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17th-18th Century Articles
Return of Rogers' Rangers
Betrayed by a Mason?
Benedict Arnold in Canada
The Success of Napoleon
Battle of Great Bridge
Frederick: Battle of Leuthen
G. Washington and J. Monroe
The Start: Jumonville's Glen
The Raid on Thurso, 1649
Why France Lost the Seven Years' War
The Battle of Cowpens
War Comes to the Islands
The Battle of Dunbar
Governor Kieft's Personal War
Philip's War
Zaporozhian Cossack Battle at Korsun

Allen Parfitt Articles
Dalton to Atlanta-Sherman vs. Johnston
A Path Across the Rhine: Remagen
The Battle of Cowpens
Popski's Private Army
The Battle of Pea Ridge
Bicycle Blitzkrieg: Singapore
Battles of Sparta: Mantinea
Battle of Franklin

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The Battle of Cowpens
The Battle of Cowpens
by Allen Parfitt

On August 16, 1780, Charles, 2nd Earl Cornwallis, got his campaign to recover the southern colonies for King George off to a very good start by routing an American army under the command of Major General Horatio Gates at Camden, South Carolina. Coming soon after the surrender of Charleston, South Carolina, and the capture there of 5000 American troops under General Benjamin Lincoln, the defeat at Camden was a severe blow to the rebel cause in the South.

The only benefit the Americans received from the defeat at Camden was the eclipse of General Gates. Gates was a veteran of the British Army who combined very moderate military talent with considerable ambition, and a penchant for intrigue. He had been in nominal command during the great American victory at Saratoga in 1778, although most commentators give the credit to other officers such as John Stark, Benedict Arnold and Daniel Morgan. Gates and his good friends in Congress had felt that perhaps he was more suitable for command of the American army than George Washington, and although that could not quite be managed, Congress had given him command in the South. At Camden Gates had further damaged his reputation by fleeing from the field almost immediately while the right wing of his army under Baron de Kalb was still fighting. Gates ended up at Charlotte, a hundred and seventy miles away, ahead of what was left of his army; de Kalb was killed.

Somewhat chastened by this catastrophe, Congress abandoned its habit of naming commanders based on political influence and left the choice of Gates' replacement to General George Washington. Washington chose Major General Nathanael Greene. Greene was unlikely general. He was raised as a Quaker, but he and the Society had parted ways over his unQuakerlike activities, such as visiting taverns and reading military history. He lived in Rhode Island, and grew prosperous managing one of the family businesses. In 1774 he married a beautiful girl named Catherine Littlefield who was ten years younger than he. Like many Rhode Islanders, he was a red hot rebel, and as trouble began to brew between King George and his wayward subjects, he joined a militia forming in his neighborhood. He had hoped to be elected an officer, but was disappointed. One of his fellow soldiers explained why: Greene walked with a limp, and the militia felt that it would be undignified for the unit to have an officer marching in front of them with such a pronounced hitch in his giddy-up. When Massachusetts boiled over the government of Rhode Island formed a state army, composed of various militia units, and, in a process still opaque today, named Greene as general in command. This meteoric rise from private to general for a man whose sole military experience was reading Caesar and Marshal Saxe and marching in the ranks a few weekends was perhaps unique in history. But maybe it should be done more often. Greene was an excellent general, both in organizing his motley troops and leading them in battle. He soon became George Washington's protégé, and justified the commander's faith in him by serving an onerous but very useful term as Quartermaster General, responsible for feeding and equipping the Continental Army. This was not easy, with Continental currency plummeting, but somehow Greene managed, and Washington was grateful. Although he was very attached to Washington, Greene was intensely ambitious, and yearned for a command of his own. So when Washington offered him the chance to go South, he accepted, in spite of the tears and misgivings of his lovely Caty.

