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Little known battles of American History – Cowpens

March 30, 2011

To be fair, my title is not exactly accurate, the Battle of Cowpens, January 17, 1781 South Carolina, is considered one of the greatest tactical victories in American Military history, but most Americans have never heard of it so, let me treat you to what happened on that day.

The General

General Daniel Morgan

To understand any successful military adventure, one must first get a sense of the man who developed the battle plan.  In the case of Cowpens, the commander of American forces was General Daniel Morgan.

Daniel Morgan was the epitome of what one today would think of a frontiersman – large, a heavy drinker and a gambler – besides his size, not characteristics one would associate with a great battlefield commander.  He grew up in New Jersey, where he lived with his family until the age of 16, when after getting into an argument with his father, he left never to return.  Owing to his private nature, no answer is known as to the nature of the dispute that led to his life-long estrangement to his family, but the subsequent life in solitude suited his nature perfectly.

After a little time in Pennsylvania, he finally settled in Winchester, Va, then considered on the frontier.  On the outskirts of the fledgling colonies, Morgan worked to buy his own team to work as teamster, eventually finding employ with the British during the French and Indian War.  During this time, an event with the British helped shape his life.

During the advance on Fort Pitt, Morgan found occasion to strike a British officer, not sure what the provocation was, but Morgan’s nature did not lend itself to overlooking slights.  As punishment, Morgan was sentenced to 499 lashes.  To any normal human, this would be the equivalent of a death sentence, but somehow Morgan lived through this ordeal, every strike of the whip solidifying his nascent hatred for the British Empire.

As a frontiersman, Morgan acquired abilities that later made him perfectly suited to the style of combat his superiors asked of him during the Revolutionary War, specifically, guerilla combat.

His first true command in the Revolutionary War came when he was given command of the 11th Virginia Regiment.  A Continental Line unit that was later supported by rifleman from the neighboring colonies of Pennsylvania and Maryland.

The riflemen are important to note here.  During the Revolutionary War, the standard weapon was the musket, a fast loading (relatively speaking) gun with little to no accuracy.  You basically aimed it by firing in the general direction of what you wanted to hit.  This weapon was perfectly suited to the ill-trained and amateur nature of the Continental Army (and most Armies of the World) where the most important trait of a good soldier was his ability to reload quickly and the ability to take incoming musket fire without breaking ranks.

Conversely, a riflemen used a completely different type of gun, a rifled gun specifically.  The long rifles of the Revolutionary War were lower caliber (.45) than their musket brothers (.75) and slower loading, but they more than made up for those deficiencies with their accuracy.  Unlike a musket, which couldn’t hit anything you aimed at, a rifle could accurately hit a man-sized target out to 200 yards, pretty impressive.  Considering standard combat at that time predicated closing with and engaging with the enemy at ranges of less than 50 yards, a rifleman sniping targets from literally “no where” was demoralizing to say the least.

Final note, riflemen were not typically used in line formations like musketeers were.  They were employed as guerilla fighters and snipers, tactics that Daniel Morgan employed to great effect in his first battle as a commander, Saratoga.

I will not speak much about Saratoga, except that we won, forcing a British surrender, and that Morgan’s defense of the left flank of our defenses and additional multi-week sniper hassling of the British lines were great contributors to the victory.

Following these successes, and the British sending a force to harass the Southern colonies, now General Morgan was assigned to General Nathaniel Greene’s command to head South and do what they can against the marauding redcoats.

Morgan’s strategy in the South was brilliant to say the least.  Using his “flying army” of rifleman and Continental soldiers, Morgan harassed British General Cornwallis’ army at every chance.  Over time, this tactic worked to provoke Cornwallis’ cavalry commander, Lt. Colonel Banistre Tarleton, and his Tarleton Legion into a direct conflict.  The value of this harassing can not be discredited.  By always staying just out of reach of the British, while subsequently gaining strength by recruiting militiamen as Morgan’s unit traveled around the South and also removing all supplies along the way, Morgan confounded the British, grew his force and weakened the British every step of the way.  It is no wonder Tarleton disobeyed orders in deciding to engage Morgan.

The Battle

Like all good commanders, Morgan was an astute observer of men.  He understood his men’s strengths as well as their weaknesses.  One of those weaknesses was in regards to the militiamen he assembled prior to this battle.

Militiamen were patriotic, hardworking men who left their homes and farms to fight for a concept not yet realized, but, they were untrained soldiers not accustomed to the hell and anarchy of combat.  Morgan understood this.  He knew that if he pitted his militias face-to-face with the seasoned British regulars, they would be forced to retreat.  Knowing this, he decided to turn this weakness into a strength.

