232 Years Since Cowpens

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A very accurate video on the battle of Cowpens, January 17, 1781.  Brigadier General Daniel Morgan, the American commander, was an American original.  An ill-educated frontiersman, Morgan was also a natural leader of men, made easier by his height, well over six-foot, and his robust sense of humor, along with his willingness to use his fists to enforce discipline if necessary.  He served in the French and Indian War, being sentenced to 500 lashes for punching a British officer.  He later made a joke of it saying that in carrying out the sentence the count was one short, but it was a tribute to his toughness that he survived such an experience.  It is a pity that the late John Wayne, circa 1955, did not appear in a movie bio of this remarkable man.

At the beginning of the Revolution, Morgan led a company of Virginia riflemen to join Washington’s Army besieging Boston.  Volunteering to join the invasion of Canada, he led three companies of riflemen that quickly became known as Morgan’s Sharpshooters.  In the attack on Quebec on December 31, 1775, Captain Morgan led his men in ferocious fighting in the city.  The attack was ultimately defeated, with Morgan refusing to surrender to the British and instead tendering his sword to a French priest.

Held as a prisoner of war throughout 1776, he was exchanged for a British officer held captive by the Americans in January of 1777.  Promoted to Colonel and put in command of the  11th Virginia Continental regiment, Morgan played a decisive role in defeating Burgoyne’s army in the Saratoga campaign at the battles of Freeman’s Farm and Bemis Heights.   In 1778 he led a series of  raids against British held territory in New Jersey.  Angered by lack of promotion from Congress and physically worn out, he retired from the Army in 1779.

After the defeat of the American army at Camden South Carolina on August 16, 1780, Morgan came out of retirement and was promoted to Brigadier General.  Joining General Nathaniel Greene, the chief American commander in the South, he was given 700 men and told to harass the British in the backcountry of South Carolina.  Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton, a ruthless British cavalry commander, was given the job of tracking Morgan down and destroying his force.  Morgan decided to turn tables on his pursuer, and waited to give battle at Cowpens, South Carolina.

Morgan led approximately 1800 men on the day of the battle, 400 of them Continental regulars, the rest being militia.  They faced about 1,150 British and Loyalist troops, almost all of them trained regulars.  The British had 300 cavalry to 150 cavalry for the Americans.  The American cavalry was commanded by Lieutenant Colonel William Washington, a second cousin of George Washington.

In spite of his numerical superiority, Morgan had a major problem in that over three-quarters of his troops were militia, and militia had proven time and again during the war that they simply could not stand up in open battle against trained British troops.  If Morgan attempted to have the militia slug it out with the British, the chances were great that they would eventually panic and flee the battlefield.

Morgan solved this problem with practical common sense.  He located his army with a river directly in its rear.  Even the rawest militia man could see that fleeing into a river was an invitation to suicide.  He posted his Continentals on a low hill in front of the river.    He stationed sharpshooters about a thousand yards in front of the hill.  Between the Continentals on the hill and the line of sharpshooters, he placed the militia.  He talked to the militia, mixing his speech with jokes to cause the militia men to relax.  He told them that all he expected of them was that they fire two vollies at the British.  They could then retreat to the left behind the Continentals and reform, shielded by the dragoons under Colonel Washington.  He explained the plan succinctly:

“the whole idea is to lead Benny [Tarleton] into a trap so we can beat his cavalry and infantry as they come up those slopes. When they’ve been cut down to size by our fire, we’ll attack them.”

The plan worked perfectly.  The sharpshooters picked off the oncoming British before withdrawing to the line of militia.  The militia poured two vollies into the British, and then withdrew to the left of the Continentals.  The British, seeing the militia withdraw, thought the Americans were defeated.  The British advanced in a chaotic mass pursuit.  Morgan, seeing his opportunity, ordered his Continentals to mount a bayonet charge against the British.  Colonel Washington circled around to the rear of the British, and the reforming militia attacked the British left.  Effectively encircled, British resistance collapsed.  110 British soldiers were killed, and 712 were captured, including 200 wounded.  Banastre Tarleton escaped, after a saber battle with Colonel Washington, and later became the leader of the pro-slavery forces in the British Parliament.  Approximately 128 Americans were killed or wounded.

Dan Morgan, semi-literate frontiersman, had won the most brilliant tactical victory of the Revolution, achieving a Cannae-like double envelopment.  His battle would influence American battles in other wars, but that is a story for another day.  Cowpens was the turning point of the American Revolution in the South, giving a much-needed boost to American morale.  In 1790 Morgan was awarded a gold medal from Congress for his inspiring leadership at Cowpens.  The final battle in the film The Patriot is very, very loosely based on a conflation of the battles of Cowpens and Guilford Courthouse.

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2 Responses to 232 Years Since Cowpens

  • To have survived 499 lashes is amazing.

    American Cannae, maybe; American Hannibal . . .

    The contributions of men like Washington, Morgan, the Continental Regular, and militia (men like you and I) cannot be exaggerated.

  • One of the more brilliant examples of tactical planning in American military history–he made his own weaknesses work in his favor. The fact he’d worn out the British by keeping a step ahead of them for weeks didn’t hurt.

    If only William Washington had run Bloody Ban through–he wounded Tarleton, if I recall correctly.

    And the Cannae reference is dead on: during the Civil War, both sides would desperately look for battles of annihilation, but never come close to achieving them. With the partial exception of Thomas at Nashville, I suppose.

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