The flight of the British Legion dragoon reserve meant that the American counterattack would not be checked. François-Jean de Chastellux noted that the British Legion "fled full gallop, without ever thinking of the infantry, or taking the least precaution to cover their retreat."
The infantry struggled to fend for themselves as all order broke down. Daniel Morgan reported that "The enemy's whole force were now bent solely in providing for their safety in flight." Sergeant-Major William Seymour happily observed that the British "retreated off, leaving us entire masters of the field." From writing from a British perspective, David Stewart gloomily concurred, "the rout Was general; few of the infantry escaped; and of the cavalry, who put their horses to full speed, not a man was taken."
Not all of the British troops attempted to flee, however. The remnant of the 17th Light Dragoons stayed on the field, although they had been, in Cornet James Simons words, "deserted by Colo. Tarleton's Legeonary Cavalry." Tarleton also remained behind. When the Legion dragoons could not be rallied, he remained with the 17th Light Dragoons and a handful of others on horseback, near the Green River Road. George Hanger claimed that "He stood almost alone, between his flying troops and the enemy, with hopes either of rallying his own men, or not surviving their disgrace." This small force offered at least some protection for his retreating infantry, which had, in American Thomas Young’s words, thrown "down their guns and cartouch boxes, made for the wagon road, and did the prettiest sort of running!"
The presence of the American cavalry in the rear of the British infantry severely limited their options to escape.
Cornet James Simons stated in a letter to William Washington long after the battle that "In pursuit of their Cavalry [i.e., the 17th Light Dragoons] you overtook their Artillery, whom you immediately made prisoners." Howard convincingly claimed that the guns were taken by his own infantry [see Note 1], but it’s possible that the cavalry encountered at least the horse-drawn limbers. Simon went on to relate that "the Drivers of the Horses who were Galloping off with 2-3 pounders, you could not make Surrender until after Repeated Commands from you, you were obliged to order to be Shot; after securing these fieldpieces."
Letting the 17th go, the American then turned on the British infantry. According to Simons "your third Charge was made on the right wing of their Army… who, under the Operation of a Universal panic, (having been successfully charged on the left of their Army by our friend Col. Howard) instantly surrendered" [see Note 2]. Major Joseph McJunkin remembered also the key role played by the American cavalry, "Washington darts before them with his cavalry and they too ground their arms [see Note 3].
The British infantry was certainly not going to outrun the American cavalry; frequently they could not outrun the American infantry.
Mackenzie wrote that "the infantry were easily overtaken, as the cause which had retarded the pursuit [i.e., exhaustion], had now an equal effect in impeding the retreat: dispirited on many accounts, they surrendered at discretion." De Chastellux agreed, "Fatigued by a very long march, they were soon overtaken."
Even the militia that had survived Nettles’ attack was able to contribute to this final assault on the British right. According to Private James Collins, "We… advanced briskly, and gained the right flank of the enemy, and they being hard pressed in front, by Howard, and falling very fast, could not stand it long.
Surrender (click to enlarge). Closely pressed by American Continentals and militia, and their retreat cut off by the American cavalry, most of the British infantry throw down their arms (not shown). Meanwhile, Tarleton stands "almost alone, between his flying troops and the enemy."
American Cavalryman Thomas Young, seeing the British line collapse so utterly noted that at this time, "Major Jolly and seven or eight of us, resolved upon an excursion to capture some of the baggage" [see Note 4]. Tarleton may have seen these men, but he evidently did not interfere with them. He retained his toehold on the battlefield.
Around the same time, that the Americans were mopping up the right side of the British line, the British left was also in complete collapse. Lieutenant-Colonel Howard recalled that "In the pursuit, I was led towards the [American] right, in among the 71st, who were broken into squads. They no longer offered serious resistance. William Moultrie claimed that "So great was the consternation in which the British infantry were, at seeing their cavalry gallop off, that, either from pique or panic, numbers of them never fired a gun."
Howard recalled that "I called to them [the 71st Foot] to surrender, they laid down their arms, and the officers delivered up their swords." Major McJunkin was also immediately present and remembered that "some begin to call for quarters," when "the voice of Howard is heard amid the rush of men and clangor of steel: ‘Throw down your arms and you shall have good quarters.’ When they were finally "convinced that quarters would be given, they as it were rent the very air with thanks that their lives would be spared. These were called the Scots regiment" [see Note 5].
All-in-all, according to William Moultrie, "upwards of five hundred laid down their arms, and surrendered themselves prisoners. The first battalion of the seventy-first, and two companies of light infantry, laid down their arms." The 71st surrendered on the British left; the two companies of light infantry (perhaps Moultrie meant the light infantry of the 16th and 71st regiments) were perhaps the last organized resistance on the British right.
Several anecdotes concerning the surrender of the 71st Foot have been preserved in participant accounts. McJunkin stated that "In the conclusion of this foray you might have seen Major [James] Jackson of Georgia rush among the broken ranks of the 71st Regiment and attempting to seize their standard, while they are vainly trying to form by it; you might have seen Col. Howard interposing for the relief of his friend when entangled among his foes" [see Note 6].
