Friday, June 18, 2010

Cowpens Historiography

Last year when I wrote about the battle of Cowpens, the approach I took was to track down and read (virtually) every primary source on the battle, identify how the accounts appear best to fit together, and then write a revisionitic account of the battle based on that analysis of the source material. Repeatedly, during this process, I was struck by the disconnect I found between participants' reminiscences and what is stated in published histories. Indeed, I developed the nagging feeling that Cowpens must be one of the most misdescribed battles in American history.

Recently I took a comparative look at what authors have had to say about Cowpens over the past 200 years. One might expect that within that time, accounts of Cowpens, while problematic in some respects, would at least have improved. Errors appearing in early accounts would be detected and omitted from later histories.

To examine this question, I compared 20 relatively detailed accounts of the battle of Cowpens on certain fine points of the battle. (The 20 accounts are far fewer than the total number that has been published, but the selection, listed at the bottom of this post, is representative). Below I summarize my findings in respect to one aspect of the battle: the deployment of the American militia line and skirmishers.

The most trustworthy description of the battle is the detailed report of the American commander, Daniel Morgan, written just 2 days after the event. In regards to the American deployement, he wrote:

“An hour before daylight one of my scouts returned and informed me that Lieut. Col. Tarleton [the British commander] 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 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 [i.e., the Continentals], 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 [Virginia] riflemen, to support the right of the line.

“The enemy drew up in single line of battle, four hundred yards in front of our advanced corps… [a detailed description of the British deployment then follows].

“The [British] disposition of battle being thus formed, small parties of riflemen were detached to skirmish with the enemy…” [for the full account, see here].

Note the following assertions in this excerpt:

1. The militia was deployed so as “to guard the flanks” of the Continentals posted behind them.

2. The left flank was guarded by Cunningham, Hay, and McCall. The right flank was guarded by McDowell, Brannon, and Thomas.

3. “Small parties of riflemen,” or skirmishers, were detached from the militia line after the British had deployed (or at least after they had begun to deploy).

There is little reason to doubt these assertions. Surely Morgan, a man whose military genius has been widely praised, was able to accurately describe how the battle had been fought 2 days afterwards. Moreover, comparison with descriptions of the battle by other participants shows a high degree of agreement with Morgan's account (see The Militia Line at Cowpens, "Bring on the Battle", Fighting on the Skirmish Line).

Below I describe how well these three facts are represented in the 20 accounts.

1. The militia was deployed so as “to guard the flanks” of the Continentals posted behind them.

  • States this: Bearss (see references below).
  • Doesn’t state this: Everyone else.
  • Trend: Published histories of the battle have almost always neglected this important point. Babits is the one author in this review to give a reason for contradicting Morgan. He claimed that Morgan was describing a temporarily formation adopted at 8pm on the evening before the battle. However, Morgan's report very plainly states that this formation was adopted on the morning of the battle and offers no suggestion that a change in formation occurred before the first shot was fired.

2. The left flank was guarded by Cunningham, Hay, and McCall. The right flank was guarded by McDowell, Brannon, and Thomas.

  • States this: Bearss. Graham, Scharf, Davis, and Babits had these units on the sides of the battlefield indicated by Morgan, although they didn't state that the units were being used to provide flank protection.
  • States something different: Johnson reversed the relative position of Cunningham and McDowell. McCrady evidently copied Johnson's mistake.
  • Trend: Johnson's error seemingly was caught and corrected. Most accounts do not name these units or identify their relative position.

3. “Small parties of riflemen,” or skirmishers, were detached from the militia line after the British had deployed (or at least begun to deploy).

  • States this: Davis.
  • Doesn’t state this: Everyone else.
  • Trend: Published histories of the battle have almost always failed to describe this facet of the battle. Early accounts were at least somewhat ambiguous as to when the skirmishers were deployed. Recent accounts tend to baldly state that Morgan deployed his militia in two distinct lines in front of his Continentals and that they were in this position before the British arrived.

Summary: Most accounts of the battle either get the same details right or they get the same details wrong. The errors that appeared in earlier accounts are eventually corrected (I'm thinking in particular of the histories by Bearss and Davis), but fascinatingly, later authors either do not notice or choose to ignore these corrections.

Based on this finding, it would appear that authors writing about Cowpens rely more on secondary accounts than primary sources. In some individual cases, this is quite obvious:

Christopher Ward (1952): "About one hundred and fifty yards in front, 300 North and South Carolina militia under Pickens were posted in open order in a thin line three hundred yards long. In front of them, at a similar interval, 150 picked riflemen, Georgians and North Carolinians under Major John Cunningham of Georgia and Major Charles McDowell of North Carolina were thrown out in line as sharpshooters."

Lee Patrick Anderson (2002): "About one hundred and fifty yards in front of the main line, 300 North and South Carolina militia under Pickens were posted in open order in a thin line three hundred yards long. In front of them, at a similar interval, 150 hand picked riflemen; Georgians and North Carolinians under Major John Cunningham of Georgia and Major Charles McDowell of North Carolina were literally thrown out in a line as sharpshooters."

Christopher Ward (1952): "After two volleys they were to retire slowly, firing at will, and fall into the spaces in the second line of militia."

Lee Patrick Anderson (2002): "After three volleys they were to retire, slowly, firing at will as they retreated, and fall into spaces in the second line of militia."

(How pathetic).

