On a cold January morning 234 years ago, one of the most stunning events in American military history took place in a cattle pasture. Cowpens, South Carolina, was an overwhelming American victory, at a time when one was desperately needed.
What went so well? General Daniel Morgan understood the limitations and strengths of his troops, as well as those of his opponents. He used that to his advantage, along with a keen eye for terrain and a good understanding of the strategic satiation.
The regular armies of the Revolution used muskets, with an accurate range of about 100 yards, while militia often used hunting rifles. These frontier weapons had much greater range, but took twice as long to load as muskets. Innovative combat leaders like Morgan found ways to use these weapons and their tactics effectively, and more importantly, use them in concert.
By January, 1781, the British had overrun much of South Carolina. Morgan, with a detachment of Continental troops and militia, had been dispatched to the upper part of the state to bolster American morale there. A British strike force of infantry, cavalry, and artillery under Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton moved out to attack him.
Tarleton was known for lighting-fast, hard-hitting tactics. This style had served him well time and time again: Waxhaws, Fishing Creek, Camden. Morgan knew that Tarleton would push his men hard in an effort to overtake him. He therefore surmised that once Tarleton caught up to the Americans, he would be anxious to bring on an engagement.
On January 17, the British rose at about 2 a.m. and did not have the luxury of a hot meal on that cold morning. They marched twelve miles to reach the clearing where Morgan’s force waited for them.
Morgan planned a defense in depth, much like General William Hardee did at Avarasboro, North Carolina in 1865. He put his men into three lines, with his marksmen in front (North and South Carolina militia), and his main militia line in the center, and the Continental troops in the third (Delaware and Maryland Continentals as well as Virginia state troops).
Morgan knew his men, and he knew what they were and were not capable of. His militia were not well drilled in close order combat. They were excellent shots, and true to their cause, yet they could not stand up to a bayonet charge. Rifles did not take bayonets, and a rifle took a full minute to load, plenty of time for a bayonet wielding British soldier to close in.
Thus Morgan had his first line of riflemen harass and disrupt the British, then fall back to the second line. The second line, upon absorbing the first, were to then fire two shots. They were instructed to specifically target officers, which would break down command and control among the English. The first line was about 150 yards from the second, which was about 100 from the third. All were within range, line of sight, and more importantly, supporting distance, of one another.
As the British pushed the first and second lines back, they would be taking casualties, and become fatigued. By the time they got the third line, Morgan’s most reliable troops- the Continentals- would be waiting for them. It not only suited the style of attack Tarleton favored, but played into his preconceived mindset about how the battle should go.
Not only were the best shots in the front two lines, but by falling back, they gave the appearance of giving way, luring the British forward. In previous battles, militia had broken and retreated, resulting in British victory. Tarleton would see this unfolding again before his eyes, yet this time it was planned.
Shortly after sunrise, as British dragoons led their advance, they entered the clearing at the Cowpens and saw the militia skirmish line ahead of them on slightly elevated ground. Anxious to finish off the enemy, Tarleton aggressively pushed his men ahead.
The first line, composed of two companies of South Carolina militia, did their job admirably. They loaded and fired with precision, carefully picking their targets. They delayed and harassed the British deployment, and their stubborn stand denied Tarleton a chance to see the larger picture. As the British line formed up and began to advance, they fell back and joined the flanks of the second line,
The second line, composed of South Carolina militia, fired inflicted heavy casualties on the British. Yet they kept coming, bayonets pointed forward. Having fired one shot, some two, they then fell back behind the last line, the Continental troops (this in itself was quite a feat- the passage of lines while under fire). Fresh and ready for action, the Continental troops exchanged volleys with the British for about 15 minutes.
Then, one of those instances occurred that battles often hinge on. A confused order caused a Maryland unit to pull out of line on the American right flank. They marched off in good order, loading their muskets as they marched. Seeing this, Morgan rode up to consult with their commander. The troops were instructed to turn around and fire.
In the meantime, the 71st highlanders charged forward for the kill, thinking the third line was breaking. They were stunned by the sudden American volley. Then the rest of the American line surged forward, and overwhelmed the exhausted British troops. It probably all took about forty five minutes.
The lopsided victory, coming after months of defeat for American forces, was stunning: Tarleton lost 110 killed, over 200 wounded and 500 captured- about 800 of the 900 he led onto the field. Morgan lost only 12 killed and 60 wounded. The spoils also included the capture of two regimental flags of the 7th Regiment, two cannons, 800 muskets, and a portable forge.
A combination of planning, knowledge of his opponent, familiarity with his troops’ qualities, and a bit of luck, all played a part in Morgan’s victory. General Nathanael Greene, American commander in the South, used the defense in depth concept again two months later at Guilford Courthouse, North Carolina. The strategy was also used in the future, such as at Avarasboro in 1865. Weaponry, technology, and circumstances varied, but the results were often similar: wearing down the enemy, though not always with the decisive result as at Cowpens.
For further reading:
Babits, Lawrence. A Devil of a Whipping. Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 1989.
Fleming, Thomas. Cowpens: Downright Fighting. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1988.