It is common, especially on this side of Atlantic, to view the American Revolution as a contest between the American David and the British Goliath. But looked at from Goliath's perspective, reclaiming North America was a difficult proposition. The scene of action was an ocean away, the British Army was small, and had other commitments (hence the need to hire mercenaries), and British opinion was far from united. Indeed, not a few officers flatly refused to serve in America. It was also difficult to identify a target for attack. The British held the largest city in the colonies for years, and captured the rebel capital, both without making much of a dent in the insurrection. The British would need active generals, few mistakes, and a little luck. They were gravely disappointed. Lord Howe prosecuted the war in a casual and indolent fashion. Sir Henry Clinton made one useful and aggressive move in capturing Charleston, then settled down in New York and waited for something to happen. John Burgoyne suffered a disaster at Saratoga and lost his entire army. By 1780 British affairs in the North were in a hopeless state. Cornwallis' invasion of the South was really the last chance for the British to salvage something from what had become a nightmare similar to the modern American misadventures in Viet Nam and Iraq. Supposing he had been successful? We are used to seeing the United States as a large and powerful country, stretching from sea to shining sea, and beyond. But a look at South America, where Simon Bolivar's dream of a huge and mighty nation from Panama to Tierra del Fuego was wrecked on the reefs of local pride and personal ambition, shows that none of this was inevitable. Imagine a North America where the United States of America is a modest country covering New England, New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and most of Virginia. Another small country, perhaps today a Dominion of the British Empire, includes the Carolinas, Georgia, and some land to the west. Florida is an independent Spanish-speaking nation, and there is a French-speaking country that includes the Mississippi valley and much of the Great Plains. A larger Mexico, including Texas and California, meets a larger Canada near the Columbia River. To the north is Russian Alaska. Perhaps, if your imagination is good enough, you can even visualize an Indian nation in the upper midwest, nurtured for a hundred years by British support, then able to sustain itself. Today this sounds like nonsense. In 1780, many possibilities were open.

After Camden, General Cornwallis could envision marching triumphantly through the Carolinas into Virginia, snuffing out any trace of rebellion as he went. His army was not large, but it was well trained, well supplied, and well equipped. However, in October his progress was rudely interrupted by an unpleasant little happening in western South Carolina. He sent an able officer named John Ferguson into these parts to call out Loyalist militia. He was quite successful, gathering an army of about a thousand men. However, rebels from beyond the Blue Ridge Mountains heard about Ferguson's activities, and took exception, realizing the danger of allowing the Tories to establish themselves in this area, and annoyed by Ferguson's aggressive threats. Led by a consortium of backwoods colonels, the "Overmountain Men" marched east, intercepted the Tories at King's Mountain and defeated them, killing Ferguson and capturing or dispersing his army.

General Greene reached Charlotte, North Carolina on December 2, 1780, relieved General Gates, and took command of his shattered army. He was not impressed. "Nothing can be more wretched and distressing than the condition of the troops, starving with cold and hunger, without tents and camp equipage", he reported to Washington. He immediately took steps to improve the situation, replacing the deputy quartermaster and the commissary general. He also set about improving morale. His troops fell into three categories. First were "Continentals", regular long service troops, experienced and trained. These were the heart of the army, and by this time they were capable of meeting regular British troops in straight combat. The second were State troops. Greene had stopped in Richmond to discuss with Governor Thomas Jefferson the need to supply Virginia State troops that were serving in Greene's army, but Jefferson was unwilling or unable to do much for him, in spite of the obvious fact that if Cornwallis was not stopped in the Carolinas, he would certainly march into Virginia, as he eventually did. State troops were often nearly as good as Continentals, and in some cases were Continental veterans, attracted by the higher pay offered by some States. Third were militia. Militia have been mentioned several times in this article, and will be mentioned many times again, so it would be useful to discuss what they were in an 18th century context, especially since the term has changed meaning, and has gained political and ideological overtones.

