The Battle: Fighting Commences
The British opened the battle by attacking with their right wing on the American left wing at the heart of the militia. Brig. General Edward Stevens ordered his men to fix bayonets, which as militia they had never done before. In the face of an aggressive bayonet charge from the British, first the Virginians and then the North Carolina militia fled before the British regulars could even reach them. Many dropped their muskets without having fired a shot.
While the rout was taking place on the American left wing, the right wing under Maj. General Baron de Kalb was attacking after receiving the order from Maj. General Horatio Gates. They had no idea how bad things were on the left wing, because the dawn's dead calm had left the smoke from gunfire lingering in a haze on the field. The Maryland and Delaware Continental regulars twice repulsed Lord Rawdon's Volunteers of Ireland and then launched a counterattack.
The Continental counterattack was successful with prisoners taken and the Volunteers' line nearly broken. Lt. General Charles Cornwallis saw the action, rode up and rallied his men. Meanwhile, Lt. Colonel James Webster controlled his men on the British right wing. Instead of pursuing the fleeing militia, he wheeled to the left and continued his charge as a flanking movement against General de Kalb.
Only one militia regiment held its ground. It was a North Carolina regiment that had been stationed the closest to the Delware Continental regulars. Their steadfastest was rewarded by being the first to be hit by Lt. Colonel Webster's flank attack. The militia unit fought well and was joined by Maryland regulars that had been called up from reserve by General de Kalb. The Maryland regulars fought off Webster's attack, but now only about 800 Continentals were facing at least 2,000 British regulars.
The small force continued to fight bravely. The final blow came when General Cornwallis ordered Lt. Colonel Banastre Tarleton and his British Legion to attack the American rear. Under the cavalry charge the ranks finally broke. Some Continentals managed to escape through a nearby swamp. General de Kalb himself had taken eleven wounds before falling. The field was taken after an hour. Tarleton pursued the fleeing Americans for over twenty miles before finally turning back.
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