The Battle of Cowpens
Brigadier General Daniel Morgan, who would soon engineer one of the most astounding victories of the American Revolution, was running. The day was January 16th, 1781, and Morgan’s small army marched in full retreat. His men, most of whom were veterans, bitched and moaned as they tramped the muddy trails north. Many muttered unflattering remarks, calling the forty-five year old wagon master—veteran of Saratoga, and a frontiersman who had fought many an Indian—a coward.
The troops saw little point in the marching. If Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton, the commander of the 1,100-man British contingent to their rear, wanted to have at them, then why not turn and fight? Morgan, however, knew his army, and he knew what it was capable of. With him rode or marched approximately 1,000 men. Most of them were militia. There were contingents from South Carolina, North Carolina, and Georgia. Certainly there were Virginians too, a pair of companies under captains Triplett and Tate. But almost to a man these Virginians were former regulars, mustered into the militia, and Morgan considered these men closer to the fighting trim of his Continentals than militia.
In addition to the militia, the small American army boasted a regiment of Maryland Continentals, and a company of the white-clad regulars from Delaware. Both of these contingents were tough, well-trained men, able to give the British as good as they got. Additionally, William Washington’s small regiment of dragoons acted as the army’s scouts and guardians of the flank.
Morgan didn’t turn on the 16th because he wanted to fight on ground that favored his troops, ground that gave his militia every advantage. That evening he found such ground, a cleared field used to muster cattle, gather families, and hold fairs. It was called Hannah’s Cowpens.
Behind Morgan and his 1,000 soldiers trod Tarleton’s force. Two hundred soldiers from the71st Regiment of Foot marched resolutely along the mucky road, the mud spattering their khaki trousers, their plumed hats and red jackets soaked in the rain. Behind them strode an equal number of men from the 7th Regiment of Foot, glad to be wearing tricorne hats, which funneled the rain away from their faces. The green-coated infantry of the British Legion, and Tarleton’s two artillery pieces, brought up the rear. Ranging ahead and guarding the flanks were the 17th Light Dragoons and the mounted element of the British Legion. All told, Tarleton commanded approximately 1,100 soldiers. Where Morgan’s troops were mostly militia, Tarleton’s were almost all regulars, the great majority of whom were veterans of the northern battles.
Those British veterans were armed with the Brown Bess musket and its fearsome, 17” bayonet. Cavalry and dragoons (mounted infantry) fought with sabers, a shortened version of the same Brown Bess, and pistols. The Continentals also wielded either the Brown Bess or the French Charleville musket, but the militia armed themselves with everything from ancient matchlock muskets to deadly, long-range rifles, a weapon that would prove to be a critical element of the American’s victory.
The two commanders were as different as night and day. Morgan was tough. As a young man he was prone to fisticuffs, and he had spent many a day as a wagoner. What education he had was informal, and provided by his wife, Abigail Curry. At the start of the war, Morgan received a commission, raised a company of Virginia riflemen, and reported to General George Washington. Assigned to General Horatio Gates at Saratoga, Morgan and his riflemen fought well at Freeman’s Farm and Bemis Heights. Afterwards, Morgan was passed over for brigadier general and, feeling slighted, retired to civilian life. But at the insistence of Nathanael Greene, and with a new commission promoting him to brigadier general, Daniel Morgan rejoined the fight.
On the other hand, Tarleton was the son of a wealthy, Liverpool merchant. He was handsome, a ladies’ man, and well educated at Oxford. He arrived in America in 1775 and quickly established a reputation as an aggressive and ruthless commander, rapidly rising to the rank of brigade major while fighting in the northern campaigns. When the British turned south in 1780, Tarleton was given command of the British cavalry attached to Lord Cornwallis’s army.
On the night of January 16th the rain stopped, Morgan’s army camped at the Cowpens, and the troops ate well. Morgan wandered from campfire to campfire, speaking with his men, extolling the militia to “give them (the British) three rounds and you’re free.” Morgan directed the company commanders to ensure each man had 24 rounds and the powder to fire them. Many eyewitnesses claim that Morgan slept not a wink, but his men were well fed and rested.
By contrast the British rose at 3 AM on January 17th, broke camp, and began marching. Captured rebels and British scouts informed Tarleton that Daniel Morgan and his small army were indeed making a stand, and after a march of five miles the British arrived on the edge of the Cowpens’ clearing. They were tired. Certainly not exhausted—they were professional soldiers, and five miles doesn’t exhaust their like—but certainly more tired than the rebels they faced.
Morgan arrayed his troops in three lines. In the first, or most southern, line stood the North Carolina and Georgia militia, while soldiers from North and South Carolina composed the second line. Colonel Andrew Pickens commanded all these men, and the woodsmen were asked to give three volleys at a killing range (approximately 30 yards for muskets), and then retire. About 150 yards in front of these two, closely spaced lines were pickets armed with long rifles. The long rifles would prove important in the battle. Not only were the skirmishers armed with them, but also many of the militia behind. The rifle’s rate of fire was slower than a musket, but it could accurately engage a man-sized target at up to ten times the range—perfect for picking off British officers.
The final, or main, line stood about 150 yards northwest of the Carolina militiamen. This line formed the backbone of the army. In it stood the Continentals from Maryland and Delaware, as well as the top-notch Virginia militia. One company of the Virginians were riflemen, and on their flank stood a small detachment of Georgians. Colonel John Howard, of the Maryland regiment led the line.
The American lines formed on a slight hill, with the first line at the bottom, and the main line at the crest. Behind the crest the ground dipped before rising slightly to form a second hill. Behind this second hill waited Morgan’s reserve, Washington’s dragoons.
