Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Looking Back

So, I have written what basically amounts to a book-length treatment of the battle of Cowpens. Clearly I have enjoyed this endeavor, from reading the various participant accounts, to painting the military miniatures, to arranging them on the miniature battlefield and writing the whole thing up. But I’ve asked myself, is this good history?

My answer is… maybe.

The usual history of the battle of Cowpens seems to be one that is based on a few well-known participant accounts (Morgan’s and Tarleton’s, in particular) and that is deferential towards earlier histories. While this sounds reasonable, the result is often wanting. I’ve noticed that dubious details present in earlier histories tend to be echoed uncritically in later ones. For example, William Johnson's 1822 history of the battle included one of the first maps of the battle of Cowpens. Although his history was flawed (I criticized him in particular on his description of the retreat of the American militia; see Flight of the Militia - Part 1) and the accompanying map crude, this nevertheless became the model on which later maps were based.

The Johnson Map. Initial positions are shown on the left, the retreat of the front-line militia is shown at the lower right, and the American counterattack is shown at the upper right. This map does not reflect the actual geography of the Cowpens battlefield (see The Cowpens Battlefield).

Henry Carrington's 1881 compendium of battlefield maps of the American Revolution included a refined version of the Johnson map. This map repeated the errors present in the Johnson map, and added additional ones as well. Most notably, the Broad River is shown closely skirting the edges of the battlefield. Remarkably, most recently-published histories of the battle present a battlefield map that closely follows Carrington.

The Carrington Map.

Not every history of the battle has uncritically followed earlier histories. Henry Cabot Lodge's 1903 history, for example, wisely did not adopt Johnson's map of the battle or his description of the militia's retreat. In general, Lodge's approach seems to have been one of reporting details that seemed relatively certain and omitting ones that were not. He entirely avoided the topic of British cavalry charges during the battle, perhaps because of the varying and confusing claims made in this regard by Tarleton and Mackenzie (see British Cavalry Charges at Cowpens - Part 1). Regardless of the causes of these omissions, the result is something less than a complete description of the battle.

Lawrence Babits' recent history, which I have frequently cited, improved in important respects on earlier histories. Babits eschewed the usual practice of relying solely on a few well-known participant accounts and earlier histories, but rather built off of a huge amount of source material offer a completely new interpretation of what took place.

Delving into a battle in such great detail can lead to numerous new insights into how the American Revolution was won (or lost, depending on the point of view). Drawing upon new sources of information can also shed new light on the contradictions present in the well-known accounts. The downside is that the greater detail and wider array of sources necessitate an increase in how frequently interpretation must substitute for fact. This in turn means that errors in the account are likely, perhaps even inevitable.

Despite these hazards, I have more-or-less emulated Babits. I decided that it would be possible to describe the battle in detail based solely on participant accounts and for the most part ignore postwar histories (which I consider to be largely unreliable). I did make an exception for a few secondary accounts. The postwar histories by Henry Lee and William Moultrie were cited with some frequency, for example, because of the authors’ familiarity with the Revolutionary War, because of their acquaintanceship with key participants at Cowpens, and because their histories usually agree with participant accounts. The inclusion of David Stewart’s history was based principally on the unique perspective it provides; I noted more than once that its description of the battle is not wholly reliable.

Having decided to use these sources, I next sought to show how they could be strung together to create a fairly reasonable and coherent narrative of the battle. There are numerous ways to connect the dots among these accounts. My guiding principle was that the narrative should be true to a natural reading of the accounts, have the actors making rational decisions, and avoid unnecessary complexity.

In this regard, I believe I have had considerable success.

Consider again Brigadier-General Daniel Morgan’s official report of the battle, which is arguably one of the most important and trustworthy participant accounts. In considering this report I took it for granted that Morgan did not describe every facet of the fighting, but instead emphasized how the Americans won rather than how they almost lost (for this reason he said very little about the British cavalry charges). Likewise, I presumed that the report named all of the major officers, but not all of the minor commands. Given those caveats (which I think are reasonable), a side-by-side reading of Morgan’s report and my account shows that they are well matched, although there are some discrepancies.

