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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
On a January morning in 1781 a battle was fought in the South Carolina backwoods which became the tactical show piece of the American Revolution. It set a pattern not only for two other decisive actions of that war but also for a hard-fought engagement of the War of 1812.
This was the Battle of Cowpens, an American victory resulting in the destruction of Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton’s materially superior British force.
The American commander, Brigadier General Daniel Morgan, was a self-educated frontiersman. Well versed in the craft and guile of Indian fighting, he baited a psychological trap which his opponent entered unsuspectingly. Fifty minutes later the small British army had lost nine-tenths of its numbers in killed, wounded and prisoners.
The war had reached a stalemate in the North. Savannah and Charleston had fallen to the invaders, and in the summer of 1780 the only American army in the South ceased to exist when Lord Cornwallis defeated Major General Horatio Gates in the Battle of Camden.
Fugitives from that disaster were combined with southern militia and a few hundred Continentals, or American regulars, to form a new army of about 2,400 men under Major General Nathanael Greene. At the outset Greene could hardly hope to fight Cornwallis and his 4,000 redcoats for control of South Carolina. The most Greene could do was to harass the enemy’s ranks, attack outposts, cut off detachments, and nourish the guerrilla operations of such border captains as Marion, Sumter and Pickens.
The great object was to survive. And since mobility meant more to Greene than mass, he did not shrink from the unorthodox strategy of dividing his force in the face of a stronger enemy. After all, a small army could run faster than a large one. He detached Morgan with about 600 men to prey upon British outposts in western South Carolina. Greene advanced with his remaining troops to the north-central part of the state, where he could support American guerrilla leaders.
Cornwallis saw that he had no opportunity for a classic campaign on “interior lines”—beating a divided enemy by overwhelming each force in turn with superior numbers. Morgan and Greene were 140 miles apart, and the British general reluctantly split his own army by sending Tartelon in pursuit of Morgan while he himself prepared to move against Greene.
Tarleton’s force numbered slightly more than 1,000 British regulars and American loyalists of equal merit. The stocky little Oxford graduate had made his name a legend of terror in the South. After surprising an American militia column on the South Carolina frontier, the victors gave “Tarleton’s quarter” with their sabers to those trying to surrender.
Dan Morgan also had a reputation to uphold. Commanding the famous regiment of riflemen in the early years of the Revolution, he was man enough at the age of forty to discipline those turbulent frontier characters with his own two fists. But now he commanded scared rustics instead of the tough riflemen of Saratoga.
On January 16, 1781, Morgan had reached the northwest corner of South Carolina when his scouts informed him that Tarleton was within a day’s march and pursuing at his usual hell-for-leather pace. Recent reinforcements had given the rebels nearly an equality in numbers, but the newcomers consisted of militiamen with little or no training. If Morgan continued to retreat, they would desert at every opportunity. And if he fought Tarleton, they would run. Morgan decided to fight.
Morgan impressed his officers as being confident to the point of recklessness in his choice of a battlefield. Other American generals had placed militiamen in positions where their fortitude would not be given too severe a test—in the second or third lines, or in some part of the field defended by natural obstacles. Above all, it was considered essential to keep open a line of retreat for the inevitable moment when the recruits would throw away their muskets and sprint to the rear.
Contrary to precedent, Morgan decided to make a stand in a comparatively level clearing, known as the Cowpens because it had once been a pasture for backwoods cattle. There were no natural obstacles to defend either front or flanks from the charge of Tarleton’s dragoons. And the unfordable Broad River in the rear cut off all retreat.
Further shocks awaited Morgan’s officers when he drew up his line of battle at dawn on the seventeenth, after the men had eaten a good breakfast around the campfires. The most undependable American troops made up the first line. And since it was certain that they would run, Morgan created a virtue out of a necessity by giving them permission to retire after firing three times.
“Three shots, boys, and you are free!” he exhorted, riding up and down the line. But he insisted that they make an orderly withdrawal around the American left and halt out of range of enemy musket balls.
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.
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.
For that matter, his own professional attainments were not impressive. He had been commissioned a militia general because he was a New York landed proprietor, not because he had demonstrated any grasp of tactics. But if he had never commanded in a battle, at least the former schoolmaster had read a good many books about battle. And somewhere along the way he had been fascinated by the saga of Cowpens.
The American squadron was at the other end of the lake, attacking Fort George, a British post of second-rate strategic value at the mouth of the Niagara River. Brown had been left with about 500 regulars, including a few marines and bluejackets, and nearly the same number of local militiamen.
At dawn on May 29 Sir George Prevost’s 800 regulars landed on wooded Horse Island, within easy wading distance of the mainland. Brown’s 500 militiamen were posted behind natural cover along the beach. He asked only that they fire while the redcoats were wading through the shallows. Then they were free to make for the nearby woods, where Brown hoped to rally them later as his mobile reserve.
The small harbor was formed by Navy Point, a tongue of land projecting from the mainland into Black River Bay. At the base of the peninsula, just north of the village and about half a mile from the beach, were the navy yard, the blockhouse named Fort Tompkins, the log barracks, and the parade ground. Two American vessels were potential enemy prizes—a captured 10-gun brig, and a nearly completed 28-gun ship designed to be the dreadnaught of the lake.
Brown’s militiamen made it hot for the redcoats before scattering. The grenadiers of the 104th, according to the British account, waded ashore under “so heavy and galling a fire from a numerous but almost invisible foe, as to render it impossible for the artillery to come up.”
While the militiamen found a refuge in the second-growth woods, Prevost’s troops re-formed on the beach. Advancing with a stately tread under fire from Fort Tompkins, the scarlet column deployed for battle against the 500 American regulars drawn up on the parade ground as the second line of defense. There a memorable fight ensued as the opposing lines traded volley after volley without giving an inch.
Both forces were hidden by gunpowder smoke when a nervous American naval officer concluded prematurely that the battle was lost. Setting fire to the navy yard and the two ships to cheat the enemy of spoils, he precipitated one of the most melodramatic scenes in the nation’s military annals. For Brown’s regulars continued to stand their ground with the British fire in their faces and the flames of the blazing warehouses at their backs.
Both casualty-ridden lines were near the breaking point when Prevost tried for victory with an attack on the American left flank. By this time Brown had managed to rally about a hundred militiamen—farmers and villagers led by the local butcher—after convincing them that it was safe to share in the glory already won by the regulars. They bore down with awkward zest on the British right flank just as the redcoats were carrying out their own flanking movement; at this critical stage it took only a threat by fresh forces to decide the issue, and the British broke and ran.
The redcoats were allowed to withdraw to Horse Island and row away in their longboats without any interference. Brown did not trust his mobile reserve for a pursuit. Besides, all hands were needed as firemen; and the two ships were saved, though the navy yard burned to the ground as the enemy sailed back to Kingston.
Brown was rewarded for his revival of the Cowpens tactics by an appointment as brigadier in the regular army. Early in 1814 he put up a second star after relieving the incompetent James Wilkinson as commander on the northern front. Colonel Winfield Scott being made a brigadier soon afterwards, the two generals trained the little American army which distinguished itself during the summer of 1814 in the battles of Chippewa and Lundy’s Lane. After the war Brown remained in the army and became commanding general from 1821 until his death in 1828.
Before long, of course, the Cowpens formula was outdated by improvements which multiplied the range of cannon and small arms. But after figuring in four decisive actions, the old battle piece had passed into honorable retirement with a record unique in American military history.