Colonial America was not always a safe place. Anywhere near the frontier there was always the threat of Indians. The Indians were quite naturally displeased at this flood of palefaces pushing them out of their ancestral homes, and they sometimes reacted violently. In the long run there was nothing they could do to prevent the spread of Europeans, but in the short run it was possible for an isolated farm, a village, or even a small town to be overrun by an aggressive war party. Colonials had also played a large part in the wars of the mid-18th century which had resulted in the French expulsion from Canada. So, men between certain ages, usually something like 18 to 45, were required to be enrolled in a local militia. These militias drilled occasionally, and were available for active service for a specified period. These requirements were not universally enforced. In North Carolina religious pacifists such as Quakers and Moravians were exempt until 1831, although when the exemption was repealed the patriotic citizens of Salem immediately formed a militia unit, complete with a brass band. When called to active service, militia varied in effectiveness. A soldier's duties may be reduced to three essentials: to kill, to die, and to obey orders. The militia was fine with the killing, but sometimes a little shaky on the dying and obeying orders. This is not to imply that the militia were cowards. They were a cross-section of the male population, and could give brave and effective service. But their lack of training and continuous discipline, and the uneven quality of their officers, who were usually elected, meant that they were often unable to stand up to an attack by British regulars, especially in the open. They also had a very specific sense of how much time they owed, and were not above walking out of camp on the eve of battle if their hitch was up. All American officers became impatient with militia at times, and yearned for more of the reliable long-service Continentals. But there were never enough Continentals, and calling out the militia was a common and accepted way of filling armies from New Hampshire to South Carolina. The militia was successful on many battlefields. Concord, Bunker Hill, Saratoga, and King's Mountain were largely won by militia. But Gates' disaster at Camden was caused by the militia breaking and running soon after the battle began, and allowing Cornwallis' troops to envelope and destroy the hard-fighting regulars on the other wing. For an early 19th century example of militia was that was much worse than useless, see the Robert C. Daniel‘s excellent article "The Quality of the Combatants in the Black Hawk War" on MHO. There was one more side to the militia. Because they were such a cross section, they included the significant portion of the population that was loyal to the King. In contested areas there were actually two militias, rebel and Tory, and an undercurrent of the Revolution is the "hearts and minds" struggle between the two. When the militia was called out, men of whatever persuasion asked themselves, "How is my side doing?", "Will I get fed?" Will my family be safe while I'm gone?" During the Revolutionary War thousands of men asked themselves these questions, and it's a commentary on their deeply felt beliefs that so many of them on both sides grabbed their guns and reported for duty. From the British point of view Sir Henry Clinton's decision to hole up in New York was disastrous because by leaving most of the rest of the North in American hands, he allowed the Americans to consolidate their administration, and intimidate or drive out their Tory neighbors. Any hope of Loyal militia was totally extinguished. Cornwallis was determined to prevent that, which is why he marched upcountry instead of staying in Charleston, by all accounts a pleasant town even then.

Cornwallis and Greene were agreed on one thing: Greene's army was too weak to fight. Cornwallis would have loved to bring on battle. Another defeat like Camden would finish the American cause in the South. So, since he had no intention of fighting in the near future, Greene did a logical thing: he divided his army. Most of the army he took southeast into South Carolina, where he planned to camp for the winter near Cheraw Hill on the Pee Dee river. There he could do some training, refit his troops, and best of all, feed them. The area around Charlotte was completely picked over. When Greene took command, there were only three days of provisions available. A smaller army, but containing some of his best troops, Virginia and Maryland Continentals, he sent southwest under Brigadier General Daniel Morgan. These troops would also find food, encourage rebel supporters in that area, call out the militia in western South Carolina, and threaten British posts, held in some cases by Loyalists. The most important of these posts was Ninety-Six, due west of Camden, and named because it was said to be ninety-six miles from the westernmost British settlements.

Everyone who writes about Cowpens says that this division of forces was contrary to perceived military wisdom. Staff college teaches prospective officers not to divide their forces in the face of a superior enemy. However, Greene had an unusual military background. He started at the top, and learned by experience, some of it gained the hard way. He tended to look at a situation pragmatically. He saw a need for the Americans to be two places at once, had confidence in Morgan, and gave the necessary orders. He figured correctly that he could join his army together before he fought with Cornwallis, which did not happen for another three months, on March 15, 1781 at Guilford Courthouse, North Carolina.

That Greene had judged the situation correctly is shown by the fact that he immediately put Cornwallis in a quandary. Cornwallis wanted to move east to put pressure on Greene, but he was afraid to leave Morgan running loose in the west, perhaps to attack Ninety-Six. So he also divided his forces. He sent out somewhat over a thousand men under the command of Lt. Colonel Banastre Tarleton to chase Morgan down. His orders were specific: "If Morgan is...any where within your reach, I wish you to push him to the utmost." Morgan also had orders from Greene: "The object of this detachment is to give protection to that part of the country and spirit up the people, to annoy the enemy in that quarter, collect the provisions, and forage out of the way of the enemy....." His orders said nothing about a battle.

