The Battle of Cowpens: The Journal of James Collins
OverviewGOAL: To help students gain skills in understanding a primary (original) historical source, i.e., a journal as it relates to the Battle of Cowpens.
- The student will contrast a primary source with a secondary source.
- The student will abstract and summarize selections from the primary source.
- The student will describe insights gained into the battle.
- The student will discuss the importance and pitfalls of primary sources.
James Collins was a 17-year-old South Carolinian who fought with General Thomas Sumter and other militia leaders after the fall of Charleston to the British. He kept a journal in which he wrote of British destruction, and battles leading up to the Battle of Cowpens. His account gives great insight into the battle, Daniel Morgan, his attitude toward the British, and the hardships of the militia. Probably his best account is that of the militia line as they got off two volleys and retreated in the face of Tarleton’s attack.
- Have students read the following selection from Collins’ journal:
“It was not long until it became necessary for us to seek safety by joining Morgan, who was encamped at the Cow Pens, but we were not permitted to remain long idle, for Tarleton came on like a thunder storm, which soon put us to our best mettle. After the tidings of his approach came into camp,—in the night, — we were all awakened, ordered under arms, and formed in order of battle by daybreak. About sunrise on the 17 th January, 1781, the enemy came in full view. The sight, to me at least, seemed somewhat imposing; they halted for a short time, and then advanced rapidly, as if certain of victory. The militia under Pickins and Moffitt, was posted on the right of the regulars some distance in advance, while Washington’s cavalry was stationed in the rear. We gave the enemy one fire, when they charged us with their bayonets; we gave way and retreated for our horses, Tarleton’s cavalry pursued us; (“now,” thought I, “my hide is in the loft;”) just as we got to our horses, they overtook us and began to make a few hacks at some, however, without doing much injury. They, in their haste, had pretty much scattered, perhaps, thinking they would have another Fishing creek frolic, but in a few moments, Col. Washington’s cavalry was among them, like a whirlwind, and the poor fellows began to keel from their horses, without being able to remount. The shock was so sudden and violent, they could not stand it, and immediately betook themselves to flight; there was not time to rally, and they appeared to be as hard to stop as a drove of wild Choctaw steers, going to a Pennsylvania market. In a few moments the clashing of swords was out of hearing and quickly out of sight; by this time, both lines of the infantry were warmly engaged and we being relieved from the pursuit of the enemy began to rally and prepare to redeem our credit, when Morgan rode up in front, and waving his sword, cried out, “Form, form, my brave fellows! Give them one more fire and the day is ours. Old Morgan was never beaten.” We then advanced briskly, and gained the right flank of the enemy, and they being hard pressed in front, by Howard, and falling very fast, could not stand it long. They began to throw down their arms, and surrender themselves prisoners of war. The whole army, except Tarleton and his horsemen, fell into the hands of Morgan, together with all the baggage. Later the fight was over, the sight was truly melancholy. The dead on the side of the British, exceeded the number killed at the battle of King’s Mountain, being if I recollect aright, three hundred, or upwards. The loss, on the side of the Americans, was only fifteen or sixteen, and a few slightly wounded. This day, I fired my little rifle five times, whether with any effect or not, I do not know. Next day after receiving some small share of the plunder, and taking care to get as much powder as we could, we (the militia) were disbanded and returned to our old haunts, were we obtained a few day’s rest.”
- Discuss the reading and have students summarize Collins’ account.
- Discuss his feelings toward the battle and conditions of the militia.
- Discuss the meaning of such words and terms as mettle, imposing, my hide is in the loft, frolic, keel, drove, warmly engaged, redeem our credit, plunder, old haunts in context of Collins’ description of the battle.
- Read Collins’ account of the battle as students stand at the militia line site.
- Discuss student reactions and feelings to what Collins experienced.
- Have students compile a journal of a particular event in their lives or events an extended time period. Have them write a summary of their journal.
- Discuss the fact that journals are a good source for history, sometimes presenting historical information not found elsewhere. Discuss the fact that some journal writers, however, might have emotional feelings about events and present a bias. In other words, they might have been too closely involved with the event to be objective.
- Read from other journals. Have students take positions, evaluating, or defending journal entries and points of view.
Roberts, John M., ed. Autobiography of a Revolutionary War Soldier (James Collins). Ayer Company Publishers, Inc.: North Stratford, New Hampshire, 1989. Originally published by Feliciana Democrat, Printers, Clinton, Louisiana, 1859.