Let’s first look at how the forces were arrayed on the morning of the battle.

Ignore most of what you see in this diagram, focus primarily on the lines of blue labeled “sharpshooters”, “militia” and “Continentals”.  The sharpshooters up front is a standard tactic, they are usually referred to as “skirmishers”, whose job is to fire at the assaulting troops with hopes of weakening their resolve and inflicting at least some casualties, but they were not a significant force.  After their job was complete, and before the British could close within range to return fire, they were to withdraw to the next line labeled “militia”.

The militia line is the brilliant stroke of this battle.  First, let’s understand the terrain, specifically as to how it applies to this line.  The diagram does not properly display this, but the militia were arrayed on the reverse slope of a hill that would be between the militia and sharpshooters line.  Typically, a commander would put his soldiers at the top of a hill, not down the other slope, with the understanding that the height gives a tactical as well as psychological advantage to the defender.  But Morgan truly shows his genius in his contradiction of military SOP.

Morgan, being a rifleman who was intimately familiar with guns and shooting, understood that musketeers who were shooting from an elevated position typically aimed high, with the result that most of the fire was above the heads of their targets.  Conversely, a musketeer aiming up a hill, would most likely aim lower, thus bringing his fire directly at the proper level to hit a man-sized target.  Additionally, the British, who were also tired from assaulting up a hill, now found themselves in an elevated position, thus their fire would tend to be too high, reducing casualties inflicted on Morgan’s men.  Very brilliant indeed.

But that was not the master stroke of Morgan’s battle plan.  Remember, Morgan knew his militia would most definitely break ranks and retreat under concentrated fire from professional soldiers such as the British fielded.  Instead of crossing his fingers and hoping for the best, Morgan turned this weakness into a tactic.  He told his militiamen, give me two shots, that’s all I need, then I want you to withdraw to the Continental line.  Imagine the genius in that, instead of entrusting his militia with holding the line against a superior force, with the subsequent retreat that would have hurt morale for all American troops involved, he told them to withdraw – in so doing they could disengage with their honor and bravery intact, capable of staying in the battle.  We will later see this foresight was genius.

So as the militia disengages, the British now have to cross an open field to engage the Continentals, a force that was going to stay and fight – they were more professional than the militia and were more seasoned to the onslaught of professionally fired musket volleys.

Murphy’s law states, “No battle plan survives contact with the enemy”.  And in this battle, it would hold true, but how a commander deals with unforeseen problems on the battlefield also speak to their greatness, or ineptness, as Generals.  Let’s just say Daniel Morgan passed this test of the gods of war.

If you look at the diagram above, you see originating out of the British lines, an arrow pointing to the right side of the Continental line (left as you look at the diagram).  This was a flanking maneuver by British infantry that almost proved disastrous for the Americans.  The Commander in charge of the Continental line was John Eager Howard, seeing this unit maneuvering to “roll up his flank” he ordered the right most company (again, left as you look at the diagram) to turn to face the incoming British.  With a nod to Murphy’s law, his order was confused.  Understand, there were no radios on the battlefield, or telephones or any other standards of communication we consider commonplace nowadays, there were drums and yelling.  Considering the cannons and musket fire, not to mention the moans and screams of the wounded and dying, is it any wonder anyone could give an order during combat?

Instead of turning to face the British, this company of troops turned completely around and began marching off the field.  It is important to note I said “marching”, they were not running in sheer terror trying to save their lives, they were a disciplined force of troops believing they were following an order.  As is often the case in combat, when one unit does something, the other units assume they must have missed an order, so the other companies along the line began an orderly withdrawal as well.

In combat in those days, if you saw the backs of your enemy, it meant you broke them, and it was time to pounce and finish them off – it is sheer folly to allow a force to leave the field of battle in a retreat without giving chase – most casualties in combat in that day and throughout most of history were attributable to the massacres following the routing of an enemy from the field.  But, the Continentals were not routed, just confused.  If the British would have noticed this, they might have prevented their fate.

But the British were not without their own casualties, including up to 40% of their officers and sergeants.  The British troops were only fulfilling the destiny of all British troops on the battlefield since time immemorial, forcing the enemy to flee and following that success up with a massacre.  Without orders to do so, they charged the withdrawing Continentals.

Morgan, seeing this change in the battle plan, rushed to the Continental commander, John Eager Howard, and asked, “Are your men done?”  Howard replied, in fantastic fashion I might add, “Do those look like men who are retreating?”  Morgan concurred.  Observing the field as it now laid, Morgan chose a spot about 15 yards further than where the American troops were heading and ordered the Continentals to stop and fire a volley.  They did so in perfect unison, with incredible devastation to the onrushing British who at this point were less than 30 yards from the American line.

