Of course, I couldn’t leave out the American Revolution, one of the seminal events in all of history. The problem is finding the decisive battle within the conflict.
Name: The Battle of Cowpens
The War: The American Revolutionary War
When: 17 January, 1781
Where: A few miles north of the village of Cowpens, South Carolina
Forces/Commanders: 1900 American troops (mostly militias with elements of the Continental Army, 180 cavalry) under Brigadier General Daniel Morgan against 1’150 British troops (300 cavalry) under Lt. Colonel Banastre Tarleton.
“Where is now the boasting Tarleton?”
-Colonel William Washington, towards the end of the battle.
“…the only general in the American Revolution, on either side, to produce a significant original tactical thought.”
-Historian John Buchanan, on Daniel Morgan.
“Seldom has a battle, in which greater numbers were not engaged, been so important in its consequences as that of Cowpens.”
-John Marshall, Supreme Court Justice and Washington biographer.
1780 was not the best time for the American Revolution. Pressed in all theatres, with their declared independence very much under threat, things were reaching a pivotal point.
That was especially true in the south, in the Carolina’s, north and south. Several disasters, such as the Siege of Charleston and the Battle of Camden, had done serious damage to the revolutionary cause there. Most of South Carolina was under British occupation, providing them an area from which to strike out against the rebels to the north. The string of Revolutionary defeats and ineffective commanders was allowing loyalist feeling to take over the area.
George Washington, playing his role as Commander-in-Chief from the north, placed Nathaniel Green in charge of the Southern Department of the war effort. Greene was a hardened veteran of the war having fought in nearly all of its major engagements up to that point, an extremely capable officer, but the task assigned to him seemed desperate: the southern forces at his disposal numbered less than 2’500 men. The vast majority of those were part-time militia troops, only 900 or so being members of the professional Continental army.
Facing a delicate strategic situation, in December 1780 Greene divided his force in two, sending 600 men west from his HQ in Charlotte, North Carolina to gather supplies and raise morale among the locals, before rejoining the main group at a later date. He put this group under the command of one Daniel Morgan, another veteran of numerous northern battles, with the additional orders of harassing any enemy he came across, though he was warned to avoid a direct confrontation.
The British in South Carolina, under the overall command of Lord Cornwallis, were preparing for an invasion of North Carolina, but the movement of Morgan’s group offered a puzzling predicament. Morgan offered a threat to the British left and Cornwallis feared, through some faulty intelligence, that the Americans aimed to attack the British fort at Ninety Six (a small settlement, named for its distance from a Cherokee town). In order to counteract this threat, Cornwallis ordered the British Legion, a famous mixed infantry/cavalry unit to seek out Morgan. The Legion was under the command of Lt Colonel Banastre Tarleton, a noted British officer who had achieved a rapid rise in fame from his actions in New Jersey, Charleston and Camden. Aside from his martial reputation, he was a hated figure for many Americans, due to association with the killing of surrendered revolutionaries at the Battle of Waxhaws.
The Legion marched to Ninety-Six in January and found it unthreatened. Tarleton, eager for battle, marched off to pursue Morgan anyway and drive him back north. He was soon reinforced by detachments from numerous other regiments, bringing his total force to around 1’150 men. He took his men on extensive and punishing marches in the pursuit, not helped by the winter weather.
Morgan was outmatched, and worried about possibility of being trapped by another force of British under Cornwallis, he retreated north. As he went, his force was bolstered by additional militia from the area, his numbers swelling to closer to 2’000 (most with little training). Coming to a large cattle grazing area, the Cowpens, Morgan faced a choice. He could stand and fight a risky battle, or he could continue his retreat and risk being caught while fording the nearby Broad River. Morgan choose to stand and made his plans accordingly. Learning of his enemies location, Tarleton moved quickly, putting his men on the march in the middle of the night. It was January 17th 1781.
Morgan’s plan aimed to take advantage of the terrain in order to confuse Tarleton. He placed his army in front of the Broad River, using the natural barrier to deflect any possible retreat from his force, especially the militia, who had a reputation for running at the first sign of combat.
The ground for the battle consisted of a moderately sized hill, with a ravine and creek on either side. Morgan picked the ground so he would not have to worry about his flanks. However, he also correctly predicted that the aggressive Tarleton would attack head on and prepared accordingly.
Morgan set up three lines, from the bottom of the hill up. The first, 150 men, consisted of a selection of skirmishers and sharpshooters from North Carolina and Georgia. The second, 300 strong, consisted of militia troops. Morgan ordered them to fire two volleys and retreat around the hill to the rear, where a reserve of cavalry under the command of William Washington (a cousin of George) waited. Morgan hoped their movement would confuse the British and mask the manoeuvres of the reserve.
He also hoped that the second line and their fire would mask the third, higher up on the hill. This line consisted of the Continental troops and the best, most experienced, of the militia that were left. The aim was to weaken and shock the British with the first two lines, draw them in with a misleading retreat, and then defeat them on the hill.
Tarleton had, as Morgan expected, a much more direct plan. Arriving that morning after two days of hard march, Tarleton assembled most of his infantry in linear formations, dragoons on either side to protect its flank. His aim was to hit the American centre dead on. He knew from scouts that most of the American force were militia, and his past experience told him that they would not stand and fight against a sustained push. He kept his own Legion cavalry and some Scottish infantry in reserve, already preparing to release them to complete his envisioned rout of the enemy, an enemy he saw as hopelessly trapped against the Broad River.
The battle began shortly after dawn with a brief attack from a squadron of British Dragoons on the first line of skirmishers, successfully driven back. Without any further observation, Tarleton ordered his infantry assault.