The two men could not have been more different. Banastre Tarleton--a high class name for a high class guy. Google him, and there he is, there's never been another famous Banastre Tarleton. He was the third son of a wealthy merchant, went to Oxford and studied law, but decided that the military was his vocation. and bought a commission. He volunteered to serve in America, was given command of the "British Legion", a Tory unit composed partly of light horse ("dragoons") and partly of light infantry. He made this into an effective force, which fought in several major battles in the North, and was taken South to the siege of Charleston in 1780. His reputation for ruthlessness and cruelty was greatly enhanced by an ugly incident shortly after the fall of Charleston when Tarleton and his Legion surprised a group of Virginia soldiers near the border of North and South Carolina. The Virginians surrendered, but Tarleton's soldiers went wild, killing the Americans even as they knelt with their hands up. Tarleton said in his memoirs that this was done against his orders and wishes, but that he had been trapped under his dead horse while the massacre was going on. Cornwallis liked Tarleton and used him and his Legion as mobile shock troops to harry American guerillas that were active all over the Carolinas. After Camden Tarleton recruited some surrendered American militia into his Legion. This illustrates another aspect of the Revolutionary struggle: some had extremely strong convictions, but many were just trying to get along. After being called out to militia duty, routed, and captured, it seemed only logical to some of the prisoners that when offered a choice between prison camp and a new unit, they should change sides, especially when the new unit came with a spiffy green coat. How reliable these new recruits might be was another question. Getting a feel for personality over 250 years always difficult, but Tarleton had the reputation of a rash and bad tempered man. There is an elegant mansion near Williamsburg called Carter's Grove. The railing to the main staircase is severely marred, and tradition, unsupported by any documentation, is that in 1781 Tarleton entered the house in a rage and walked up the stairs hacking at the bannister with his sword as he went. The rebels hated and feared him, and he did nothing to dispel their apprehension.

Dan Morgan is, by contrast, a plain and common name. Google "Dan Morgan" or "Daniel Morgan" and you'll find an American football player, an Australian bushranger, and a MIchigan attorney, as well as a Revolutionary War general. Morgan was an intelligent and moderately literate man, but he was also a frontier tough guy, known for fighting and drinking. He served as a teamster during the French and Indian War, and later married and settled down near Winchester Virginia. His education was in the "school of hard knocks". When the Revolution broke out he was elected to command a local militia company. He and his men marched to Boston, and he later went with Montgomery and Arnold to Quebec, where he was captured and later exchanged. He played an important role at Saratoga in 1777, but got frustrated with his failure to be promoted to brigadier general and was in poor health. So he went home for a year. Gates knew him and asked him to come south. He demanded and got his coveted promotion, and arrived in Charlotte about the same time as Greene. Morgan is often referred to as "Old Morgan" or "Old Waggoner", although he was only 44 years old at the time. Perhaps he seemed old next to Greene, who was 38, Tarleton, who was 26, and Cornwallis, who was 42. He also may have seemed old because of his poor health. It's hard for us to tell what was wrong with him. His ailment was described as "rheumatism", which the dictionary defines as "any disorder of the back or extremities" The most likely explanation is that he had one or more slipped or cracked discs in his spine. An injury like this would be untreatable in the 18th century, and would account for Morgan's constant and increasing discomfort. He had a reputation as a warm personality. Accounts of the night before the Battle of Cowpens have him circulating among the militia, joshing and encouraging them.

Tarleton quickly realized that Ninety-Six was in no danger. The town was strongly held and strongly fortified, and withstood a siege by Greene's entire army later in the year. He requested and received reinforcements, and set about fulfilling his instructions by pressing Morgan as closely as possible. He had about twelve hundred soldiers, many of them British regulars. On the 11th of January he headed north toward Morgan. His troops had four days rations, and he was advancing as fast as possible. By the 16th he was approaching the border of North Carolina. His troops found a hastily abandoned American campground, and were delighted to find that the rebels had retreated north so rapidly that they had abandoned part of their breakfast. At this point the two armies were only six miles apart.

