the Militia Line, 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 British Line Collapses (two views; click to enlarge). The British infantry began to retreat in the face of a bayonet charge by the Continental infantry in front. Meanwhile, the American cavalry and militia begin to threaten the British flanks.


1. The first line was not behind them at this point, as he alleged, but off to the right. It was in a similar situation at this moment and in no condition to offer assistance.

2. One of the distinctive features of Lawrence Babits’ account of the battle (A Devil of a Whipping) is that he maintained that Major Joseph McDowell’s battalion of North Carolinians did not retreat behind the main line when the militia line broke, but rather maintained contact with the British infantry and were driven back only by a charge of Ogilvie’s dragoons and a detachment of the 71st Foot. In support of this account, Babits cited the pension application of William Meade, who claimed that "He had a rib broken by the point of a Bayonet, had his skull badly fractured by a Sword, and had a leg badly wounded by the stroke of a Cutlass of a British Light horseman."

Meade's statement indicates that some of the American militia on the right were assailed by both infantry and cavalry. In my account, Ogilvie charged the American militia on the right, but without the participation of British infantry. However, I do show that the 71st Foot later crossed into the area through which Ogilvie had charged in attempting to turn the right flank of the Continentals. My explanation for Meade’s injuries is as follows: in the wake of Ogilvie’s charge, a number of militiamen (including, but not limited to, the men of McDowell’s battalion) were left wounded on the ground, and as the 71st Foot swept over the area, some of these hapless Americans were bayoneted by the Highlanders).

3. Captain Robert Kirkwood commanded the company of Delaware Continentals. Seymour’s description is ambiguous as to whether he was referring to the larger British effort to turn the Americans’ right flank or a specific proximal event that triggered this movement by Kirkwood’s company.

4. Several American accounts distinguish between a British left and right for this and later points in the battle. Robert Long, for example, recalled that late in the battle the British "on the right and left surrendered or retreated." Seymour’s account provides the strongest indication that the Continentals’ counterattack forced this severance.

5. This failure of the British Legion cavalry to advance has been interpreted as a primary cause of the British defeat. The cavalry, it has been argued by others, were lacking in fighting spirit. I don’t find this argument to be particularly compelling. Captain David Ogilvie’s company charged the Americans and appears to have fought bravely, and I know of no reason why this company should be viewed as exceptional within the regiment.

Worth considering is an alternative possibility: that the Legion dragoons didn’t execute the order because it didn’t make sense.

The order would have carried the dragoons into a creek bottom and wood swarming with militiamen. That’s not to say that Tarleton should have realized that the order was nonsensical. Tarleton was, after all, in the center trying to rally the British regulars, and things were so chaotic at this moment that there was no opportunity for him to converse with the officers commanding his dragoons.

But why would Tarleton have thought this order to be appropriate?

Tarleton had already ordered the Legion dragoons to occupy a position on the American right (see Cowpens in Miniature 17), but they failed to fully execute this order. I suggested one of three possible reasons for that failure (see Cowpens in Miniature 18, Note 1): that they may have misunderstood Tarleton’s intentions, that they may have found the ground in front of them to be unsuitable, or that they may have found the timing of the movement to be spoiled. Tarleton can be excused on this count unless the problem was with the terrain and he had been informed of that problem.

Also curious is that at this moment the Americans were a short distance to the front. Why then would Tarleton then order the dragoons to a position on the flank? Perhaps Tarleton saw that the dragoons could not make a direct charge (in any order at least) through the swarm of Continentals and British regulars, and he ordered the dragoons to the flank where they would have a relatively clear shot at the Americans.

6. There are some noteworthy differences between the Tarleton-inspired British official report of the battle and Tarleton’s later memoir. The report notes that "The 1st Battalion of the 71st & the cavalry were successively ordered up; but neither the exertions, entreaties, or Example of Lieut. Colonel Tarleton could prevent the panic from becoming general." In the memoir, it is clear that the 71st had already been committed and was in no condition to rescue anyone. David Stewart, in fact, claimed that the rest of the British line failed to come up in support of the 71st. Such gross differences suggest that neither half of the broken British line knew where the other half was or what it was doing.

7. Captain James Ewing commanded the left-hand company in Howard’s battalion (see pension application of Sergeant Benjamin Martin). The placement of Anderson’s company is unknown, but he may have been next to Ewing.

8. The language in Cornwallis’ report of the battle is even stronger, "the two three pounders were taken… In justice to the Detachment of the Royal Artillery, I must here observe that no terrors could induce them to abandon their Guns, & they were all either killed or wounded in defense of them."

9. Elsewhere he gave another version of this event: "When I came up to the two pieces of artillery which we took, I saw some of my men going to bayonet the man who had the match. He refused to surrender it, and I believe he would have suffered himself to have been bayoneted, if I had not rescued him rather than give up his match."


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

A transcription of William Seymour's journal can be found on this Battle of Camden website.

Marg Baskin's Banastre Tarleton website has a transcription of Tarleton's account of the battle.

Lawrence Babits' 1998 A Devil of a Whipping: The Battle of Cowpens is available through

Will Graves transcribed the pension application of William Meade (.pdf file).

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

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

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

Related: 7th Regiment of Foot, 71st Foot, The British Legion

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