Life Lessons from the Battle of Cowpens

Two hundred and forty years ago, January 17, 1781, Brigadier General Daniel Morgan strategically manuevered his Colonial forces to defeat the British, led by Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton, at the Battle of Cowpens.

What can we learn from the Battle of Cowpens? Military strategy, yes. Historical knowledge, absolutely. But as we near the 250th commemoration of the American Revolutionary War, how do we turn the battle into relevancy for today’s modern society?

As historians, we can find meaning and connection to places and events at their face value. It’s a natural ability we have ingrained in our knowledge-seeking souls. What about those that can’t and don’t? How do we make them relevant to them so that our history is not forgotten?

The answers lie in the stories we tell and how we tell them. Instead of rehashing the specific details of the Battle of Cowpens, I’m going to try something a little different: think of a time when you were able to not only prove that someone’s opinion of you was wrong, you used it to your advantage to achieve a goal. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

Now recall that a key element of Morgan’s strategy was his use of the British underestimation of the Colonial militia forces. Before the Battle of Cowpens, Tarleton, like many British commanders, believed that the militia were mostly untrained or inexperienced civilians that would flee in face of a real battlefield. To be fair, this was witnessed at several battles (Battle of Camden on August 16, 1780 immediately comes to mind) so it’s a fair assessment.

Using this knowledge to his advantage, Morgan set a trap. Putting his militia front and center of his second battle line, he ordered them to fire off two volleys at the oncoming British before falling back. The perspective fueled the British assumption that the militia were fleeing the battlefield, and Tarleton drove his men forward… and right into Morgan’s trap.

Fighting between soldiers from Tarleton’s Legion (British) and Morgan’s Army (American Continental)
by Don Troiani. NPS Commissed Artwork.

Perhaps if Tarleton had not underestimated the militia, he would not have found himself in the only successful double envelopment in the American Revolution. But more to the point, Morgan took strategic advantage of the British perception of the militia’s capabilities.

While this battle’s lessons learned are easily applied to modern military education, how can we apply them to our everyday civilian life, particularly the lesson that comes from Tarlton’s mistake and Morgan’s strategy relating to the militia? The motto “never assume” comes to mind first. At the very least, it compels the message “Don’t let what other people may or may not think of you prevent you from achieving what matters most to you.” I personally like the potential of “If someone doesn’t see value in your abilities, prove them wrong.”

What life lesson do you pull from the battle’s story?

This entry was posted in Battlefields & Historic Places, Battles, Emerging Revolutionary War, National Park Service, Revolutionary War, Social History. Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Life Lessons from the Battle of Cowpens

  1. Alan Edelson says:

    I’m a big fan of Daniel Morgan. He’s from my part of NJ. Here’s a local historical marker you might like. https://www.hmdb.org/m.asp?m=68830

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Excellent perspectives! “Madness is doing the same things and expecting a different result.” Morgan understood this issue and devised an “out of the box” solution. In addition to the positioning of the militia, he also placed a river in his rear, a risky, bold move designed to stiffen the resistance of his troops.

    Liked by 1 person

    • vsmiley says:

      He definitely had to use whatever he could to his advantage. It was a mark of his skill as a commander to do so. If he risked crossing the river, he and his men could have been caught by Tarleton and massacred. Instead, he decided to take a stand and use the river at his back, an unorthodox move since that means no quick retreat route. But with high risk comes HIGH REWARD. It’s very impressive.

      Like

  3. John Foskett says:

    Like any good coach, Morgan figured out what his players can and cannot do well. Once he did that, he figured out how to instill confidence in them to execute the game plan. Ban was relying on the game film from Camden.

    Liked by 1 person

    • vsmiley says:

      For sure – seemed to be a common theme that many British commanders used old game film to determine strategy. A big mistake!

      Like

  4. I do believe the British soldiers in the Troiani image are the 71st (Highland) Regiment; the American troops are definitely militia, not Continentals.

    Liked by 1 person

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