This volley stopped the British in their tracks.  Howard, sensing the confusion in the British, then ordered a bayonet charge against the redcoats.

Please look at the above diagram again, and follow the path of the “militia” all the way to its conclusion.  Remember the importance of Morgan allowing his militia to withdraw in an orderly manner with their honor intact?  This is where that master-stroke paid off.  The British line now being broke by the bayonet charge of the Continentals, the redcoats were in understandable disarray, but they were professionals who do not get beaten easily.  The militia, along with Morgan’s cavalry, who represent the right most line on the diagram (left in the actual battle) sealed the deal.  They executed what in military terms is called a “double envelopment” – basically, flanking both sides of an enemy force, resulting in a full circle allowing no opportunity for the enemy to retreat.

Despite what movies want us to think, most soldiers do not embrace the concept of “fighting to the death”.  The British promptly surrendered following this encirclement.  Of the few British who escaped, most notable was Lt. Colonel Tarleton.  But this loss and surrender did not bode well for him when he made his way back to Cornwallis.

Total battlefield casualties were:

American – 128 wounded and killed, couldn’t find specifics for each category (the numbers vary, I chose the largest just to be safe)

British – 110 killed, 200 wounded, 712 captured


Trumbull's Surrender at Yorktown

Following the many losses of the Americans during the Southern campaign, and the understandable thoughts of invincibility surrounding Cornwallis’ Army, the Battle of Cowpens gave a much-needed boost to American morale.  Cornwallis’ army did not ever again repeat its successes prior to this battle, with his final failure coming at Yorktown, Virginia later in that year.

Unfortunately, the toils of war were finally too much for the hearty Daniel Morgan.  Following Cowpens, he asked for, and received, a medical leave to recuperate.  During this time off, Morgan missed out on the surrender of the British at Yorktown, a surrender very much attributable to Morgan’s battlefield successes.

With a man of Morgan’s great successes in battle, one would not think he would have many regrets, such was not the case.  His greatest regret was never having served directly with George Washington during the war.  If I know George Washington, he was much more regretful never having served alongside a great man such as Daniel Morgan.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. bunkerville permalink
    March 30, 2011 12:31 pm

    I believe it was the History Channel that did a program on this not so long ago. It was a super reenactment. The idea of just two shots and then they were done was brilliant. The program did not have as much detail on Morgan, so an interesting read from you.

    • March 30, 2011 12:35 pm

      I can’t lie, I got inspiration from this from the Military History Channel who did a recent piece on Daniel Morgan.

      Thanks. =)

  2. March 30, 2011 4:29 pm

    I really enjoyed your atrticle. Thak you for writing it.

  3. March 30, 2011 6:43 pm

    I didn’t realize the battle of Cowpens was from the Revolutionary War, I always thought it was from the War between the States. Goes to show, huh? And it’s only about an hour up the road from my house. Drove by it several times, but never stopped. I’ll have to rectify that.


    • March 30, 2011 7:12 pm

      I thought the same thing about the Battle of Mobile Bay, where Farrugut exclaimed his famous “Damn the torpedoes!” For the longest time I thought it was during the War of 1812, not 50 years later during the Civil War. Considering Farrugut was only 11 at the time of the first war, I obviously was a tad ill-informed, lol.

      But, in your defense, Cowpens just sounds like a Civil War battlefield.

      You should rectify that. We in the Mid-Atlantic are afforded so much history right on our door-steps. I am shamed to admit I have never gone to Petersburg Battlefield Park and visited the sight of “The Crater”, a most amazing feat of battlefield engineering. Considering I live in Richmond, only about 30 minutes from Petersburg, I truly have no excuse. Hmm, might make a good blog post too. =)

  4. March 30, 2011 7:56 pm

    Great post! I love reading history and I have to admit that I never heard of this battle so I found this post to be very interesting. I hope to catch that special on the History Channel in the future.

    • March 30, 2011 8:08 pm

      Thank you. =)

      Yeah, most of the focus in history has been to the campaigns in the North, Saratoga, Ticonderoga, Princeton, New York; the Southern campaign was really a bunch of losses until Cowpens, and of course, the ultimate battle at Yorktown. This battle is interesting because of the genius of the commanding General. I always marvel at how good many of Washington’s (and Washington himself) generals were during the Revolutionary War. Considering most of them had no training, nor combat or command experience, the fact that they could lead troops the way they did, and formulate such brilliant battle-plans is just amazing.

  5. March 30, 2011 9:35 pm

    That’s a great history lesson. Thanks for publishing.

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