- Historic Sites
America’s Most Imitated Battle
At Cowpens, Dan Morgan showed how militia can be used. The formula worked in three later fights.
April 1956 | Volume 7, Issue 3
The second line, 150 yards behind the first, consisted of Continentals and reliable Virginia militia veterans. Drawn up along a slight rise, they had orders to hold their ground at any cost after the retirement of the first line.
Farther to the rear was another low ridge, just high enough to offer shelter from the British fire. On the reverse slope, in the left rear, Morgan placed his dragoons, many of whom were infantry recently mounted on country nags.
Ahead of the (list line he stationed some riflemen as a thin screen of skirmishers. Alter picking off as many foemen as possible, they were to fall back into the ranks of the militia and set an example ol steady firing.
As Morgan had anticipated, his opponent found the park-like clearing an ideal battlefield. In past operations against rebel militia Tarleton never deemed it necessary to order any variation from a plain, unvarnished frontal assault. If the mere gleam of oncoming bayonets and sabers did not unnerve these novices, a whiff of musketry usually sufficed to sweep them from the field.
Tarleton’s first move, while deploying, was to order dragoons forward against the American marksmen of the skirmish line. They were stopped by a crackle of rifle fire which emptied about fifteen saddles before the skirmishers fell back into the ranks of the first line.
Two of the British three-pounders known as “grasshoppers” began to send cannon balls ricocheting through the rebel ranks. The militiamen stood firm in spite of the screams of maimed comrades, and their ordeal was cut short by Tarleton’s impetuosity. Without waiting for the artillery to fire again, he ordered the whole battle line forward with perfect confidence as to the result.
The British had approached within a hundred yards before their ranks were thinned by the first ragged American volley. Dingy powder smoke blotted them from sight as the militiamen reloaded with a frantic clatter of iron ramrods and firing pans. This was a tense moment for recruits who could imagine that the unseen foe was about to rip through the wall of powder smoke with bayonets.
It is to the credit of the militiamen that most of them fired three shots before retiring in haste. The first line might have stuck it out longer if the men had realized that their fire had stopped the British infantry with heavy losses. As the militiamen pounded around the American left toward the low ridge in the rear, the dragoons of the British right galloped out in pursuit. They were met by a surprise charge of the American dragoons and hurled back alter a brief melee.
Behind the ridge the militiamen scarcely had time for a sigh of relief before Dan Morgan took them in hand. Alternately praising and scolding, he ordered them to form into column and reload. Probably no other American general of the war was as well equipped to understand these scared recruits. Morgan knew that it was unjust as well as futile to condemn untrained rustics as poltroons when they ran from European regulars. They were not lacking in pride, and on this winter morning in 1781 he staked everything on an appeal to them for another effort. The militiamen did not hesitate when Dan Morgan ordered the column around the ridge at a quickstep and back into the fight.
Taking a shorter way, the paternalistic commander returned to the battlefield just in time to find the Continentals giving ground. Tarleton had thrown in his last fresh troops, the Highlanders of the 71st, in an attempt to overlap the right of the American second line and roll it up.
It is axiomatic that battles are won by reserves. The outcome of Cowpens was settled when the militiamen of the first line came back to score a devastating surprise. Rounding the ridge on the American right, they completed nearly a full circuit of the field. And they struck the British left rear just as the American dragoons closed in on the right alter routing Tarleton’s horsemen.
That was it. In a moment the field presented the strange spectacle of British regulars surrendering wholesale to despised militiamen who yelled “Tarleton’s quarter.” They would doubtless have paid oft old scores if Morgan and his officers had not intervened. As it was, the British had 100 killed, including 39 officers, and 229 wounded. Nearly 600 unhurt prisoners were disarmed by rebels whose casualties amounted to twelve killed and sixty wounded. Tarleton and a handful of redcoats escaped as scattered fugitives, leaving behind their cannon, small arms, colors, and baggage.
Morgan had no time to accept congratulations. Winning the battle was only halt of his responsibility, since it remained to save the prisoners and spoils from recapture by the main British force. Cornwallis, upon learning of the disaster, reacted just as Morgan had anticipated. He demanded that his army strip down to essentials for the chase to head oil Morgan. Even the casks of rum were emptied out on the ground before the mournful gaze of the redcoats.