Sunday, May 17, 2009

Cowpens in Miniature 25

Part 25: The Battle Ends
Previous: The Last Gambit

At the time that Tarleton and the remnants of the British cavalry fled the battlefield, it was still morning. For many of the Americans, the remainder of the day would be spent in pursuit of the British. The Continentals would not return to the battlefield until the evening.

The main body of British Legion dragoons were in the foremost of the retreat. When they reached the British baggage train, according to Lieutenant Mackenzie, the British guards soon mounted the wagon horses and retreated after them. After their departure, some Americans began arriving on the scene and began raiding the baggage train. Tarleton noted that his group, the last of the British to flee the battlefield, came up behind and attacked "a party of the Americans, who had seized upon the baggage of the British troops on the road." In the official British report, Tarleton "retook the Baggage of the Corps, & cut to pieces the detachment of the Enemy who had taken possession of it."

Lieutenant Roderick Mackenzie disputed Tarleton’s characterization of it describe this event. Lieutenant-Colonel John Eager Howard believed that "Baron Glaubeck… with some five or six militia men… had taken the baggage," but when Tarleton’s band arrived, "he was obliged to leave." Howard did not refer to British losses; however, one of the raiders, militiaman Thomas Young, described running into Tarleton’s group while returning to camp and being severely injured by them [see Note 1].

Meanwhile, on the battlefield, according to Major Joseph McJunkin, "You might have seen some five or six hundred tall, brawny, well clad soldiers, the flower of the British Army, guarded by a set of militia clad in hunting shirts ‘blacked, smoked and greasy.’"

McJunkin also recalled that "The plain was strewn with the dead and dying." But at least "The number of the slain on the side of the Americans was inconsiderable compared with that of the Enemy." Private James Collins remembered that "After the fight was over, the sight was truly melancholy." Remembrance of the scene was also persevered in local lore. Obadiah Haggis, a mid-19th Century visitor to the battlefield, learned of "A woman who lived 2 miles away… [that] When the firin’ stopped and she knowed which side had whipt, she ventured to the place, with the rest of the neighborhood, and found the place all covered with dead people."

Those men that had pursued the British slept on the battlefield that night, and in Lieutenant Thomas Anderson’s words, "lay amongst the Dead & Wounded Very Well pleased With Our days Work."


One of the more difficult questions to address in connection with the battle of Cowpens concerns how many British and American soldiers were killed, wounded, or captured. Quite a few participants commented on losses, but their claims are not particularly trustworthy for the reason that they are typically reporting on what they heard others claim rather than on what they personally witnessed.

The numbers of Americans killed or wounded are stated in most histories to be quite few, about 72 in number, and they refer to a seemingly unimpeachable source: Morgan’s official report of the battle. Lawrence Babits, writing in A Devil of a Whipping, claimed to have a list of 128 Americans known to have been killed or wounded based on a number of different sources, including pension applications [see Note 2].

I’m inclined to believe that the number was higher, but for a different reason. Consider carefully Morgan’s language (see Morgan's Report). He said first, "Our loss is inconsiderable, which the enclosed return will evince. I have not been able to ascertain Col. Pickens loss, but know it to be very small" [see Note 3].

Then in a postscript he added, "Our loss was very inconsiderable, not having more than twelve killed and about sixty wounded." Notice, however, that he previously defined "our loss" as something different than Pickens’ loss. Therefore, the 72 casualties is arguably limited to the force he took with him from North Carolina: Howard’s battalion of Continentals, Washington’s regiment of dragoons, and Triplett’s battalion of Virginia militia.

If 72 is an "inconsiderable" number, then Pickens’ "very small" loss would likely be something a bit less, say around 50. This produces a total loss in the neighborhood of 120, or near Babits’ number.

Sergeant Major William Seymour recorded in his journal that "Our loss in the action were one Lieutenant wounded, and one Sergeant, and thirty-five killed and wounded, of which fourteen were of Captain Kirkwood's Company of the Delaware Regiment." In this case, "our loss" would seem to mean something different than it did in Morgan’s report. It’s possible that he is describing only the losses sustained by Howard’s Continentals (which included Kirkwood’s company). When Morgan’s and Seymour’s statements are combined, American losses would have included 37 men in Howard’s Continentals (about 13% of the battalion), of which 14 men were lost in Kirkwood’s company (23% of the company; see Note 4). This leaves about 35 men lost between Washington’s dragoons and Triplett’s Virginians (about 14% of those commands). These numbers are not unreasonable, and they are reflected in the four miniature casualties on the battlefield (again, the representation is 1:20).

