Saturday, July 17, 2010

New Research on Cowpens

Recently, I’ve come across new evidence about how the British force was deployed at the onset of the fateful battle of Cowpens. This evidence has convinced me that the deployment that I described last year (and which is the same as appears in histories of the battle) is likely in error.

To the best of my knowledge, every published description of the British deployment at Cowpens has followed Lieutenant-Colonel Banastre Tarleton’s account. None have suggested there is reason to doubt the accuracy of his description. Consider the weight of evidence described below and ask yourself a) whether the question of how the British deployed should be regarded as settled, and b) whether Tarleton’s description is most likely the correct one.

Below is a listing of the earliest descriptions of the British deployment at Cowpens, followed by two different representations of the deployment in miniature.

Lieutenant Harry Calvert, on or shortly after January 17, 1781:

Comments: Calvert was not present at the battle but he evidently spoke with men that had been present, and he summarized their discussion in his journal. Mark Urban summarized Calvert's take on Cowpens in Fusiliers: The Saga of a British Redcoat Regiment in the American Revolution. According to Urban:

"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).

Lieutenant-General Charles Cornwallis, January 18, 1781:

Comments: Cornwallis was not present at the battle but he spoke with Tarleton shortly afterward. Cornwallis briefly summarized the British deployment in a letter to his superior, Lieutenant-General Henry Clinton. He did not describe the relative positioning of the various units aside from identifying them with a front line or with a reserve.

“The attack was begun by the first Line of Infantry, consisting of the 7th Regiment, the Infantry of the Legion & Corps of Light Infantry annexed to it; & Troop of Cavalry was placed on each Flank: the 1st Battalion of the 71st, and the Remainder of the Cavalry, formed the reserve.”

Brigadier-General Daniel Morgan, January 19, 1781:

Comments: Morgan was an eyewitness writing about the event shortly afterwards. He reportedly rode up to the front line before the battle began where (presumably) he could clearly observe how the British were deploying. Because a number of British officers were later made prisoners, he also had the opportunity to question them at length about their numbers, battle plan, etc. The following passage is from his official report of the battle.

“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.”

Major Carl Leopold Baurmeister, February 21, 1781:

Comments: Baurmeister was not present at Cowpens, but he recorded a description of the battle in his journal. Apparently, one or more paroled British officers that had returned to Charleston, South Carolina, described the battle to James Wemyss, a major in the 63rd Foot. Wemyss, who was recuperating from a wound, soon after departed for New York where he described his second-hand information to officers there. In this way, Baurmeister learned of the battle. Baurmeister’s description of the British deployment is strikingly similar to that in Morgan’s report. However, Wemyss’ description, rather than Morgan’s report, seems to have been the source of Baurmeister’s description. Baurmeister’s account shows a poor understanding of the American side of the battle. For example, Baurmeister wrote that it was the "the Georgia volunteers" that broke the British line and captured the cannon; he made no mention of the Maryland and Delaware Continentals. This is the kind of error that might be expected if Baurmeister got his information from Wemyss, who in turn got it from an officer in the battle -- not the kind of error that would occur if Baurmeister was restating Morgan’s published report. Baurmeister's description of the British deployment also differs from Morgan's in several minor respects.

“Believing that he had forced General Morgan to retreat and that his force was superior to the rebels', he [Tarleton] went in search of General Morgan on the 17th of January. He found him in battle formation at the Cowpens, close to the Pacolet River. Colonel Tarleton had to defend himself as well as he could in a space of four hundred yards. He posted the 7th Regiment on his right, the 1st Battalion of the 71st on his left, and the dismounted Legion in the center. His dragoons covered the flanks… in front of the left wing of the 7th Regiment he had two light fieldpieces.

“The British attack was too furious for the enemy's right wing—nothing withstood the 1st Battalion of the 71st Regiment….”

Lieutenant-Colonel Banastre Tarleton, 1787:

Comments: Tarleton issued the orders for the British deployment and observed their execution. He wrote about the event approximately 6 years later in his history of the southern campaign of the American Revolution.

“Tarleton desired the British infantry to disencumber themselves of every thing, except their arms and ammunition: The light infantry were then ordered to file to the right till they became equal to the flank of the American front line: The legion infantry were added to their left; and, under the fire of a three-pounder, this part of the British troops was instructed to advance within three hundred yards of the enemy. This situation. being acquired, the 7th regiment was commanded to form upon the left of the legion infantry, and the other three-pounder was given to the right division of the 7th: A captain, with fifty dragoons, was placed on each flank of the corps, who formed the British front line, to protect their own, and threaten the flanks of the enemy: The 1st battalion of the 71st was desired to extend a little to the left of the 7th regiment, and to remain one hundred and fifty yards in the rear. This body of infantry, and near two hundred cavalry, composed the reserve.”


Two different conceptions of the British deployment at Cowpens appear below. (For information on the deployment of American forces in the background, see The Militia Line at Cowpens, The Main Line at Cowpens: Organization, The Americans Deploy). Each miniature represents approximately 20 combatants. The two British guns are represented by a single piece. Per Tarleton's account (and what was likely standard practice), the infantry are in open order [cf. Modeling Notes]. The flags are carried by the 7th Foot; the British Legion infantry is clothed in green [cf. British Legion Redux]. Not all of the British Legion dragoons can be seen in these images.

Banastre Tarleton's Description of the British Deployment at Cowpens. The front line consists of (from left to right), a troop of dragoons, the 7th Foot, a contingent of Royal Artillery, the British Legion infantry, a contingent of light infantry, and a troop of dragoons. The 71st Foot and the greater part of the British Legion dragoons are in reserve.

Alternative Conception of the British Deployment at Cowpens. The British line is anchored on either end by a troops of dragoons (Baurmeister, Tarleton). The 71st Foot is on the left of the British line where it is close enough to the front to participate in the attack on the American militia (Calvert, Morgan, Baurmeister), but far enough from the front where it can be called accurately a reserve (Cornwallis, Tarleton). With the 71st is part of the light infantry (Morgan). The center of the line consists of the British Legion infantry (Morgan, Baurmeister), and the right consists of the 7th Foot (Morgan, Baurmeister), supported by the remainder of the light infantry (Morgan). A contingent of Royal Artillery is in advance of the infantry (Morgan, Baurmeister). The greater part of the British Legion dragoons are in reserve (Cornwallis, Morgan, Baurmeister, Tarleton).


  1. Given the ground at Cowpens the 2nd picture makes much more sence. That is what I was talkng about before. The woods to the left and the right of the field would limit movements of mass formations. We could never figure how calvery could move to the flanks to support the infentry. Also the cannons were use with limited results becasue they could never get to the flanks to support the infentry nor could it stay infront of the infentry because of the patriot skirmishers. Long story short GREAT JOB AGAIN on this article.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Also I promise not to post with little sleep again. I need to learn to spell with little sleep or to not post until I have had some.