One of the central questions that has always surrounded the Battle of Cowpens is why Morgan decided to accept battle, where he chose to have the battle take place, and whether he fought because he wanted to or because he had to. None of these questions have simple answers. Often generals in time of war do not have a choice as to whether to fight or not. The enemy attacks some vital point, troops must defend. Orders are given to attack the enemy at some point, they are carried out. But in the southern theatre of the American Revolution, with small armies moving around in a great wilderness, Morgan had considerable latitude to avoid battle if he wished. Certainly Greene was not putting any pressure on him to confront Tarleton. But if he chose to fight, he had several assets. First, he could choose the time and place. He could be sure that Tarleton, considering his army qualitatively superior, would accept battle under most circumstances. Second, he had some good officers under him. Colonel John Eager Howard, who was in command of Morgan's reliable Continentals was an excellent officer, experienced, cool under fire, and respected by his men. Lt. Colonel William Washington, who was in command of Morgan's small but important cavalry was also solid, and would play an important part in the coming battle. He was a distant cousin of the more famous Washington. Many of Morgan's militia officers were also competent, and some of them had local knowledge. Morgan took advantage of this local knowledge to look over his prospective battlefield. Militia Captain Dennis Trammel recalled that "the Cowpens.....being in two and a half miles of [his] residence....and he [Trammel] being well acquainted with the local Situation of the ground....with Genl. Morgan and his lifeguard and Aide d Camp went out and selected the ground on which the battle was fought." What Morgan saw was a an open area perhaps a thousand yards long and two hundred yards wide, bisected by a road, running from southeast to northwest. It rose slightly from the southeast, and there were two low hills at the northwest end. It contained plenty of trees, but no underbrush at all, because of the local custom of pasturing cattle there. Some critics of Morgan's plans have suggested that if Tarleton had been a little more patient he could have flanked Morgan's positions, but a careful reconstruction of the ground as it was in 1781 by Babits shows that this would have involved crossing shallow ravines, and while the ground there was not precisely swampy, it was probably quite damp. In short, it was an ideal place for two small armies to meet in a battle they were both looking for.

It is at this point that Babits feels that Morgan made his decision to accept battle. Captain Trammel wrote that after the tour of the Cowpens, Morgan told him that "here was Morgan's grave or victory." Certainly, he was hard pressed by Tarleton's advance. The fact that his army had had to abandon their breakfast and head north showed how hot the pursuit had become. If Morgan decided to retreat, he would also have to figure out how to get his army across the Broad River, five miles north of Cowpens. Rivers tended to play a large part in the cat-and-mouse game that characterized operations in this period, and being caught with half his army on one side and half on the other would be a nightmare. Of course, if Cowpens had ended in an American defeat, the river would have greatly facilitated Tarlton's goal of rounding up Morgan's entire army. Another factor was that militia kept coming in, and at least some of it was ready to fight. Tarleton was hated and feared by the pro-rebel militiamen of the area, and they were not anxious to see Morgan's army retreat to the north, leaving them and their families at the mercy of the British and Tories. John Eager Howard remembered that "parties were coming in most of the night and calling on General Morgan for ammunition and to know the state of affairs. They were all in good spirits, related circumstances of Tarleton's cruelty, and expressed the strong desire to check his progress." Morgan knew that if the militia was called out itching for a fight and didn't get it, they would be much less likely to come out in the future.

Morgan was up all night. He had a Council of War in the evening, not to discuss whether to fight, but to tell his officers the battle plan. Then Morgan moved from campfire to campfire, joshing and encouraging the militia, and evaluating their numbers and mood. Militiaman Thomas Young recalled that "He went among the Volunteers, helped them fix their swords, joked with them about their sweethearts, told them to keep in good spirits, and the day would be ours." Based on a map that has recently come to light, Babits feels that Morgan modified his tactical plans when he saw how many had come in. It seems likely that he had originally planned to station the militia forward on the flanks to fire on the advancing British and funnel them toward the Continentals. But as he passed from camp to camp he realized that so much militia was available that he could form a continuous militia line. The next morning he deployed his little army for battle. His plans were very sophisticated. A few cavalrymen were sent out to scout and screen the army. Near the middle of the Cowpens was a line of rifle armed skirmishers. Their role was to pepper the advancing British, screen the army, then fall back. Behind the skirmishers in front of the first hill was a line of militia. As Morgan had passed among his militiamen he had told them: "Just hold up your heads, boys, three fires, and you are free [to retreat]." Behind the militia, on the reverse slope of the hill, were posted the Continentals and the Virginia State Troops. This was Morgan's main line of battle, and he hoped that by giving the militia advance permission to retreat after firing three volleys they would do enough damage to the advancing British that the Continentals could repulse them. He also posted the Continentals slightly en echelon so that there were lanes for the militia to retreat. That way they would not mask the regulars' fire, and Morgan would have some idea where the militiamen might end up so they could be corralled and reformed. Washington's cavalry was posted in reserve, to counter enemy cavalry attacks on the flank.

