25.08 The Battle of Cowpens – January 17, 1781 General Nathaniel Greene took command of the Southern Army of the United States on December 2, 1780, at Charlotte, North Carolina. Although he found few forces to command, on arrival, the American victory at Kings Mountain in October had its effect and with the assistance of his commanders he soon organized a substantial army. Foremost among them was General Daniel Morgan, of Virginia, who had fought with Montgomery at Quebec and with Gates at Saratoga, an outstanding leader of distinction. General Morgan was a well educated, but tough, vigorous and hardy product of the frontier, having earned his title of "The Old Wagoner" through long years of guiding parties of settlers, traders and Indian fighters in their wagon trains. He knew how to lead the frontier militiamen and inspire them to hold their ground and do their best under adverse conditions in the face of well-trained, seasoned British Regular troops. His portraits show him in the buckskins of the frontier. General Greene had appointed General Morgan to command the "light infantry."
The campaign in North Carolina might well be described as "The River Campaign" because the movements of troops on both sides were often determined by the many broad, deep and swift rivers in the area, flowing generally southeasterly toward the coast. Greene's foresight in providing for the construction and transport in wagons of flatboats from one river to another, proved to be of the utmost importance in the campaign. The rivers were the Broad, Pacolet, Catawba, Dan, Enoree, Tiger, Deep, Haw, Santee, Congaree, Cape Fear and others, including several large creeks and tributaries.
On December 16, Greene directed Morgan to cross the Catawba to its western side, join the North Carolina Militia under General William Davidson, and operate between the Broad and Pacolet Rivers "either offensively or defensively, as your own prudence and discretion may direct - acting with caution and avoiding surprises by every possible precaution." The main objectives of Morgan were to protect the people, to annoy the enemy, and to collect and store provisions and forage. If Cornwallis attacked Greene's other force, at Cheraw Hill, Morgan was to rejoin and support that force.
On January 2, Lord Cornwallis ordered Colonel Banastre Tarleton to leave Ninety-Six and push Morgan to the utmost, either destroy Morgan's troops or push them across the Broad River towards Kings Mountain. Tarleton had about 1,100 troops, well-trained regular soldiers for the most part, including his own cavalry known as "Tarleton's Legion," a battalion of the Royal Fusiliers, a battalion of the 71st Highland Regiment, a party of Light Dragoons and a detachment of the Royal Artillery, with two light cannon. Morgan's corps consisted of 320 Continentals, 200 Virginia militia riflemen, 80 of Lt. Colonel William Washington's dragoons, and the remainder were North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia militiamen, making a total of about 1,040 troops. But in trained regulars Tarleton outnumbered Morgan more than three to one.
As Tarleton's troops approached, General Morgan withdrew to a place called "The Cowpens" where a local farmer penned his cattle. Today, it is located near Interstate Highway 85, between Kings Mountain National Military Park and Spartanburg, about three hours drive from Atlanta.
Morgan's choice of a battlefield has been severely criticized because it offered no protection from Tarleton's superior cavalry and trained regular troops. Lt. Colonel Henry Lee of Virginia, the famous "Light Horse Harry," father of General Robert E. Lee, had been sent by the Commander in Chief to join Greene's forces in the South, although he was not with Morgan at Cowpens. Colonel Lee later pointed out that beyond the Broad River, near Kings Mountain, there was a much better position which Morgan could have taken for the battle, but Morgan stoutly defended his position:
"I would not have had a swamp in view of my militia on any consideration;
they would have made for it, and nothing could have detained them from it ... I knew my adversary, and was perfectly sure I should have nothing but downright fighting. As to retreat, it was the very thing I wished to cut off all hope of. . . When men are forced to fight, they will sell their lives dearly and I knew that the dread of Tarleton's cavalry would give due weight to the protection of my bayonets and keep my troops from breaking. . . Had I crossed the river, one half of my militia would have immediately abandoned me. " It was undoubtedly also a factor that Morgan, a fighter by nature, was irked by being obliged to withdraw before the oncoming Tarleton, and turned on his foe because he wanted to give battle, disregarding the weakness of his position. But whatever may be said of his choice of the battleground, there is no criticism of the disposition of his troops. It was novel, ingenious and masterly.
The evening before the battle, Morgan, true to his frontier background and innate skill as a "leader of men" visited the campfires, talking and joking with his men in their own language, his voice cheerful, and his manner confident and reassuring. He told them that "the Old Wagoner" would crack the whip over Ban Tarleton in the morning as sure as he lived. "Just hold up your heads, boys; give them two fires and you're free." They had a good night's rest and a full breakfast the next morning. After breakfast, Morgan formed his battle line. He placed his most dependable Continental troops, with seasoned militia, in his main line with Colonel John Eager Howard of Maryland in command. About one hundred fifty yards in front, there were 300 militiamen under Colonel Pickens of South Carolina in a line three hundred yards long. In front of them, in a similar line, were 150 picked riflemen, as sharpshooters. Back of all the infantry and concealed by high ground and trees were William Washington's dragoons and a detachment of Lt. Colonel James McCall's Georgia mounted infantry, armed with sabers to operate as cavalry.
