Tuesday, February 10, 2009

How Many Fought at Cowpens?

[Revised 12/28/09]

My previous posts have generally focused on specific British and American units that fought at the battle of Cowpens, and how they were deployed during the battle. In this post I explore the question of how many totals soldiers fought at the battle.

British Numbers

Statements about the number of British soldiers at Cowpens fall within a relatively narrow range. The British commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Banastre Tarleton, estimated his total force at about 1000 men. American estimates put the total only a little bit higher. In his after action report, the American commander, Brigadier-General Daniel Morgan, estimated the British force at 1,150 men, including those that had served as a baggage guard. Morgan and his subordinates had the opportunity to converse with a number of British officers after the battle. From this, Morgan learned that, "Their own officers confess that they fought one thousand and thirty-seven.” The specificity of this number makes it seem conclusive, but in fact it's not clear (at least to me) whether this number refers to rank and file only or to all personnel. A letter by Morgan's superior, Major-General Nathanael Greene, confirmed the total of "1150 British troops," but also added "50 Militia." The largest estimate of British forces was provided by Sergeant William Seymour of Delaware, who said that Tarleton had 1,300 men, but it is unlikely that he had access to information that Morgan and Greene did not.

American Numbers

By comparison with estimates of British totals, statements about the number of Americans at Cowpens vary to a greater degree. At the lower extreme is Morgan: in his after action report, he stated that he had only 800 men. Other sources indicate a larger number of men, but a number agree that Morgan had fewer than 900 men in his command. This agreement may be partly aritificial because other sources relied on Morgan for their information. There is, however, enough variability among such sources to suggest that the totals were at least somewhat independently derived.

Colonel Otho Williams of Maryland recorded in his notebook on Jan 23, 1781 that Morgan had "290 Continentals under Lt. Col. Howard, the South Carolina and Georgia volunteers, about 350 men under Col. Pickens," and, "170 Virginia militia under Major Triplett." Morgan seems to have been the source of these numbers, which total 810. This suggests that Morgan's total of 800 leaves out some of the men under his command, including, at a minimum, Washington's light dragoons, and possibly some other commands.

Two days before the battle, Morgan wrote to Greene and complained that, "I have now with me only two hundred South Carolina and Georgia, and one hundred and forty North Carolina, volunteers."* This total, 340, suggests that the 350 militiamen recorded by Williams does include McDowell's North Carolinians at least, and perhaps other militiamen as well (the mounted militia, for example, had not yet been detached to that purpose). Morgan was joined the following day by additional militiamen, but perhaps he saw no reason to later revise his estimated totals. Of the 340 militiamen, Morgan complained in his letter to Greene, "I [do not] expect to have more that two-thirds of these to assist me, should I be attacked, for it is impossible to keep them collected.”

An authoritative report on American numbers appeared in a Congressional Resolution passed on March 9, 1781. The Resolution reads, in part, "The United States, in Congress assembled, considering it as a tribute to distinguished merit to give a public approbation to the conduct of Brigadier General Morgan and of the officers and men under his command on the 17th of January last, when with eighty cavalry and two hundred and thirty-seven infantry of the troops of the United States and five hundred and fifty-three militia from the States of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia he obtained a complete and important victory over a select and well appointed detachment of more than eleven hundred British Troops commanded by Lieut. Col. Tarleton..."

The Resolution identifies a total of 870 American participants at Cowpens, a total that exceeds Williams' numbers because it enumerates the American dragoons. There are also some differences between Williams and the Congressional Resolution on the numbers of continentals and militia. Williams recorded 290 Continental light infantry, and the Resolution referred to 237. Williams recorded 520 militiamen, and the Resolution referred to 553. The specificity of the Resolution numbers seems compelling, but it is not clear on what information they were based and it seems unlikely than an exact count of the militiamen serving at Cowpens could have been performed.

James Graham, in The Life of General Daniel Morgan... (1856), reported that at Cowpens there were 280 continentals, 120 militiamen with Triplett, 80 dragoons with Washington, 40 mounted militiamen, and 350 men in the militia line. Like the Resolution numbers, this is also a total of 870 men. He further noted that, "his [Morgan's] entire command, including all the militia that arrived previous to the battle, would appear to be about nine hundred and eighty men, if army returns and muster rolls were alone consulted. But every one acquainted with military affairs knows that such evidences of strength always exceed the reality. A number of his regulars were sick at the time, and many of the militia were absent. One detachment had been sent off with the baggage, another had gone to Salisbury in charge of prisoners, and a third guarded the horses of the militia. Besides, after the retreat of the militia from the front line, several of them never again appeared in the field, and a few mounted their horses and fled from the ground. Such men should not be permitted to lesson the glory of the achievement, by sharing in the honors of the victors as well as diminishing the mortification of the vanquished. The forces engaged in the battle under Morgan did not exceed eight hundred and fifty men."