The skirmishers pulled back, melding into the second line of militia. As ordered, they fired two volleys, murderous fire, which stunned and confused the British with many of their casualties being officers. Tarleton pressed the advance, convinced that the Americans were close to defeat.
The second line withdrew to their left, circling around the hill. The withdrawal of the first two lines in this fashion was seen by the British as a signal that the Americans were close to routing, if not already. They continued their advance up the hill.
The fighting had lasted nearly an hour at this point, and the battle had reached its critical moment. Confused orders saw elements of the Americans on the hill began a withdrawal, leading to a confused and chaotic pursuit from the British forces. This was undone by the sudden about face of the Americans, pouring musket fire into their pursuers, followed by a bayonet charge.
The effect was electric. The exhausted British were stunned by the sudden assault and were thrown back by the Continental troops, who quickly seized the small cannon the enemy had brought to the battlefield. At this point, Morgan committed his reserve as Washington and his cavalry hit the British right, while the militia that had withdrawn earlier, completed its circle, coming back to hit the British left on the other side of the hill.
The double envelopment shattered the British forces. Most surrendered or simply lay down in the face of the onslaught. With his army disintegrated, and the cavalry of his Legion refusing to fight, Tarleton attempted to retrieve the situation, launching a desperate attempt to win back his cannon with 40 cavalrymen he was able to round up. The attempt failed, and Tarleton was nearly killed by Washington himself who blocked his retreat. Tarleton shot the American’s horse out from under him and escaped.
It was a little after 8 AM, and the Americans had won an immense victory.
Why It’s Decisive – Effect On That War
712 British had surrendered at Cowpens, and they constituted some of the best of the Crowns forces on the continent. 86% of the redcoats that had marched under Tarleton’s command did not march back. Morgan probably lost around 130 men, the records being somewhat hazy.
Having lost a huge fraction of his fighting force, Cornwallis was forced to alter his plans. The morale war had turned decisively in favour of the Americans, and loyalist sentiment dried up in the Carolinas. Unwilling to wait it out and continue his pacification efforts, he went after Greene’s army in the north directly, sooner than he would have liked. The result was the Battle of Guildford Courthouse, a fight that was a British victory, but one in where the casualties suffered were so great that it might as well have been a defeat.
Forced to withdraw and refit, he was quickly trapped in Yorktown, the final major engagement of the war. Cornwallis surrendered, and American independence was assured.
Nathaniel Greene retired to his Georgia estate, dying in 1786. Morgan served again during the Whiskey rebellion, and served a term as a US Representative, dying in 1801. Tarleton, despite his humiliation, served as an MP for Liverpool and was eventually promoted to the rank of General, passing in 1833.
Cowpens was a masterpiece of tactics. Morgan’s double development has often been compared to that of Cannae, where Hannibal wiped out a huge amount of Romans – the numbers were smaller at Cowpens, but the effect was the same. The final attack was a killer blow, and started a chain reaction of events that led to Yorktown.
Morgan successfully analysed the likely movements of his opponent, exploiting Tarleton’s weaknesses, and was able to understand the strengths and limitations of his own men. Tarleton, for his part, did everything wrong from start to finish, letting slip an opportunity to give the revolution a blow it would have had a great deal of trouble recovering from. His forced marching, his uninspired plan of attack, his inability to see what was really going on, it all combined to create a British defeat.
Cowpens began the road to Yorktown, and it came at a pivotal moment in the entire war.
If Tarleton had been able to destroy Morgan’s force, perhaps by focusing more on the enemy flank, or by being more cautious in his front attack, the effect would have been huge. Trapped by the Broad River, most of his force would probably have been neutralised.
That would have been a huge proportion of Revolutionary forces in the area. Free to continue the pacification of South Carolina, Cornwallis would have had ample time to prepare for his invasion of the north. There is every likelihood that such an invasion would have succeeded against Greene’s weakened army.
Of course, there was still the matter of the main continental army to the north, the French intervention, and the ocean separating the colonies from Britain, but the nature of the war and its probable outcome would have been vastly different. American morale would have been at a very low ebb, loyalist sympathies would have been on the rise everywhere, and the financial situation of the rebels would have been grim, only saved in reality by the victory at Yorktown. The American Revolution was consistently touch and go for its duration. Defeat at Cowpens could easily have been a starting point for its eventual downfall. It should go without saying that even a delay in the American independence movement would have had far reaching consequences for the world.
In National Consciousness
The area of the fighting is today a national battlefield, a protected historical site. It is actually north of the town of Cowpens, which largely sprung up after the battle. It contains a museum, and regularly hosts re-enactments.
Two ships of the US Navy, a light aircraft carrier during the Second World War and an active service missile cruiser, take their name from the battle.
The climactic scene of the 2000 film The Patriot features a battle that is a combination of Cowpens and Guildford Courthouse. It follows the manoeuvres of the real battle fairly accurately, though it depicts Cornwallis being present, and the British coming close to winning. The films main villain, a sneering British officer, is based partly on Tarleton. Tarleton was also portrayed on screen in the 2006 film Amazing Grace, which depicts his Parliament days as a pro-slavery MP.
The battle is also the focus of the film Sweet Liberty, an Alan Alda project about an historian of the clash seeing a movie adaptation dramatically alter the story of Cowpens.
A statue of Morgan was erected on the centenary of the battle in Spartenbug, South Carolina. A suggestion that the generals body should be buried at Cowpens was famously rejected by local historical societies.
Cowpens led to American independence, and is worthy of inclusion here for that.
For more of NFBs Decisive Battles check out the index here.