Morgan wrote:

"An hour before daylight one of my scouts returned and informed me that Lieut. Col. Tarleton had advanced within five miles of our camp. On this information, I hastened to form as good a disposition as circumstances would admit, and from the alacrity of the troops, we were soon prepared to receive them. The light infantry, commanded by Lieut. Col. Howard, and the Virginia militia under the command of Major Triplett, were formed on a rising ground, and extended a line in front. The third regiment of dragoons, under Lieut. Col. Washington, were posted at such a distance in their rear, as not to be subjected to the line of fire directed at them, and to be so near as to be able to charge them should they be broken. The volunteers from North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia, under the command of the brave and valuable Col, Pickens, were situated to guard the flanks. Maj. McDowall, of the North Carolina volunteers, was posted on the right flank in front of the line, one hundred and fifty yards; and Maj. Cunningham, of the Georgia volunteers, on the left, at the same distance in front, Colonels Brannon and Thomas, of the South Carolinans, were posted on the right of Maj. McDowall, and Cols. Hay and McCall, of the same corps, on the left of Maj. Cunningham. Capts. Tate and Buchanan, with the Augusta riflemen, to support the right of the line [Cowpens in Miniature 8].

"The enemy drew up in single line of battle, four hundred yards in front of our advanced corps. The first battalion of the 71st regiment was opposed to our right, the 7th regiment to our left, the infantry of the legion to our centre, the light companies on our flanks. In front moved two pieces of artillery. Lieut. Col. Tarleton, with his cavalry, was posted in the rear of the line [Cowpens in Miniature 11, 12].

"The disposition of battle being thus formed, small parties of riflemen were detached to skirmish with the enemy [Cowpens in Miniature 12], upon which their whole line moved on with the greatest impetuosity, shouting as they advanced. McDowall and Cunningham gave them a heavy and galling fire, and retreated to the regiments intended for their support [13]. The whole of Col. Pickens' command then kept up a fire by regiments, retreating agreeably to their orders [14]. When the enemy advanced on our line, they received a well-directed and incessant fire [15]. But their numbers being superior to ours, they gained our flanks, which obliged us to change our position [17]. We retired in good order about fifty paces, formed, and advanced on the enemy, and gave them a fortunate volley, which threw them into disorder [19]. Lieut. Col. Howard observing this, gave orders for the line to charge bayonets [20], which was done with such address that they fled with the utmost precipitation leaving their fieldpieces in our possession [21]. We pushed our advantage so effectually, that they never had an opportunity of rallying, had their intentions been ever so good [22].

"Lieut. Col. Washington, having been informed that Tarleton was cutting down our riflemen on the left [Cowpens in Miniature 18, 19], pushed forward, and charged them with such firmness [20, 21], that 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 [22].

"The enemy's whole force were now bent solely in providing for their safety in flight [Cowpens in Miniature 22] -the list of their killed, wounded, and prisoners, will inform you with what effect [23, 25]. Tarleton, with the small remains of his cavalry, and a few scattered infantry he had mounted on his wagonhorses, made their escape. He was pursued twenty-four miles, but owing to our having taken a wrong trail at first, we could never overtake him [25].

By my count, there are three notable discrepancies between Morgan’s account and mine.

First, I did not place Hayes’ regiment in the position Morgan indicated, because I deferred to Robert Long’s description of his position. Instead, I indicated that Andrew Pickens’ regiment of South Carolina militia (not mentioned by Morgan) was in this area [see Cowpens in Miniature 8, The Militia Line: Composition and Organization, The Statements of Private Robert Long].

