The Continental infantry dealt their British counterparts a deadly blow when first they delivered an unexpected volley at short range and then charged with the bayonets. David Stewart, however, maintained that while the "Highlanders… were checked and repulsed," they were not broken. They were "some distance in the rear, after they retreated, and had formed into some compact order."
The Continentals were still outnumbered by the British regulars, but the British failed to make a dignified withdrawal, much less recover the advantage. American writers claimed they retained the advantage due to the vigorous manner with which the offense was sustained. Daniel Morgan reported that "We pushed our advantage so effectually, that they never had an opportunity of rallying, had their intentions been ever so good."
The Americans "pushed" their "advantage" in several parts of the battlefield at once.
In the middle, the Continentals were close on the heels of the retreating British.
William Wood recalled seeing John Hill, a North Carolina Continental, "pursue a British soldier – some 60 or 75 yards. He the said Hill stuck his Bayonet in the back of the British soldier by throwing his musket at him this wound was slight and the British soldier continued to retreat."
Lieutenant Thomas Anderson of the Delaware Continentals wrote in his journal that "We Were in amongst them With the Bayonets Which Caused them to give ground and at last to take to, the flight But We followed them up so Close that they never Could get in Order again."
Sergeant-Major William Seymour, also of Delaware, wrote that "all the officers and men behaved with uncommon and undaunted bravery, but more especially the brave captain Kirkwood and his company, who did that day wonders, rushing on the enemy without either dread or fear, and being instrumental in taking a great number of prisoners."
As the Continentals pressed forward, they were joined on either flank by the American militia.
In Joseph McJunkin’s words, "Howard orders a charge, the militia comes back, and fall in right and left." William Moultrie noted that "our militia at the same time [as Howard’s charge] recovered themselves and charged, which threw them [the British] into the utmost confusion" [see Note 1].
To the British, the danger from the attacking militia was particularly acute on the flank of the 71st Foot [see Note 2]. The 71st Foot had exposed their left flank to them in attempting to turn the right flank of the Continentals [see Note 3]. The militia on the American right had been stunned by Captain Ogilvie’s charge [see Note 4], but at this critical moment, Colonel Andrew Pickens and Brigadier-General Daniel Morgan had succeeded in rallying them. As the militia returned to fight, the men of the 71st found themselves assaulted on the left and rear at the same time that the Continentals attacked to their front and right [see Note 5].
The 71st Foot began to retreat. Stewart claimed that "If they had been supported, they might have made a soldier-like retreat." Nearby was Tarleton’s Legion Dragoon reserves. However, they offered no support. Tarleton wrote that "The part of the cavalry which had not been engaged fell likewise into disorder, and an unaccountable panic extended itself along the whole line."
Tarleton was on hand and attempted to bring the dragoons forward. "In this last stage of defeat Lieutenant-colonel Tarleton made another struggle to bring his cavalry to the charge. The weight of such an attack might yet retrieve the day, the enemy being much broken by their late rapid advance." But there would be no charge: "all attempts to restore order, recollection, or courage, proved fruitless." Instead, "Above two hundred dragoons forsook their leader, and left the field of battle."
Why did the dragoons flee?
Alexander Chesney made the curious comment that "the British Legion… was filled up from the prisoners taken at the battle of Camden… the prisoners on seeing their own Regt opposed to them in the rear would not proceed against it and broke." It is believable that some former Continentals had been compelled to enlist as British Legion dragoons [see Note 6], but this explanation seems insufficient to explain why they fled.
Daniel Morgan wrote that Washington charged them "with such firmness, that [Tarleton with his dragoons] instead of attempting to recover the fate of the day, which one would have expected from an officer of his splendid character, broke and fled."
William Moultrie further developed this theme:
"There is no doubt but Colonel Tarleton was a brave man, and a good soldier, but in this affair he displayed neither generalship nor courage, but galloped off with his two hundred and fifty horse, when pursued by about seventy continental cavalry, and forty-five militia horse, and left his infantry to be made prisoners of."
Morgan implied Tarleton of cowardice for retreating with his dragoons; Moultrie directly alleged it. Both assessments are too harsh [see Note 7]. Tarleton had to bring his dragoons to order, if only to minimize British losses. It is difficult to see what possible gain would have resulted from remaining with the infantry. Roderick Mackenzie commented that "Two hundred and fifty horse which had not been engaged, fled through the woods with the utmost precipitation, bearing down such officers as opposed their flight." Tarleton was one of these officers. In Major George Hanger’s words, "Exertions were used, and most vigourous ones, to enforce obedience to the orders, of the gallant commander: some officers went so far as to cut down several of their men, in order to stop the flight."
Washington’s dragoons had rounded the right flank of the British line and were heading towards the dragoon reserve at the time that the latter broke. Did the American cavalry drive off their British counterparts? British writers did not think so.
Stewart noted that the highlanders "saw no prospect of support, while their own numbers were diminishing, and the enemy increasing. They began to retire, and at length to run." Mackenzie commented that when "the advance of the British fell back," they "communicated a panick to others, which soon became general: a total route ensued" [see Note 8]. The picture that emerges is that the retreat of the 71st triggered the flight of the British Legion dragoons. In other words, the dragoons panicked and fled just as the mass of retreating Highlanders and closely pursuing Americans was about to break upon them [see Note 9].
Flight. 1 = American Cavalry, 3 = Right Wing of the Main Line, 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.
Flight (two views; click to enlarge). The Continentals and American militia press the retreating British on front and flank. As the British Legion dragoons flee the battlefield, the American dragoons cut off the retreat of the British infantry.