The sharpshooters in the front line in irregular formation were to take cover behind trees, hold their fire until the enemy was within fifty yards, then take careful aim at the officers and fire two volleys. Then they were to retire slowly, firing at will, and pass through the spaces between the men in the second line of militia, reinforcing it. The second line, thus reinforced, was to fire "low and deliberately" and when hard pressed by the oncoming British was to retire in good order around the main formation of troops, which lay in wait over a slight rise, concealed from the enemy. There they were to rally, re-form and act as reserve troops. The orders were not given to the officers only, but every man was informed of the plan of action and all those in the second line were especially cautioned not to be alarmed by the falling back and apparent defeat of the men in front of them. All of the militia men in the first two lines were mounted and their horses were tied to trees behind the cavalry reserve, an arrangement very consoling to their owners as affording a means of swift retreat in case of disaster. This disposition having been made, the men were told to sit down and rest until the enemy was sighted, but not break formation. Morgan then rode along the lines, encouraging the men in his confident and assured manner. As a result of his leadership, planning and foresight, the men were in good spirits and ready for a fight.
On the British side, the flamboyant Tarleton, eager to fulfill his promise to destroy Morgan's corps or push them back towards Kings Mountain, where Cornwallis would finish them off, had allowed his men little rest that night. At 3:00 o'clock in the morning they were afoot and for five hours thereafter, mostly in the dark, they marched on muddy roads, through swamps and creeks and over broken ground, covering eight very long miles, before they came in sight of the Americans. When he saw the first line of troops, but without sufficient reconnoitering to observe the main battle line in the rear, he at once ordered his legion cavalry forward to attack the riflemen. As they came on, they received a volley that emptied fifteen saddles. His famous legion then recoiled, so convinced of the marksmanship of the riflemen that they could not be induced to charge again. The front line riflemen, still firing at will, then retired and took their places in the second line. Tarleton then deployed his troops in battle formation, with his two field pieces deployed for action and immediately ordered his whole line forward. The second line of Americans, under Colonel Pickens of South Carolina, waited until the enemy were "within killing distance." Then, taking careful aim with their rifles, they delivered their fire, reloaded and fired again with deadly accuracy, resulting in many casualties. Although the British line wavered, it continued moving forward and Pickens' men, according to orders, turned about and ran toward the rear of the main American battle line, pursued by the mounted British dragoons. To their astonishment, the mounted troops of Washington and McCall, until that time out of sight, charged forward, swords in hand, on the rear of the attacking dragoons and routed them completely. Pickens' troops gained the safety of the rear lines.
As Morgan had anticipated, retreat of the first two lines of troops was mistaken by Tarleton for the flight of the entire army. Giving their traditional loud battle cries, they rushed forward with fixed bayonets only to be met with another unwavering and deadly fire from the main battle line of Continental soldiers and seasoned militia. The equally courageous British line came on relentlessly and there was hot fighting for nearly half an hour. Another American withdrawal became necessary because Tarleton had called on his reserve of Highlanders and they were about to outflank the American line. As Tarleton saw this second withdrawal, he ordered up his cavalry and the rest of his force. His men, eager to outstrip the others, broke ranks and charged forward towards the Americans in total disorder. Colonel Washington, noticing the confusion, sent word to Morgan, "They are coming on like a mob. Give them one fire and I'll charge them." Just as Pickens' riflemen, having made a complete circuit of the field, came up on Morgan's right as reinforcements, Morgan gave the order "Face about, give them one fire and the day is ours!" The oncoming British line was charging in a mad rush forward over the hill and were within fifty yards of their enemy when Morgan's order was obeyed. The whole American line blazed with gunfire. The shock was terrific. Colonel Howard, one of the outstanding commanders of the war, saw the moment for the final order, "Give them the bayonet!" As the seasoned Continental troops, reinforced by the militia, charged into the disorganized British ranks, the mounted infantry and cavalry of Washington and McCall struck them on the flank and in the rear. With bayonet and saber, they split the disorganized Redcoats and tore them apart.
Although the battle in the center was over, on the American right, the 71st Highlanders held out and the British dragoons on the left were still active. Pickens' riflemen attacked the dragoons with such destructive fire that they fled the field, but the Highlanders fought on. Not until the whole weight of the American forces fell upon them were they forced to yield and their commander, Major McArthur, gave up his sword to Colonel Pickens. Tarleton urged his reserve of 200 dragoons to go forward, but they refused to move. He then tried to protect and remove his two artillery pieces, but Washington again attacked and drove the remaining British troops from the field, except for the artillerymen who stuck to their guns. They were the last to be overcome and never did surrender. Almost to a man, they were struck down at their posts. Washington followed Tarleton who was in full retreat and-got well ahead of his own troops. Seeing that, Tarleton and two of his officers turned and attacked him. One of them aimed his saber at Washington, but an American sergeant, who had caught up with his commander, caught the blow on his own saber. Another British officer was about to cut down Washington when a fourteen-year-old black bugler shot him with his pistol. Tarleton himself made a saber thrust at the American colonel but the blow was parried, he fired his pistol, wounding Washington's horse and then galloped away. This episode has been portrayed in a famous painting which may be seen at Page 230, "The American Heritage Book of the Revolution."
The victory was complete, with nearly nine-tenths of the British force killed or captured, with 800 muskets, 35 baggage wagons, 100 dragoon horses, a large quantity of ammunition, and the colors of the 7th Regiment. Congress reacted with resolutions for "a complete and important victory," promotions, swords, medals and other rewards.
The battle again proved the value of militia when properly handled by competent leaders and it gave a deathblow to Tarleton's reputation as a military leader. Today, a magnificent portrait of Colonel Tarleton, in complete military uniform with black-plumed helmet and jackboots, may be seen in the British National Portrait Gallery in London.
But there were far more important results of the battle. In the opinion of John Marshall, "Seldom has a battle, in which greater numbers were not engaged, been so important in its consequences as that of Cowpens." It gave General Greene his chance to conduct a campaign of "dazzling shiftiness' that led Cornwallis by "an unbroken chain of consequences to the catastrophe at Yorktown which finally separated America from the British crown."