|Battle of Cowpens by William Ranney (1845)|
The British made early efforts in the South that were unsuccessful, culminating in the failed naval expedition to take Charleston in 1776. British failures boosted Colonial morale.
With stalemate in the North, British strategists decided in 1779-80 to look south again, to assist Southern Loyalists and help them regain control of colonial governments. The idea was that they would then return north with new forces to crush the rebellion.
The British expected many in the South would rally to the Crown. British redcoats came South in strength and swiftly captured Savannah, Georgia, then Charleston and Camden in South Carolina. They defeated and captured much of the Southern Continental Army, creating confidence the British would soon control the entire South, and Loyalists would then flock to their cause.
However, the backcountry was another matter. A civil war was under way as the colonial population split between Patriot and Loyalist, pitting neighbor against neighbor. Both sides organized militia, often engaging each other and devastating the countryside.
General George Washington sent Nathanael Greene to take command of the Southern Colonial army. Two weeks into his command, Greene split his army in two, sending half of it under General Daniel Morgan to go southwest of the Catawba River to cut supply lines and hamper British operations.
General Cornwallis, British commander in the South, countered Greene’s move by sending notorious Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton to block Morgan’s actions. Tarleton was only 26, but was hated for his victory at the Waxhaws, where he killed remnants of the Continental Army trying to surrender. This led to the battle cry of "Tarleton’s Quarter" - meaning no quarter at all.
On January 12, 1781, Tarleton’s scouts located Morgan’s army at Grindal’s Shoals on the Pacolet River in South Carolina’s backcountry and began an aggressive pursuit. As Tarleton gained ground, Morgan retreated north to Burr’s Mill on Thicketty Creek. On January 16, with Tarleton much closer than expected, Morgan and his army retreated quickly, leaving their breakfast behind, going west on the Green River Road. Morgan decided to make a stand at the Cowpens, a well-known crossroads and frontier pasturing ground.
The “cowpens” field was about 500 yards long and wide, a park-like setting. Morgan had spread the word for militia units to rendezvous at the Cowpens. Some were "Overmountain" men who had camped at the Cowpens on their journey to the Battle of Kings Mountain. Through the night Andrew Pickens’ militia drifted into camp. Morgan moved among the campfires and offered encouragement; his speeches to militia and Continentals alike were command performances. He spoke emotionally of past battles, talked of the battle plan, and lashed out against the British. His words were especially effective with the militia. He knew how to motivate them, proposing a competition of bravery between Georgia and Carolina units.
By the end, one soldier observed that the army was “in good spirits and very willing to fight”. But Morgan hardly slept a wink. Dawn at the Cowpens on January 17, 1781 was bitterly cold but clear. When Morgan got word from his scouts of Tarleton’s approach, he moved among his men, shouting, “Boys, get up! Benny’s coming!
Tarleton was confident of victory, figuring he had Morgan hemmed in by water. The park-like terrain was ideal for his dragoons. Tarleton pressed the attack head on, his line extending across the meadow, his artillery in the middle, and fifty Dragoons on each side.
Morgan organized his troops into three lines. First, out front and hiding behind trees were selected sharpshooters. At the onset of battle they picked off about 15 of Tarleton’s Dragoons, shooting especially at officers, and warding off an attempt to gain initial supremacy. With Dragoons in retreat, the sharpshooters retreated 150 yards or more back to join the second line, the militia commanded by Andrew Pickens. Morgan used the militia well, asking them to get off two volleys and then retreating to the third line made up of John Eager Howard’s Continentals, another 150 yards back. Some of the militia indeed got off two volleys as the British neared, but then retreated to supposed safety behind the Continental line.
Tarleton sent his Dragoons after them. Then William Washington’s Patriot cavalry thundered onto the field of battle, seemingly out of nowhere. The surprised Dragoons scattered and were overwhelmed. They lost another 18 men in the clash. As they fled the field, the British advanced in a trot, with beating drums, the shrill sounds of fifes, and shouts of halloo.
Morgan, in response cheered his men on, and asked give them the Indian halloo back. Riding to the front, he rallied the militia, crying out, “form, form, my brave fellows! Old Morgan was never beaten!”
Tarleton’s 71st Highlanders, held in reserve, entered the charge toward the Continental line, the wild wail of bagpipes adding to the noise and confusion. An order by Patriot John Eager Howard for the right flank to face slightly right to counter a charge from that direction, was, in the noise of battle, misunderstood as a call to retreat. As other companies along the line followed, Morgan rode up to ask Howard if he were beaten. Howard pointed to the unbroken ranks and the orderly retreat and assured him they were not,
Morgan then spurred his horse on and ordered the retreating units to face about, and then, on order, fire in unison. The firing took a heavy toll on the British, who, by that time had sensed victory and had broken ranks in a wild charge. This event and a fierce Patriot bayonet charge in return broke the British charge and turned the tide of battle. The re-formed militia and cavalry re-entered the battle, leading to double envelopment of the British, perfectly timed. British infantry began surrendering en masse.
Tarleton and some of his army fought valiantly on; others refused his orders and fled the field. Finally, Tarleton, himself, saw the futility of continued battle, and with a handful of his men, fled back down the Green River Road.
In a dramatic moment, William Washington raced ahead of his cavalry and dueled hand-to-hand with Tarleton and two of his officers. Washington’s life was saved only when his young bugler fired his pistol at an Englishman with raised saber.
Tarleton and his remaining forces galloped away to Cornwallis’s camp. Stragglers from the battle were overtaken, but Tarleton escaped to tell the awful news to Cornwallis. The battle was over in an hour. It was a complete victory for the Patriot force. British losses were staggering: 110 dead, over 200 wounded and 500 captured. Morgan lost only 12 killed and 60 wounded, a count he received from those reporting directly to him.
Morgan buried the dead and headed north with his army. Crossing the Broad at Island Ford , he proceeded to Gilbert Town, and, yet burdened as he was by the prisoners, pressed swiftly northeastward toward the Catawba River, and some amount of safety. The prisoners were taken via Salisbury on to Winchester, Virginia. Morgan and Greene reunited and conferred. Morgan wanted to seek protection in the mountains and Greene wanted to march north to Virginia for supplies. Greene won, since he was in command. Morgan retired from his duty soon after, because of ill health.
Greene and his army headed north. Cornwallis, distressed by the news from Cowpens, came after him. Cornwallis was delayed by Patriot units at Catawba River crossings. Greene won the race, and believed he had Cornwallis where he wanted — far from urban supply centers and short of food. Returning to Guilford Courthouse, he fought Cornwallis’s army using Morgan’s tactics at Cowpens. At battle’s end, the British technically won the field as Greene’s forces retreated.
But if it was a victory, it was Pyrrhic, which 500 British dead or wounded. A member of the House of Commons later said, “Another such victory would ruin the British army”. Perhaps the British army was already ruined. Cornwallis and his weary army gave up on the Carolinas and moved on to Virginia. On October 18, 1781, it surrendered at Yorktown. (Thanks to Today in U.S. Military History website for the story from which the above has been excerpted and abbreviated.)