1. It is likely that the militia on the right were the first to reenter the battle as they had more time to recover from being charged by the British cavalry. The militia on the American right can be seen first reengaging the British (albeit at long range) at about the same time as the American counterattack (see Cowpens in Miniature 20).
Morgan rallied the militia on the right after Ogilvie’s charge (see Cowpens in Miniature 18). He seems to have rallied the militia on the left after Nettles was repulsed. According to James Collins: "by this time, both lines of the infantry were warmingly engaged and we being relieved from the pursuit of the enemy [i.e., the British cavalry charge] began to rally and prepare to redeem our credit, when Morgan rode up in front, and waving his sword, cried out, "Form, form, my brave fellows! give them one more fire and the day is ours. Old Morgan. was never beaten." These militia then moved against the British right, but because it was some distance in front, they could not have immediately attacked it.
For Collins to have joined in the counterattack, he would have had to pass through the ranks of Triplett’s Virginians. It seems unlikely that the Virginians would have remained stationary. Therefore, I have shown the Virginians joining (even leading) the counterattack on the map and in the accompanying images of the miniatures. However, this depiction is speculative. Aside from some participant-provided insights into the experience of Triplett’s former company (see especially Cowpens in Miniature 18), very little is known about the experience of the left wing of the main line during the battle.
2. Noting in particular this counterattack, Howard wrote that of the front-line militia that "part of them… [were in] the rear of my right flank," and that these men "renewed the action." In his history of the 71st Foot, Stewart noted that the militia "rallied, returned to the field."
3. The ground occupied by these militia was not much lower than that on which the main fighting was taking place, but the British seemed to have poor awareness of the presence of militia there. Tarleton apparently did not know that the front-line militia were not far behind the right wing of the main line when he ordered Ogilvie to charge. Likewise, Tarleton’s unfulfilled directive for the Legion dragoons to advance to the left seems to have been made in ignorance of these militiamen.
4. Morgan is mentioned by participants as being both with the Continentals and with the militia during the main-line fighting. I argued previously that it was essential to Morgan’s plan for victory that the front-line militia be brought back into the fighting after their initial retreat (see Cowpens in Miniature 9). The Continentals were ably led by Lieutenant-Colonels John Eager Howard and William Washington; it is likely that Morgan devoted the greater part of his energies to overseeing the militia.
5. Alexander Chesney’s account indicates that the 71st was partially attacked from behind. In his words, the militia went "from the rear of their Cavalry which immediately charged and broke in the rear of the 71st (then unsupported) making many prisoners: The rout was almost total" This is an unfortunately ambiguous description. Who "immediately charged," the cavalry or the militia? In the present interpretation, a part of the American cavalry helped drive off Ogilvie’s charge on the American right (see Cowpens in Miniature 16) and thus may have had the militia behind them at one point, but the American cavalry subsequently moved off to assist Washington. Upon rallying, it was the American militia that attacked the flank and rear of the 71st. (For a different take on a possible American cavalry charge against the British left, see Cowpens in Miniature 20, Note 4).
6. It was not uncommon for prisoners of war on both sides to volunteer to serve with the other side as a means of avoiding imprisonment. Some did so in the hope of eventually deserting back to their former army; others because they placed income, health, and safety above patriotic principle. The British could (and did) send those prisoners willing to switch sides to remote posts where they would cause little trouble. But not always, as Chesney’s account reveals.
7. Lee, a cavalryman who fought Tarleton and his dragoons on more than one occasion, was notably more neutral in tone: "The British cavalry, having taken no part in the action, except the two troops attached to the line [i.e., Ogilvie and Nettles], were in force to cover the retreat. This, however, was not done."
8. Stewart elaborated on Mackenzie’s language and assigned the 71st the role of the troops in advance and claimed that the rest of the British infantry were the ones that panicked upon the 71st’s retreat. This description does not mesh well with Tarleton’s account of the battle. Tarleton and Hanger implied that the 71st and the 7th were fighting side-by-side, their flanks entangled. I showed all of the British infantry maintaining a single line while the Continentals retreated, but this is primarily interpretative; there are few indications in participant accounts about the location of specific British units during the middle or late phases of the battle.
9. Even before this the Legion dragoons were likely severely demoralized. Delaware Continental Henry Wells recalled that "During the day, at every turn we Seemed to gain new advantages." From the British perspective, the reverse would have been true – during the battle at every turn they experienced some new loss. The dragoons, on horseback and in reserve, had a panoramic view of the battle, and perhaps a bit more perspective than did Tarleton. They could see that the battle was lost, even if he could not.
To speculate further, another possibility is that one or more dragoon officers even ordered their men to fall back some ways so as to preserve a certain amount of distance between the (retreating) infantry and the cavalry reserve. Under the circumstances, such a minor repositioning of the troops could have led to an unintended retreat, not unlike what happened with Wallace’s Virginians (see Cowpens in Miniature 17).
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.
Will Graves transcribed the pension application of John Hill (.pdf).
John Moncure's online history of the battle, The Cowpens Staff Ride and Battlefield Tour, has a transcription of the statements by Anderson and Collins, among others.
A transcription of William Seymour's journal can be found on this Battle of Camden website.
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.
William Moultrie's 1802 Memoirs of the American Revolution.
Marg Baskin's Banastre Tarleton website has a transcription of Tarleton's, Hanger's, and Mackenzie's accounts of the battle.
Henry Lee's 1812 Memoirs of the War in the Southern Department of the United States.
Will Graves trancribed the pension application of Henry Wells (.pdf file).