Tarleton's men slept at Burr's Mill, about twelve miles from Cowpens. He roused his army at about two and advanced toward the Americans. His army was marching hungry. They had already consumed their four days rations, they were moving too fast to forage, and besides the Americans had already eaten what was available during their retreat. That half-eaten breakfast the day before had no doubt been a treat! As Tarleton advanced his scouts clashed with the American advance cavalry and a Sergeant Everheart was captured. He was brought to Tarleton, and many years afterward wrote down his memory of the conversation: "Dismounting his horse that officer after some conversation asked if he thought Mr. Washington and Mr. Morgan would fight that day. Yes, if they can keep together only two hundred men was the reply. Then said he it will be another Gates defeat. I hope to God it will be another Tarleton's defeat said this petitioner. I am Colonel Tarleton Sir. And I am Sergeant Everheart."

Tarleton's tactical arrangements were as simple as Morgan's were complex. He sent out some dragoons to scout the American position, but They were turned back by the skirmishers. So he lined up his entire army and advanced. On his right was his light infantry, then the infantry of the British legion, then the 7th regiment, with his two small cannon. He had intended his best unit, the 71st Highland regiment to be in line, but there was not quite room for them, so they were a little behind the 7th. Squadrons of the 17th Dragoons (What a lot of 7's!) were on either flank, and the Legion horse were in reserve. It probably did not occur to Tarleton than he might lose the coming battle, and his main concerns were to get going so the Americans did not get away from him, and to have the entire day for the pursuit that would follow his victory. Nor did he have a lot of choices. Having chased the Americans for days he could hardly refuse battle now. Besides, he needed to capture some food. The British troops marched right up the Cowpens, straddling the road. The skirmishers kept up a heavy fire on the advancing British, although it is impossible to say how much damage they did, then retreated as enemy approached.

Ahead of the British lay the militia line. The militiamen were not in a parade formation, but in little clumps, some advanced ahead of the others. Morgan was behind them, and he and their officers were telling the men to hold their fire until the British advanced into range of their deadly rifles. As the British advanced the two small artillery pieces advanced with them, and the cannon fired at least eight times, although without doing any serious damage. Soon the British were within range, and the militia opened fire. Some fired only once, some three or four times, some as many as six, then retreated in more or less disorder before they could be gored by the bayonets. The effect on the British was devastating, especially for the officers. The militia had been instructed to "aim for the epaulettes". The light infantry, the Legion, and the 7th Fusiliers all suffered heavy casualties. However, they felt the battle was won. Two lines had fled in front of them, and as they crested the low hill they no doubt expected to see nothing but running Americans. Instead they found a line of steady uniformed soldiers in front of them, ready to begin the next phase of the battle.

But before this could began the militia had another adventure. Horsemen of the 17th Light Dragoons burst in among the retreating militiamen on the American left and began sabering them just as they thought they were safe in the rear. But the militiamen started fighting back, shooting from behind trees, then the American cavalry under Colonel Washington came charging down to chase off the British troopers.

As the British infantry line realized that they would still have some serious fighting to win this battle, they stopped to dress their ranks. Their line was considerably shorter than it had been when they started to advance just a few minutes before, and there was now room for the 71st regiment. This unit had not suffered as much as the rest of the British because of their concealed position. When they got into line they outflanked the Continentals on the left. With the serious losses that had been suffered by the rest of his troops, Tarleton's hopes for a victory at Cowpens rested on these courageous and experienced Scottish soldiers. At the same time horsemen from the 17th that were posted on the British left began advancing to assist the Scots. But both the cavalry and the Scots came under flanking fire from an unexpected source. A company of North Carolina militiamen under Colonel Joseph McDowell that had been on the skirmish line had fallen back on the American right, and clung there obstinately, pouring rifle bullets into the advancing British. These brave militiamen caused a crucial delay in Tarleton's attack, and played an important, if almost forgotten, role in the eventual American victory. A brisk firefight developed between Colonel Howard's Continentals and the British line. There were casualties on both sides, but neither could gain an advantage.

