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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
Despite such heroic sacrifices, the British lost the rate by a margin so narrow as to cause Morgan sleepless nights. It was his last campaign in the Revolution, for arthritis compelled his retirement shortly after handing over his command to Greene.
It was Greene’s purpose to play a grim game of strategic tag by keeping just a march or two ahead of Cornwallis and drawing him ever farther from his bases of sea-borne supplies. Thus the British detachments and outposts in the rear would be left a prey to American guerrilla bands.
Greene had resolved not to accept battle unless he held a great advantage, and he led his opponent a chase all the way to the Virginia border.
On the return trip, with Cornwallis still doggedly pursuing. Greene received large militia reinforcements in the vicinity of Guilford Courthouse. He decided to fight. With 4,400 troops, he had a temporary numerical advantage of two-to-one, but fewer than 700 of the Americans had ever been in battle. Grccnc trusted in the Cowpens plan to overcome this handicap, and on the morning of March 15, 1781, he drew up his three lines in the clearing.
The most undependable novices were placed in the first line behind a rail fence, so that the enemy would have to cross 500 yards of open ground to reach them. Greene’s second line, made up of somewhat more reliable militiamen, was 900 yards to the rear. About a quarter of a mile farther back, the third line consisted of Continentals. Picked riflemen had been posted in the woods on both sides of the clearing for the purpose of enfilade fire.
Unfortunately, a departure from precedent may have cost him the victory. The distances of Cowpens had been reassuring, but at Guilford nearly half a mile separated the front-line militiamen from the haven of the third line. In their haste to withdraw, most of them fired at ranges too long for effect before scattering in a wild flight which did not end until the majority were miles away. This collapse unnerved the men of the second line, though at least they did fire two respectable volleys before the rout of one wing led to the retreat of the other.
The numerical advantage now passed to Cornwallis as he bore down on the American third line. Although a new Maryland regiment broke, the rest of the Continentals proved a match for the Guards. Cornwallis was in danger of losing the day when he resorted to the desperate expedient of firing grapeshot into a melee and cutting down some of his own Guards as the price of driving the rebels back.
Greene could probably have retained the field by throwing in a regiment he held in reserve. But with his usual prudence he used these fresh troops to cover a general withdrawal, and the redcoats were too crippled by casualties to pursue. Of the approximately 2,000 British who took part, 93 were killed and 439 wounded, including losses of the Guards which amounted to nearly fifty per cent. Greene’s casualties were 78 killed and 183 wounded, though hundreds of the militia had deserted.
Greene incurred two more tactical reverses during the summer of 1781, but he continued to hold the upper hand in strategic respects with his marches and countermarches. His dream of another Cowpens came very near to realization, moreover, in the Battle of Eutaw Springs. Greene had about 2,500 men early in September when he encountered Colonel Alexander Stewart’s nearly equal force on the main British supply route about seventy miles northwest of Charleston. This time the rebel militia of the front line fired at least ten shots before falling back without panic. Greene’s victory seemed assured as the second line of Continentals charged with the bayonet while the dragoons hit the British flank.
Success was the undoing of half-starved troops who broke ranks to plunder stores of rum and rations after overrunning the enemy’s camp. Their disorder gave Stewart the opportunity for a counterstroke which drove them from the field with losses of 522 killed, wounded, and missing. But he suffered 866 casualties of his own, and after leaving scores of wounded to American care, he retreated to Charleston.
This was the last battle in the South for the invaders, who evacuated the interior and withdrew to the protection of their cannon and warships at Charleston and Savannah. Thus the Cowpens formula, by accounting in eight months for the destruction of one small army and the crippling of two others, must be reckoned among the decisive factors in evicting the British from the Carolinas.
Dan Morgan was in his grave, and so was Nathanael Greene, when the pattern battle had a reincarnation after an interlude of 32 years. It was revived in the spring of 1813 by Jacob Brown, another ex-Quaker who loved war. And in half an hour the 38-year-old militia brigadier won a victory which snatched him from obscurity to nation-wide notice.
Brown would have thought anyone mad to suggest such a possibility on the May morning when he descried an enemy squadron anchoring off Sackett’s Harbor, the American naval base at the eastern end of Lake Ontario. The British, he realized, were about to launch an amphibious assault; and he had the responsibility of defense with a force too small to win and too large to be sacrificed.