I am generally distrustful of Graham's history, especially because, like other early histories, he generally does not provide evidence to support his assertions. However, he does at least make a fair point that the number of men on the books and the number of men that actually stand in line on the day of battle may be quite different.

American Brigadier-General William Moultrie wrote an earlier history of the battle that can be deemed more reliable. William Dobein James in A Sketch of The Life of Brig. Gen. Francis Marion (1821) suggested that Lieutenant-Colonel William Washington was the source of Moultrie's information. Moultrie recorded that the Americans had "two hundred and ninety infantry, eighty cavalry and about six hundred militia," or 970 men. This is about equal to the 980 men Graham reported, "if army returns and muster rolls were alone consulted."

Other American accounts confirm that the Americans were outnumbered at Cowpens. Private Henry Wells of Delaware remembered that, "Our whole force at this time numbered Some thing less than 900 men a greater proportion of whom were militia & less than 100 horse… we fell in with a much Superior force of the enemy, at the Cowpens under Col. Tarleton. He outnumbered us with infantry and he had three or four times as many Cavalry”* (also see this .pdf file). Major McJunkin of South Carolina recalled that, "His [Morgan's] force was considerably inferior to that arrayed against him." Governor John Rutledge of South Carolina congratulated Morgan shortly after the battle and wrote that, "This total defeat of chosen Veteran British Troops by a number far inferior to theirs will for Ever distinguish the gallant men by whom the Glorious Victory was obtained, & endear them to their country."

The exact number of Americans at Cowpens may not be knowable, but it seems safe to conclude in any case that the total was less than 1,000 men for certain, and maybe even less than 900 men.

The only sources to suggest a larger total of Americans were those of the British commanders.

Major General Charles Cornwallis, in reporting the battle, wrote that, "his [Morgan's] Corps by the best accounts I could get, consisted of about five hundred men, Continentals & Virginia State Troops, & one hundred Cavalry under Colonel Washington, & six or seven hundred Militia, but that Body is so fluctuating, that it is impossible to ascertain its number, within some hundreds.” This is a total force of about 1,200 to 1,300 men, or a number slightly superior to the British total.

The British commander at Cowpens, Lieutenant-Colonel Banastre Tarleton, was one of the primary sources for Cornwallis' report. The reputations of both men were tarnished by the defeat. If Tarleton had discovered that the American army was larger than the British had expected, it is unlikely that Cornwallis would have left this out of his report.

Cornwallis' estimate is much less reliable than those provided by American sources. The British in general, and Cornwallis in particular, habitually overestimated the size of American forces they faced. It's possible that the Americans were deliberately feeding them bad information. One David George of South Carolina wrote Tarleton on January 1, 1781 that, "My Wife's sister Last Night came to my house out of strong Rebel Settlement up at Princes fort; by her I have heard the Design & Intention of the Rebels... Morgan with five or six Hundred Light horse had Crossed broad River at Smiths ford... and Washington with their artillery and foot men was to Cross broad River at the same ford... they say they will have Three Thousand men."* At this point, the Americans did not have anywhere near 500 or 600 horsemen (even counting militia, who often rode the horses they owned), and at no point did they have artillery. Bad information like this, however, would have helped keep the British unsure and on the defensive while American plans unfolded.

Tarleton reported a much higher American troop total in his postwar memoir than had previously appeared in Cornwallis' report. Tarleton wrote that “He [Tarleton] discovered that the American commander had formed a front line of about one thousand militia, and had composed his second line and reserve of five hundred continental light infantry, one hundred and twenty of Washington's cavalry, and three hundred back woodsmen.” This is a total force of 1,920 men, or approximately 700 more Americans than the British claimed on January 19, 1781. It's possible that Tarleton acquired new information in the months or years after the battle, but it's not clear where this would have come from. If he relied on American sources, he would have read only about smaller totals, not larger ones. My suspicion is that he either misread Cornwallis' report, or his numbers were invented.


Marg Baskin's Banastre Tarleton website has a transcription of Tarleton's postwar memoir.

William Dobein James (1821). A Sketch of The Life of Brig. Gen. Francis Marion.

James Graham. (1856). The Life of General Daniel Morgan. (Has a copy of Morgan's account of the battle).

Will Graves trancribed the pension application of Henry Wells (.pdf file).

For Joseph McJunkin's accounts of the battle, see:

John Moncure's excellent Cowpens Staff Ride and Battlefield Tour webpage has copies of most of the accounts described here.

William Moultrie. (1802). Memoirs of the American Revolution.

A transcription of William Seymour's journal can be found on this Battle of Camden website.

A summary of the Otho Williams papers can be found here.

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