Sunday, August 29, 2010

Is a Hessian Major’s Journal a Key Source on Cowpens?

Hessian Major Carl Leopold Baurmeister was in New York when the battle of Cowpens was fought in South Carolina (January 17, 1781). Nevertheless, his journal provides one of the earliest, detailed descriptions of the battle. Baurmeister received his information third-hand; nevertheless his account aligns well in many respects with most first-hand accounts of the battle. For this reason, Baurmeister’s account may help resolve the question of how the British deployed for battle at Cowpens [cf. New Research on Cowpens], and, as described below, how the British force met with defeat.

A traditional view of Cowpens is that the Americans defeated the British by launching a double envelopment: a simultaneous attack on both flanks of the British line. However, as I noted in previous posts, there is considerable evidence that both either British flank was attacked, the British line was first broken in front. Specifically, the American Continentals first overran the center of the British line, and then turned left and right to attack the troops that remained.

How I represented this sequence originally (Spring, 2009):

The American Continentals are attacked in front by three British regiments.

The 71st Foot threatens the right flank of the Continentals; the Continentals make an unintended retreat.

The Continentals then make a surprise counterattack, inflicting devastating casualties on much of the British line.

The ensuing counterattack shatters the British center. The Continentals then divide left and right and attack the remaining regulars (with assistance from American militia and cavalry).

Now let’s take a fresh look at the evidence, beginning with Baurmeister’s treatment of this critical point in the battle:

“The British attack was too furious for the enemy's right wing—nothing withstood the 1st Battalion of the 71st Regiment. General Morgan withdrew and took another position. Since the Legion did not pursue, Lieutenant Colonel Washington with 240 horse and the Virginia militia under Major Triplett experienced no difficulty in falling between the dispirited Legion and the two British regiments, thus putting the Georgia volunteers in a position to capture the two fieldpieces and charge the rear of the 7th Regiment. Those not killed were captured.”

Some explanation is in order:

  • Baurmeister claimed that the British were deployed, from left-to-right, as the 71st Foot (Highlanders), the British Legion infantry, and the 7th Foot.
  • Baurmeister’s description of the American units involved in this action is in error, but that is of little consequence to the point under consideration. It was American regulars (chiefly from Maryland, Delaware, and Virginia) that made the counterattack.
  • According to Baurmeister, the Americans did not, in fact, overrun the British center before turning left and right: The British Legion failed to attack, leaving the 71st unsupported.
    A comparison of this description with two other sources suggests that Baurmeister’s version may be essentially correct.

A comparison of this description with two other sources suggests that Baurmeister’s version may be essentially correct.

First, here is an excerpt from the journal of Sergeant-Major William Seymour of the 1st Delaware Regiment (who was with the Continentals):

“By this time the enemy advanced and attacked our light infantry [i.e., the Continentals] with both cannon and small arms, where meeting with a very warm reception they then thought to surround our right flank, to prevent which Captain Kirkwood with his company [i.e., the Delaware Continentals] wheeled to the right and attacked their left flank so vigorously that they were soon repulsed, our men advancing on them so very rapidly that they soon gave way. Our left flank advanced at the same time and repulsed their right flank, upon which they retreated off, leaving us entire masters of the field, our men pursuing them for the distance of twelve miles, insomuch that all their infantry was killed, wounded, and taken prisoners.”

  • Seymour’s account jumps from what is happening in the first image in the sequence above, to what is happening in the fourth and final image. He did not mention the intervening accidental retreat described by a number of others.
  • Seymour notably didn’t refer to the Americans attacking and defeating British troops to their immediate front [as is shown in the third image]. Instead, as in Baurmeister’s account, the primary threat is stemming only from the right.
  • In Seymour’s account the Continentals were free to divide into two parts and attack either flank of the British line. Seymour explicitly described one part of the Continentals wheeling to their right and attacking the British “left flank” [i.e., the 71st]. In this respect, Seymour’s account matches Baurmeister’s.

Second, here is an excerpt from David Stewart’s (1825) Sketches… of the Highlanders of Scotland.

“…the Highlanders, "who ran in, with characteristic eagerness, desirous to take advantage of the confusion which appeared among the enemy."… [But then the Continentals] threw in a fire upon the 71st when within forty yards of the hostile force. The fire was destructive; nearly one-half of their number fell; and those who remained were so scattered, having run over a space of five hundred yards at full speed, that they could not be united to form a charge with the bayonet, "the mode of attack in which their superiority lay." They were checked; but they did not fall back immediately, probably expecting that the first line and cavalry would push forward to their support. This did not happen; and, after some irregular firing between them and Colonel Howard’s Reserve, the front line of the latter rallied, returned to the field, and pushed forward to the right flank of the Highlanders, who now saw no prospect of support, while their own numbers were diminishing, and the enemy increasing. They began to retire, and at length to run, the first instance of a Highland regiment running from an enemy!!! This retreat struck a panic into those whom they left in the rear, who fled in the greatest confusion: order and command were lost; the rout became general; few of the infantry escaped; and of the cavalry, who put their horses to full speed, not a man was taken.”

  • As described by Baurmeister and implied by Seymour, the critical British attack was made solely by the 71st. According to Stewart, it was precisely because this regiment was not supported by the others that the British met with defeat.

A Reinterpretation:

Baurmeister’s account, taken in combination with that of others, suggests that the sequence by which the British met with defeat was different than how I originally described it. A more likely sequence was that when the Americans made their unintended retreat, only the 71st Foot made a serious pursuit. The British Legion infantry advanced either not at all, or only in the most halting manner. Therefore, when the Continentals made their counterattack, the field of action would have looked something like this:

The 71st Foot would have taken the full brunt of the Continentals’ close-range volley, and the Americans would have been free to pivot both to their right (taking the 71st in the flank) and to their left (taking the British artillery and 7th Foot in the flank). According to Stewart, once the 71st fell back, the Legion retreated also. This would have ceded the center of the battlefield to the Americans. (Note that in this image, unlike those above, I don’t show casualties or smoke bursts, and there are changes to the British figurines).


  1. Thanks, Captain. It so happens I left a comment on one of your posts earlier this evening. Those lighting effects you do are amazing.

  2. I thought you might like this

  3. I did! Thanks for bringing this to my attention. How ever did you find this online? It must be a first -- a podcast of a revolutionary war battle.

  4. They are the main sponsor of the Francis Marion statue in Washington, DC. I added their link over at Swamp Fox Brigade. I was looking over their site and found it.

  5. Ah yes, I checked out the site -- A very admirable project.