Howard related that one "Captain Duncanson, of the 71st grenadiers [see Note 7], gave me his sword, and stood by me. Upon getting on my horse, I found him pulling at my saddle, and he nearly unhorsed me. I expressed my displeasure, and asked him what he was about. The explanation was, that they had orders to give no'quarter, and they did not expect any; and as my men were coming up, he was afraid they would use him ill. I admitted his excuse, and put him into the care of a sergeant. I had messages from him for some years afterwards, expressing his obligation for my having saved his life."
Major Arthur McArthur, who commanded the first battalion of the 71st attempted to escape on horseback, but he was overridden by one or more mounted Americans. Who captured him is unclear. Colonel Andrew Pickens claimed that, "Major McCarthur surrendered to me, some distance from the battlefield & delivered his sword to me," while Major Jackson wrote that McArthur was "a prisoner on that occasion taken by myself" [emphasis in original].
1. Morgan also implicitly credited Howard with capturing the guns in his official report of the battle. Howard, Morgan reported, "gave orders for the line to charge bayonets, which was done with such address that they [the British] fled with the utmost precipitation leaving their fieldpieces in our possession."
2. The excised text includes that "the right wing of their Army Composed of their Legeonary Infantry, intermixed with the Battallion of the Brave 71st (under the Command of Major McArthur,)" The 71st Foot was neither a part of the right wing of their army nor next to the British Legion infantry. Perhaps he was thinking of the light infantry companies of the 71st Foot, who were on hand.
3. The full text reads "One battalion throws down their arms and the men fall to the earth. Another commences flight, but Washington darts before them with his cavalry and they too ground their arms." McJunkin recognized that the British line had broken into two parts. The battalion that "throws down their arms" is the 71st, the other "battalion" is the British right. McJunkin was personally involved at this time in the fight against the 71st; he did not seem to realize or remember that the British right included several commands.
4. Howard mentions Morgan’s aide, Baron de Glaubeck leading "five or six militia men well mounted," on this excursion. McJunkin related that "After the surrender of the British infantry a company of fourteen dashed off to take possession of the British baggage wagons ten miles distant. Major Benjamin Jolly and a Frenchman called De Barron headed this party. It happened to pass Col. Tarleton while he was collecting his men after the retreat. Unconscious of this fact, they pressed on in comparative security."
Other individuals may have also made a mounted pursuit. Militiaman Hugh McNary claimed that he joined in the pursuit "when the Enemy first gave way." Whether the rest of his company was mounted or on foot, he "got far enough ahead of his company to stop a British officer, the officer surrendered, deponent [i.e., McNary] dismounted and took from the officer his Holsters and pistols, and after getting them, he discovered, that his company had stopped pursuit and were retreating back, he mounted his horse and returned leaving the British officer, but took the Holsters and pistols which he afterwards sold."
5. Several American sources seemed impressed by the restraint they showed on this occasion (implicitly in contrast with what happened on other battlefields). Morgan reported that "It, perhaps, would be well to remark, for the honor of the American arms, that although the progress of this [Tarleton’s] corps was marked with burning and devastation, and although they waged the most cruel warfare, not a man was killed, wounded, or even insulted, after he surrendered."
6. Major James Jackson confirmed this episode: "[I ran] the utmost risk of my life, in an attempt to seize the colors of the 71st regiment in the midst of it, on their attempt to form after they were broken, being saved by an exertion of Col. Howard’s." The 71st Foot did not carry its colors into the battle. The 7th Foot did have its colors, one of which was captured by an American militiaman (see 7th Regiment of Foot). This account may describe that capture.
7. The two battalions of the 71st Foot had, between them, two companies of light infantry, and two companies of grenadiers. The former were at the battle of Cowpens, the latter were not. The 71st's grenadiers were captured at the battle of Stony Point in 1779. That Captain Duncanson would have been at Cowpens indicates that he was 1) absent during the battle of Stony Point, 2) at that battle, but subsequently exchanged, or 3) captured at Stony Point, but released on parole. If Duncanson had violated his parole, he was liable to be hanged.
François-Jean de Chastellux's 1787 Travels in North-America, in the Years 1780, 1781, and 1782.
James Graham's 1856 The Life of General Daniel Morgan has a copy of Morgan's report, and a copy of Jackson's letters.
A transcription of William Seymour's journal can be found on this Battle of Camden website.
David Stewart's 1825 Sketches... of the Highlanders of Scotland.
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.
John Moncure's online history of the battle, The Cowpens Staff Ride and Battlefield Tour, has a transcription of the statements by Young, McJunkin, Collins, Howard, and Pickens, among others.
This issue (.pdf file) of The Southern Campaigns of the American Revolution magazine includes a review by Will Graves of McJunkin's statements. McJunkin's description of the raid on the baggage train can be found here.
William Moultrie's 1802 Memoirs of the American Revolution.
Will Graves transcribed the pension application of Hugh McNary (.pdf file).