The Battle of Cowpens.

by Daniel Russ on July 3, 2009

General Sir Banastre Tarleton, Ambitious and Cruel Commander Under Cornwallis

General Sir Banastre Tarleton, Ambitious and Cruel Commander Under Cornwallis

In honor of the 4th of July, here is my favorite story and battle of the Revolutionary War.

George Washington had few actual wins notched in his belt and many more disastrous encounters with blooded and expert British troops. That said, the Colonial Army would not stop fighting, no matter how many of them were cut down by crack British troops. The refusal to stop fighting for independence made the Revolutionary War so expensive that King George III gave in and gave in. Britain’s debt was  crippling the Empire. He gave in begrudgingly, very begrudgingly.

While British won many victories in the North, the decision was made by General Clinton and Cornwallis to carry the battle to the South. Clinton was detached, spending his time in New York, romancing a British officer’s wife and enjoying the finer things in life. There, the South,  the loyalties of the Colonials tended towards the Crown and the resistance was lighter. When the war moved south, it moved into country that was pristine and rural and defended by men who knew the terrain like the back of their hands. Morgan had his head about him and realized that George Washington’s frontal assaults were the cause of so many Colonial defeats simply because the British were the best at set piece battle. Washington had been fighting the British at their own game, failing to learn that when confronted with asymmetrical warfare, like Ethan Allen’s Green Mountain Boys at Conchord, the British lost every time. Morgan began a guerilla hit and run campaign that comprised of ambushes, rear guard supply train attacks, followed by Colonial troops who disappeared into the countryside. Prior to the Battle of Cowpens, Morgan smartly moved his troops so that the British would have to chase them, to exhaustion if need be, often splitting his forces and leading Cornwallis on wild goose chases. This was the prelude to Cowpens. By the time Tarleton’s forces reached the battlefield, they were exhausted from days of constant pursuit, and literally half starved.  Cornwallis was so determined to strike decisive blow he refused to let troops stop and bivouac.

On the British side were just less than 1200 British regulars and officers, including 250 cavalry. On the Colonial side, about 1300 officers and men and militia.  Commanding the Colonials was Daniel Morgan, a 51 year old in poor health with a bad back. He was a great tactician and totally loyal to George Washington. Commanding the British was the ambitious and ruthless Banastre Tarleton. He had distinguished himself with frontal assaults that became routs at Camden and Waxhaw. But he was also known for killing prisoners. Keep in mind that proper battlefield etiquette of the day was that officers were not targeted, prisoners were given quarter and captured commanders often were wined and dined by their opponents. Tarleton was much feared because militiamen knew he would kill them if they failed to kill him first; and his arrogance and brutality preced him. Colonial officers thought he was a scoundrel. Notice how he is depicted in the painting. He was what they called a “Dandy”, a sharp dresser and a high society man.

Morgan had slightly more men than Tarleton, but a third of them were poorly trained militiamen who were wont to run as soon as the shooting started. Morgan was actually counting on this, as we will later see. He placed his forces between two flooding rivers, the Broad and Pacolet, downhill from where Tarleton’s forces were advancing. Morgan knew his two lines of regulars would not panic, but the rivers would prevent the militia from escaping. Morgan also knew the British penchant for firing a bit too high, so placing his force downhill from them gave him a slight advantage, also Tarleton’s men would by silhouetted coming down the hill and easier to aim for.

Morgan knew that Tarleton lacked nuance of any kind and wore around his neck the albatross of arrogance, and therefore counted on him to advance headlong, hoping for a panicked retreat. Morgan set up three lines, the first line were the local militia, followed by two lines of experience Colonial troops. He met with the militiamen the night before and asked of them only two things: when given the command, fire two volleys and retreat to the rear and reform and wait for more orders. The militiamen were much happier with that scenario than stay and fight to the bitter end.

At around 2 PM on January 17th, 1781, Tarleton’s forces arrived and the British commander noted the three lines of Colonial troops, trapped by rivers that were literally flooding, and downhill at that. His commanders asked for a rest but Tarleton would have none of it. He formed his troops into several wide lines and ordered them to advance.

On cue, the militiamen, upon seeing disciplined blooded British troops advancing downhill fired two volleys, dropped back to the rear and reformed. The volleys apparently hit their mark and cut down a number of advancing troops and officers. Successive waves of British troops then ran into the second line of Colonials who stood and fought and cut down hundreds. The second line gave way and reformed behind the third line, and upon seeing the first two lines retreat Tarleton, thinking he was about to execute a rout ordered a headlong charge.  Then came Morgan’s third line, which let loose a disciplined and toll taking volley.  Another devastating volley literally stopped the British in their tracks.

Tarleton ordered his dragoon cavalry to attack the American left flank. Commander Howard executed yet another fade away fake. He ordered his men to retreat, and Tarleton ordered Colonel Ogilvie to a fast pursuit, but Colonial Lt. Colonel John Eager Howard ordered an immediate about face. The retreating troops stooped and fired an almost point blank volley into Ogilvie’s dragoons and sent them into disarray. Howard and militia commander Triplett ordered an attack that sent Tarleton’s dragoons off the battlefield.

As Tarleton’s center crumbled, Morgan ordered the militiamen to circle around the British right flank. The British expected the see Ogilvie’s Dragoons there returning after a victory. Instead they saw hundreds of militiamen forming a firing line. Tarleton’s force had been subject to an envelopment, Colonials in front, cavalry of of one flank and militia on the other. Those British troops who could not retreat were captured. The Colonails had even captured the two cannons that Tarleton had brought to battle.

Morgan took almost a thousand British prisoners and literally chased Tarleton off the battlefield accompanied only by his own horse.

The young, cruel Tarleton had lost the cream of Cornwallis’ remaining troops, and his own reputation didn’t fare much better. The old man, Brigadier General Daniel Morgan has outwitted and out fought top line British troops and the young brash commander. This was Morgan’s last battle as he rode back home and lived his life out in Winchester, Virginia.

Cowpens was the beginning of the end of the British occupation. Soon thereafter Cornwallis was trapped at Yorktown waiting for reinforcements that would not come because Compte De Grasse led his French ships of the line to block mouth of the Chesapeake Bay.

But that’s another battle, another day.

Happy Fourth everyone.

Brigadier General Daniel Morgan Devlivered A Much Needed Victory At Cowpens

Brigadier General Daniel Morgan Devlivered A Much Needed Victory At Cowpens

Sources and Citations:

Roberts, Kenneth (1958). The Battle of Cowpens: The Great Morale-Builder. Garden City: Doubleday and Company.

Alden, John R. (1989). A History of the American Revolution.

The History Channel.


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