America’s Most Imitated Battle

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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.