However, it would be misleading to suggest that most new authors are simply borrowing the ideas of others because there is a host of contradictory statements to be found across secondary accounts. These histories differ, for example, as to how many volleys the militia was to fire before retreating, whether the militia was primarily made up of good soldiers or bad, whether the skirmishers were given detailed instructions or none at all, and whether the skirmishers fought alongside the main body of militia or whether they kept apart. Leaving aside the question of which statements are accurate, the lack of agreement in these cases further shows that inaccuracies are commonplace (only one side can be accurate).

All-in-all, this strikes me as a very bad state of affairs.

So here is a thought question, and if you've made it this far through a very long post, I encourage you to leave a response in comments. Which of the following positions seems to you to be more true?

History writing is getting worse:

  • History is of broad interest but most of the consumers of historical writing are, in some respects, poor judges of the quality of a written work (they lack the expertise to detect errors in fact or reasoning). This is problematic because history writing is increasingly done not by scholars but by pop-historians. The contingencies that govern this type of writing are unfavorable to spending a significant amount of time in research. Authors make the most money when they churn out books relatively quickly. This combination of factors leads authors to borrow heavily from other authors rather than consult the source material at every turn. Over time, historical works grow further and further removed from the source material, and the public is given an increasingly distorted view of the past.

History writing is getter better:

  • One does not have to look very hard to find errors in history books written for a mass audience, but this is irrelevant so long as the essential facts are correct. People read these books primarily for entertainment purposes, and if they are sufficiently entertained, they may be encouraged to delve into the field more deeply to learn about "what really happened." Meanwhile, a community of people exists that makes a serious study of history and that is working towards a more accurate understanding of the past. Progress may not be smooth or linear, but in time it does occur.

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The 20 accounts I compared are:

William Gordon. (1801). The History of the Rise, Progress, and Establishment of the Independence of...

David Ramsay. (1811). The History of the American Revolution. Vol 2.

Henry Lee. (1812). Memoirs of the War in the Southern Department...

William Johnson. (1822). Sketches of the Life and Correspondence of Nathanael Greene...

William Gilmore Simms. (1840). The History of South Carolina…

James Graham. (1856). The Life of General Daniel Morgan…

Henry B. Dawson. (1858). Battles of the United States… Vol. 1.

Henry Beebee Carrington. (1876). Battles of the American Revolution: 1775-1781.

John Thomas Scharf. (1879). History of Maryland...

Edward McCrady. (1902). The History of South Carolina in the Revolution, 1780-1783.

Christopher Ward. (1952). The War of the Revolution. Vol. 2.

Burke Davis. (1962). The Cowpens-Guilford Courthouse Campaign.

Edwin Bearss. (1967). Battle of Cowpens: A Documented Narrative and Troop Movement Maps.

Craig L. Symonds. (1986). A Battlefield Atlas of the American Revolution.

Lawrence Babits. (1998). A Devil of a Whipping: The Battle of Cowpens.

Ian Barnes & Charles Royster. (2000). The Historical Atlas of the American Revolution.

David Lee Russell. (2000). The American Revolution in the Southern Colonies.

Lee Patrick Anderson. (2002). Forgotten Patriot: The Life & Times of Major-General Nathanael Greene.

John W. Gordon. (2003). South Carolina and the American Revolution: A Battlefield History.

Terry Golway. (2005). Washington’s General: Nathanael Greene and the Triumph of the American Revolution.

5 comments:

  1. very valid and good points. Primary sources are the key to understanding battles. The primary problem with them is that everyone is human and have different line of sites on the battle field. Which some times leads to different accounts. Also human emotion and old age leads to different accounts. After walkng the battle field with two other historians it is hard to imagine where some people get thier ideas on landscape and troop deployments becasue of the lack of terrian to move on.

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  2. @ General Staff:

    "After walkng the battle field with two other historians it is hard to imagine where some people get thier ideas on landscape and troop deployments becasue of the lack of terrian to move on."

    I'm curious to hear more about this. If you don't wish to write about it here, then perhaps on your blog sometime. What types of statements have you heard/read about Cowpens that are inconsistent with the actual landscape of the place?

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  3. The main one is the tatics of Tarleton. Certain people always mention how he should of went further to the American right flank and turned it with his calvary. With the line of sight in question for Tarleton and the thick woods on both flanks he had but one choice and that was to attack where he did. Now if he should of attacked after a force march of course is a differnt question. The hills today still block the line of sight very well, but according to the rangers they were even higher at the time of the battle. Also the riflemen played havic with keeping the skirmishers in check as the British advanced denying the use of scouts. Thus again not really knowing the terrian Tarleton hit the Patriots with his favorit tactic of brute force. We are planning to go back this fall to go over the site with digital cameras and a measuring wheel to better understand the battle. Once we get this done is Septemeber we are going to post more about it. You did a great job with your series on the battle, thats why we focused primarily on the cannons for that day. As always thank you for asking. Also sorry about the late posting on the Battle of Sullivnas Island. I am waiting on a book by Drayton about it and it is suppose to be one of the best primary sources that I can get besides Moultries and Marions. Also we have a big event next Monday with Carolina Day and we are still putting the final tocuhes on the events at the Old Exchange Building and parade this up coming weekend.

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  4. Thanks for replying, and I very much look forward to your upcoming posts on Cowpens, Sullivan's Island, etc.

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