I also placed on the battlefield three miniature casualties representing around 50 killed and wounded between the various detachments of Georgia and Carolina militia attached to Morgan’s army (about 12% of those forces, not including the baggage guard and other detachments). One casualty was placed on the militia line, another with the militia charged by Ogilvie, and the last with the militia charged by Nettles.

For the American army, exclusive of detachments, losses are estimated to have been in the neighborhood of 13% (~120 out of ~950 participants).

Quite a few sources provide an estimate of British casualties. All agree that British losses were considerable. The exact number given, however, differs widely from one source to another. An exact count of the British killed and wounded was not performed, and most sources report their impression of British losses or what had been related to them by others.

The Americans did not linger long on the battlefield. Morgan was concerned that the British army under Lieutenant-General Charles Cornwallis would soon advance on him in an effort to free the British prisoners. Morgan, did, however, have an officer ride over the battlefield and do a rough count of British losses. Subsequently, Morgan stated in his report of the battle that the British had 10 officers and 100 or so rank and file killed, and 200 or so wounded. A total in the low 300s is also suggested by subtracting from total British strength the number of unwounded prisoners captured by the time Morgan filed his report, a number of infantry and cavalry that were captured after the report was filed, a small contingent of infantry that escaped capture, and the British Legion dragoons and 17th Light Dragoons that escaped wounding or capture. Therefore, I have placed 16 miniature British casualties on the battlefield. A number of American sources pegged British losses higher than Morgan, but those claims are generally less trustworthy.

For the British army, exclusive of the baggage train detachment, losses are estimated to have been around 29% (~320 out of ~1,115 participants).

In addition to the killed and wounded, the British lost large numbers of prisoners to the Americans. Morgan indicated that 531 were captured soon after the battle (some others were captured after Morgan wrote his report). For reasons that I will not wholly recount, it appears that a certain portion of Tarleton’s infantry escaped capture during the battle, but some of these men were captured later. It also appears that while almost all of Tarleton’s cavalry escaped capture during the battle, some of these men were also captured afterwards (notably, the British Legion lost 277 rank and file around the time of the battle; far too many to be accounted for by infantry losses alone). Samuel Otterson recalled how some of the Legion dragoons were captured by the American militia. Others were likely taken by William Washington’s dragoons during the pursuit. Some of the Americans must have been mounted on faster horses than some of the British, especially as the latter had made an all-night march to reach the battlefield.


1. Howard’s acknowledgement that the Americans were forced to withdraw is the only acknowledgement on the American side that such an encounter took place. However, American participants were more likely to recall triumphs rather than setbacks, and it’s possible that there were some American casualties (aside from Young). That’s not to suggest, however, that Tarleton’s description is without exaggeration. Young’s vivid description of his wounding and capture is worth reading, but it is not recounted here.

2. Babits also suggested that the actual number may have been even higher, because these records did not cover all participants and because of an ambiguous document in the archives of the state of North Carolina [a transcription of which can be found here].

Conversely, counting the losses mentioned in pension applications may overstate the number of American killed or wounded as the information in the pension applications may in some cases be inaccurate. It’s possible, even likely that some of the claims about having been present at the battle and even wounded there were in error.

3. I have not seen a transcription of this return, but I suspect it is extant. Babits alluded to it in recounting American losses.

4. There are quite a few reasons for why Kirkwood’s losses exceeded those of the other companies. I show in the maps (although not in the miniature representation) one of the two three-pounders lined up with Kirkwood’s company during the British advance against the American main line. One or more salvos of grapeshot could have led to significantly higher casualties. William Seymour’s journal gives Kirkwood’s company a leading role in the American counterattack. It’s possible they sustained greater losses in the subsequent melee than did other companies. Henry Wells’ account suggests that Kirkwood’s company was also attacked during the final British cavalry charge; perhaps other companies were not.


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

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

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

Joseph Johnson's 1851 Traditions and Reminiscences Chiefly of the American Revolution in the South has Young's account of the battle.

This issue (.pdf file) of The Southern Campaigns of the American Revolution magazine includes a review by Will Graves of McJunkin's statements.

Edwin Bearss' 1974 Historic Grounds and Resource Study (.pdf file) has a transcription of Obadiah Haggis' description of an 1857 visit to the Cowpens battlefield, in which Haggis related some local lore about the battle.

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

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

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

François-Jean de Chastellux's 1787 Travels in North-America, in the Years 1780, 1781, and 1782 has a comparison of British rank and file returns before and after the battle of Cowpens.

Will Graves transcribed the pension application of Samuel Otterson (.pdf).

Will Graves trancribed the pension application of Henry Wells (.pdf file).

Related: How Many Fought at Cowpens?, Morgan and Seymour, The British Legion

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