By this time Tarleton and his men realized that they were in a very tough battle. They needed a break, and they got one. As the Highlanders and the dragoons finally forced their way past the North Carolinians and began to envelope Howard's right flank, he responded to this threat by ordering his rightmost company, Virginia Continentals under the command of Captain Andrew Wallace, to refuse the flank; that is, to change front so that they were facing southwest instead of southeast to form a right angle with the rest of the American line. Somehow in the heat of battle this order was misunderstood, and Andrew's company faced about, and began marching to the rear. The next company in line had just lost its commander, and also faced rear. In spite of the hard fighting and the cleverness of Morgan's plan, disaster loomed for the Americans. Howard realized there was only one thing to be done. He ordered the entire American line to reverse front and march away from the enemy. Executing an orderly withdrawal in the face of the enemy is the hardest maneuver an army can face. Morgan had been with the militia, helping their officers organize and rally them. When he saw his line retreating, he headed for the front and, according to Howard, ".... in a loud tone of voice expressed apprehensions of the event." Howard reassured him that "men were not beaten who retreated in such [good] order". The Americans apparently retreated in echelon, each company firing a volley to slow down the advancing redcoats, then wheeling to retreat. And so good was their discipline that as they marched the eighty yards to a new position on the second hill, they were able to reload.

For the second time the British thought they had won the battle. Although hungry, fatigued, and shot up, they advanced with a cheer. Leading the way on the British left were the Highlanders, who had absorbed a penchant for irresistible attacks with their mothers' milk. But as Howard marked the point where he wished his men to turn and stand, he was met by a messenger from Colonel Washington. Washington had brought his cavalry from the left to the right flank as he perceived the crisis there. "Give them a fire and I will charge them." And they did. The onrushing Highlanders were met by a wall of bullets, then were assailed by Washington's cavalry on the flank, which brushed the British dragoons of the 17th out of their way and fell on the Scots. Worse, the militia that had been reforming in the rear came bursting out between the companies of Continentals to hit the 71st on the other flank. Howard ordered a bayonet charge. The British army collapsed, soldiers fleeing from the field if they could, and surrendering in droves if they could not.

Tarleton could never figure out what happened. Both in his report to Cornwallis and in his memoirs he spoke of the unaccountable misconduct of his troops in collapsing so suddenly. Babits argues convincingly that the British were suffering from "Combat Fatigue", a virulent disease that has doubtless existed on battlefields since before the beginning of history, but was identified by name in the 20th century, and strikes when soldiers have been driven too hard and fought too much under adverse circumstances. Tarleton's men had been marching on short rations and short sleep for days, they had suffered heavy losses, and twice thought victory in their grasp, only to be denied. Their morale and confidence sank to zero, and they gave up. The truth that was hard for Tarleton to face was that he had been badly outgeneraled. Perhaps his biggest error was his failure to mass his cavalry and throw it in at the right moment. Had 400 cavalry instead of 50 attacked on the right flank to prevent the militia from reforming, it would have been impossible for Washington to repulse them.

Tarleton still had one last chance to retrieve something from the disaster. The cavalry of the British Legion was still in reserve, and the American Army was considerably disorganized by its sudden triumph. Possibly a determined charge would snatch victory from defeat. But when he gave the order, only about fifty officers and men followed him. The rest of the greencoats slunk off, unwilling to fight. Perhaps some of them had fought with Gates at Camden, changed sides, and were unwilling to risk capture by the victorious Americans. Tarleton did advance, his tiny band clashed with the American cavalry, but could achieve nothing. Washington, galloping ahead of his men, had a famous encounter with three British officers in which he wounded one of his opponents, and another was shot by "a boy, a waiter who had not strength to wield a sword" just as he was about to attack Washington from his unprotected side, and the third fled. For many years it was rumored that one of those officers was Tarleton, but it seems certain that was not the case. Tarleton fled the field, and managed to make it to Cornwallis' camp where he told the Earl the very bad news.