Second, I did not place Tate’s company on the right of the Continentals. Instead, I deferred to Howard’s description of Tate’s whereabouts and placed Tate on the Continentals’ left (see Cowpens in Miniature 8, The Main Line: Composition). (Babits sidestepped this disagreement between Morgan and Howard by claiming that there were two captains Tate present: one James and one Edward).

Third, I adopted a very different British deployment, because I deferred (with some reluctance) to Tarleton’s account (see Cowpens in Miniature 11, Note 5).

Although not without problems, I think my account provides a fairer treatment of Morgan’s report than is found in Babits’ history of the battle. Babits’ history contains 11 notable discrepancies by my count. 1) He did not show the American militia under Pickens to be situated to guard the flanks. 2) He did not have McDowell and Cunningham 150 yards in front of the Continentals, but rather 150 yards in front of Pickens and the South Carolina militia. 3) He did not have the commands of Brandon, Thomas, McDowell, Hayes, McCall (Hammond), and Cunningham positioned relative to each other in the manner Morgan indicated. 4) He deferred (as did I) to Tarleton’s description of the British deployment. 5) He had the skirmishers deployed before the British deployment, not after. 6) He had the skirmishers to be a fairly numerous, consisting of several small battalions (McDowell, Cunningham, and Hammond), not "small parties." 7) He did not have McDowell, Cunningham, and Hammond partaking in the "fire by regiments," although they were under Pickens’ control. 8) He did not show the attacking British infantry to be more numerous than the American main line; their numbers would have been roughly comparable following British losses on the militia line (possibly, the British would have been outnumbered). 9) He had the British gaining the American right flank of the main line chiefly because of a regiment-sized gap between the 7th Foot and 71st Foot. He did not have the British right extending beyond the American left. 10) He had Washington’s cavalry charge to the left occurring well before Howard’s counterattack. Also, he did not directly connect this charge with the charge that carried Washington into the rear of the British line. 11) He had Washington’s climatic charge launched from the American right.

Also noteworthy is that my method of interpreting the source material led me to some relatively unorthodox conclusions about how the battle was fought. Nevertheless, the present account holds together fairly well. The unusual manner in which I’ve shown the American main line to be deployed [see Cowpens in Miniature 8, The Main Line: Organization], for example, wasn’t based on a whimsical desire to elevate Samuel Hammond’s description of the main line deployment. Rather, Hammond's description, in combination with other participant accounts, led to a reasonable and parsimonious explanation for how Morgan intended to protect his retreating front-line militia [see Cowpens in Miniature 9], why Tarleton directed Ogilvie to charge [see Cowpens in Miniature 16], why Howard felt compelled to refuse his right flank [see Cowpens in Miniature 17], why the Continentals retreated up to 100 yards during the main line fighting [see Cowpens in Miniature 19, Note 5], and why Triplett’s Virginians held their ground [see Cowpens in Miniature 17, Note 2].

Just because things fit well together, however, does not mean that there isn’t a great deal of room for improvement. Two major concerns spring to mind:

First, I relied frequently on interpretation, and I’m sure that I have erred along the way. The fact that I have worked on this project in isolation is particularly problematic. Persons taking a fresh look at this account may discover errors in my reasoning to which I’ve been blind. In particular, there are key passages in the accounts of Alexander Chesney, James Collins, and Thomas Young describing the fighting on the extreme left and right that caused me difficulty. I'm not wholly satisfied with how I finessed those accounts, and I suspect a better interpretation is possible.

Second, I certainly have not exhausted every possible source of information. I did not examine all of the extant relevant documents, such as muster rolls, or perform a detailed examination of the terrain. If I had, I would have likely refined my estimate of the number of British and American participants and losses, and the exact positioning of units on the battlfield. I avoided estimating with any precision the duration of specific events on the battlefield and the speed with which specific units moved. I'm sure that a series of detailed time-motion studies would lead to numerous refinements.


Henry Beebee Carrington's 1881 Battle Maps and Charts of the American Revolution.

Henry Cabot Lodge's 1903 The Story of the Revolution.

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

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