Saturday, June 13, 2009

Cowpens: Addendum

I've read numerous participant accounts pertaining to the battle of Cowpens, but I expect that there are some accounts out there that I haven't read yet and which may alter to some degree my views about the battle. Recently I read a couple of British accounts that I hadn't cited previously, and I feel compelled to briefly comment on each.

One source is the widely-read history of the American Revolution authored by Charles Stedman, commissay during the war to Lieutenant-General Charles Cornwallis. Stedman was not present at the battle of Cowpens; his account of it is therefore largely based on Lieutenant-Colonel Banastre Tarleton's history and Lieutenant Roderick Mackenzie's commentary on that history. Earlier I argued that Mackenzie contradicted (and likely corrected) Tarleton's description of the first British cavalry charge. I also blamed William Johnson for creating confusion about this charge by adopting a nonsensical position halfway between Tarleton and Mackenize. Stedman, however, adopted this position before Johnson did. Stedman wrote:

"The first line of the Americans being composed of militia, did not long withstand the charge of the British regulars: It gave way in all quarters, and was pursued to the continentals. The latter, undismayed by the retreat of the militia, maintained their ground with great bravery; and the conflict between them and the British was obstinate and bloody. Captain Ogilvie, with his troop of dragoons on the right of the British line, was directed to charge the left flank of the enemy. He cut his way through their line, but being exposed to a heavy fire, and, at the same time, charged by the whole of Washington's cavalry, was compelled to retreat in confusion. The British reserve now received orders to move forward; and as soon as they felt the advance of the Seventy-first regiment, the whole again moved on. The continentals, no longer able to withstand the shock, were forced to give way."

I also observed with interest, that while Tarleton claimed the British were outnumbered by the Americans and Mackenzie hedged on this point, Stedman unequivocally stated that the "The British were superior in numbers." I have no idea whether Stedman, by virtue of his having served with the British army in the South had special insight into the true strength of the two armies. At the very least, this statement indicates that the American view about the relative strength of the two armies eventually came to prevail on both sides of the Atlantic. (In regards to the strength of the two armies, see: How Many Fought at Cowpens?, Cowpens in Miniature 2, and Cowpens in Miniature 3).

The other source is Mark Urban's recently published, Fusiliers: The Saga of a British Redcoat Regiment in the American Revolution, which focuses on the experience of the 23rd Foot. In it, I was surprised to find an unpublished officer's account of Cowpens. The officer, Lieutenant Harry Calvert, was with Cornwallis' army at the time, and he described in his journal what was being said about the battle. One passage stands out. Urban, summarizing the journal, wrote:

"As one fugitive after another wandered into the British camp, Calvert pierced together the story of what had gone wrong. Tarleton, as was his custom, had hurled his troops into action before they were all up, and the 71st had advanced towards their enemy, taking significant losses from enemy sharpshooters as they went" (p 226).

Assuming that the description is faithful to the source, Calvert echoed Mackenzie's complaint that the British attack against the first line (militia and skirmishers) occurred before all of the British troops were in position (see Cowpens in Miniature 13). However, Mackenzie complained that the 71st Foot was out of position when the attack was launched, while Calvert seemingly indicated the opposite. I make this observation not because I feel compelled to reverse course but because it helps illustrate how difficult it can be to reconcile the various participant accounts. To summarize on this issue, participants indicated that the 71st directly participated in the attack on the first line (Morgan, Calvert), that it was a short distance in reserve and joined the fighting soon after the Continentals were attacked (Tarleton and, sycophantically, Hanger), and that it joined the fighting after the British had begun to retreat (Cornwallis). Regardless of the view adopted (I deferred to Tarleton), it is necessary to stand in contradiction with key sources.


Charles Stedman's 1794 The History of the Origin, Progress, and Termination of the American War.

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

Mark Urban 's 2007 Fusiliers: The Saga of a British Redcoat Regiment in the American Revolution is available through

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

A transcription of Lieutenant-General Charles Cornwallis' report of the battle can be found here.

Related: How Many Fought at Cowpens?, Cowpens in Miniature 16, Cowpens in Miniature 17

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