Meanwhile the Americans were cleaning up the battlefield. Since Tarleton was notorious for "Tarleton Quarter" i.e., none, there were some militiamen who were ready for a massacre. But the officers restrained them, and over six hundred British and Tories marched north into captivity. Different sources agree in only a general way about the number of British and Tory casualties, but there were probably between 150 and 200 dead and a similar number of wounded. If a couple of hundred got away, this brings us somewhere in the general vicinity of Tarleton's original numbers. American casualties present an even more interesting puzzle. Morgan reported that he had less than a thousand men present at Cowpens, and suffered twelve killed and about fifty wounded. All of these numbers seem low, and by looking at the pension records, it seems apparent that Morgan reported only the casualties to his regular troops. Perhaps he was not fully aware of the militia numbers or casualties, and Babits feels that he wanted to emphasize the contribution of the Continentals. It would appear by comparing the number of pension applications from units of known size to the total number of applications that Morgan actually had somewhere around 1600 men on the battlefield and suffered about 150 casualties.

If Kings Mountain had been a setback for Cornwallis, Cowpens was a disaster. He immediately set out in pursuit of Morgan, hoping to avenge the defeat, and perhaps recover the prisoners. He did not officially blame Tarleton, being content to attribute the defeat to the "unaccountable misconduct" of his troops, but he also avoided giving Tarleton quite so much latitude to go out rampaging through the countryside on his own. Although Cornwallis burned some of his baggage and moved as quickly as possible he was unable to achieve either of his goals. Morgan had gotten the prisoners moving north the day of the battle, and his army followed soon after, shedding time-expired militia as it went. Morgan and Greene united at Guilford Court House on February 6th. Morgan informed Greene that his physical condition had become so bad that he could not continue. Greene put some pressure on him to remain, even sending his friend Light Horse Harry Lee to suggest "If you retire now, when we must do or die, people will think you were not the patriot you once were...." But Morgan's back was so painful that he could only think of one thing, heading for his home in Virginia so he could go to bed.

Even though his troops were in one place, Greene was not yet ready to fight. He pulled back into Virginia for a time, while Cornwallis reached the end of his logistical tether. Then, when Greene was ready he re-entered North Carolina, and the showdown between them came at Guilford Court House on March 15, 1781. Morgan was at home getting TLC from his wife, but his spirit was there: Greene, who was never adverse to learning something new, used his battle tactics from Cowpens. The battle of Guilford Court House did not turn out quite as well for the Americans as Cowpens. Perhaps it was because the old master himself was not there, perhaps Cornwallis was a little more cautious and savvy than Tarleton, perhaps it was just a different battle. Cornwallis won a technical victory in that he held the battleground, but it was a Pyrrhic victory in the true sense of the term: he had suffered more losses than his little army could endure. Retreating to Wilmington North Carolina on the coast he wrote to General Phillips, who was on the Chesapeake, " my dear friend, what is our plan? Without one we cannot succeed, and I assure you I am quite tired of marching around the country in quest of adventure." He decided to go to Virginia, and ended up at Yorktown.

Greene stayed in the Carolinas, unsuccessfully besieged Ninety-Six, the climax of Kenneth Robert's epic novel of the war from the Tory viewpoint "Oliver Wiswell", and fought a battle at Eutaw Springs, where he again used Morgan's tactics but failed to win a decisive victory. After the war he was given an estate in Georgia where he died suddenly in 1786. Morgan served a term in Congress, and died in 1802 at his home near Winchester Virginia. Cornwallis returned to England, his reputation still good, was appointed the Governor-General of India, and died there in 1806. Tarleton also returned to England, served in Parliament, married well, and died a Major General in 1833.

For a battle of its size, with less than 3000 combatants on both sides, Cowpens had as important an influence on the war in the South as Saratoga did on the war in the North. In both cases the British lost an army they could simply not afford to lose. And Daniel Morgan, who was at both these pivotal battles, probably did as much as any American save Washington and possibly Greene to ensure that the United States would be born, and that it would be born with all thirteen of its original members. And he knew he had done something special. "I was desirous to have a stroke at Tarleton", he wrote to a friend, "and have Given him a devil of a whip[p]ing".

Show Footnotes and Bibliography

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Copyright © 2007 Allen Parfitt 

Written by Allen Parfitt. If you have questions or comments on this article, please contact Allen Parfitt at:

About the author:
Allen Parfitt is a retired teacher.  He has had a life-long interest in military affairs.  He lives near Kalamazoo, Michigan with his wife and four cats.  He is continually adding to his library of books on military history.

Published online: 03/31/2007.

* Views expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily represent those of MHO.
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