Tarleton’s men arrived shortly before 7AM, and he immediately threw the Legion’s dragoons at the American skirmishers. The horses thundered across the field and the militia’s long rifles flamed, killing or wounding several of the green-jacketed horsemen. Undaunted, the British swooped down on the remaining skirmishers and drove them back to the American lines.
With the skirmishers cleared, Tarleton formed his attack. On the left he sent the 7th Foot, to their right the Legion infantry and beside them a company of light infantry from the 16th Regiment. Standing on their right, dismounted, were the men of the 17th Light Dragoons. On each flank a company of Legion cavalry formed, their horses stamping impatiently in the morning chill. Tarleton kept the battalion of the 71st Foot and the rest of the Legion cavalry as a reserve, immediately behind this line. In the center he ordered his artillery, two light cannon, to open fire on the rebel positions. At a little after 7 AM the British stepped off.
The British cheered as they advanced, prompting Morgan to ride among his men, encouraging them to respond. Respond they did, raising their voices in blood-curdling Indian war whoops. Within minutes the Redcoats drew within range of the rifle-armed men and they began firing. “Shoot the epaulets!” the American leaders called, “Kill their officers.”
As the British line drew near the first line of militia the Americans delivered what Morgan would later call “a heavy and galling fire,” staggering the British. The British returned the volley, and once again the militia responded with a volley, somewhat less heavy than the first. The King’s men continued to advance and the North Carolinians and Georgians retreated before them. The southerners maintained good discipline, however, not blindly running into the forest, but firing, retreating, and firing yet again. Half of the men reformed on Colonel Pickens’ second line, while the others retreated to the far side of the hill on which the Continentals stood.
The Americans in the second line waited nervously for their chance; many were veterans, some were not. By now the battlefield was thick with musket smoke, the swirling clouds pierced by the shrieks of the wounded and the shouts of the British officers. Morgan galloped down the American line, “Hold your fire! Hold your fire!” The call was taken up by the Colonel Pickens and the militia captains as they tried to stay the trigger-happy farmers and woodsmen under their command.
Then, stepping from smoke came the British, the weak sun glinting off their bayonets. At 40 yards the militia fired, the musket’s one-ounce balls slapping into skin and bone. For several minutes the two lines exchanged fire, both taking casualties, but the British taking more. Then, with a lusty cheer, the British charged, their bayonets ready. For some of Morgan’s militia the sight was too much, and they broke and ran. The other militiamen didn’t quite run, but by Pickens’s own account they retreated with “great haste” to the third and final line.
Those that ran drew the attention of Captain Ogilvie, who led the dragoons screening the British army’s right flank. Ogilvie and his dragoons charged, and they were soon among the disorganized militia, hacking with their swords but causing little damage. William Washington, in charge of Morgan’s cavalry reserve, saw the Greencoats charge, and thinking quickly, Washington led a countercharge that routed Ogilvie and his dragoons.
Although the dragoons were routed, the battle was far from over. Tarleton’s men had broken two American lines and now approached the third. Tarleton ordered the 71st Foot, half of his reserve, to form on the left of his line. They did so with drill-field precision, lengthening the British line so that it now overlapped the American’s right flank. Once again the British line advanced. The American Continentals kept up a slow and steady fire, aiming as always at the epaulets. Colonel Howard, seeing the danger to his right flank, rode to the Virginians anchoring the line and ordered them to turn and face the approaching Highlanders of the 71st Foot.
Amidst the chaos, the smoke, and the confusion, the Virginians misunderstood the order and began to retreat. Seeing the Virginian’s movement, the Maryland and Delaware soldiers assumed the order had been given to fall back and began moving to the rear. Morgan, sensing disaster, rode to Howard.
“Have you been bested?” he queried the Marylander.
“Why, no sir,” Howard answered.
“Then form your men on me, about face, and fire.”
Morgan rode down the back of the ridge, through the tiny depression, and onto the slope of the next hill. It was no more than 50 yards, but it gave the Continentals the space they needed to regroup. Quickly the American veterans reformed on their commander. Following close behind, the British broke rank, sensing victory, preparing to charge. The Continentals formed, faced, and as the British lowered their bayonets, cut into them with a devastating volley. The Redcoats staggered, and the Continentals charged, meeting British steel with steel.
Almost simultaneously, William Washington, who had been observing from where his dragoons had routed the Legion cavalry, ordered a charge. The Yank horsemen tore into the reeling British as Pickens’s recently rallied militia came at the Redcoats from the opposite flank. The British were surrounded, exhausted from hard marching and harder fighting, and their officer corps had been depleted by the sniping of the long rifles. In a moment Tarleton’s men transformed from proud army to defeated mob.
At first Morgan’s men slaughtered the surrendering British, but the officers quickly took control, granting the British quarter. Tarleton would attempt a counter-charge with a portion of his cavalry reserve, and the crews of the two light cannon fought valiantly until overwhelmed, but for all intents and purposes the battle was over.
The fight took an hour. Morgan’s plan worked perfectly, the militia, especially those armed with rifles, attriting the British so that the Continentals could decide the battle. Morgan lost 12 killed and 60 wounded; the British lost 110 and 702 were captured. Tarleton escaped with a small contingent of his Legion cavalry. To many historians Cowpens was the greatest American victory of the war.
This is the second of four articles about Southern battles of the American Revolution written exclusively for ArmchairGeneral.com by Mark H. Walker. Click here to read Guilford Courthouse, Camden and Kings Mountain.
About the Author
Mark H. Walker is a former US Naval Officer, the author of 41 nonfiction books and three novels. He is a games editor for Armchair General magazine. He founded the award-winning game company Lock ‘n’ Load Publishing; among its publications is Flintlock, Black Powder, Cold Steel—Vol. 1: Carolina Rebels, reviewed by ArmchairGeneral.com in October 2009.