On January 17, 1781, General Daniel Morgan and his mixed force of Continental soldiers and militia defeated the British under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton. This victory for the patriots in northwestern South Carolina had major implications on the southern theater and the main British force under General Lord Charles Cornwallis. The battle, named after the use of the fields in which it was fought, Cowpens, also included one of the only instances in American history of a successful double envelopment.
On Sunday, at 7 p.m. EDT, Emerging Revolutionary War will be joined by American Battlefield Trust’s Kristopher White, Deputy Director of Education and Daniel Davis, Education Manager, in a discussion about the history and preservation of the Battle of Cowpens.
Round out your January weekend by joining us on our Facebook page for this live historian happy hour.
After our sojourn to the French and Indian War last Sunday, “Rev War Roundtable with ERW” returns to the American Revolution this weekend at 7 p.m. EST. Join Emerging Revolutionary War and a guest historian as they discuss, comment, and chat about the pivotal Siege of Yorktown in 1781.
Although the war did not officially end with the capitulation of Lord Charles Cornwallis’ German and British forces on October 19, 1781, the major loss reverberated in in both the colonies and the halls of Parliament. The euphoria on one side of the Atlantic will be matched in this happy hour historian discussion, with no set agenda, and your comments, toasts, thoughts, opinions, and questions will be strongly encouraged.
Joining ERW will be Kirby Smith, formerly of Colonial National Historical Park and currently a Training Instructor for the Department of Defense. He is a 16-year veteran of the United States Army and is native of the Yorktown area. Kirby is also an expert on the Battle of Green Spring that occurred during the summer of 1781 and can be considered part of the Yorktown Campaign. This last major land battle prior to the siege featured such military luminaries as Marquis de Lafayette, Anthony Wayne, Lord Cornwallis, and the infamous Banastre Tartleton.
Besides Kirby, Kate Gruber, Special Collections Curator for the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation and Mark Maloy a National Park Service ranger will be joining the happy hour discussion.
As we bid adieu to the month of May, let’s all grab a drink and discuss the beginning of the end of the American Revolution. We invite you to join us in our virtual tavern via our Facebook page this Sunday.
Emerging Revolutionary War welcomes back guest historian Daniel T. Davis.
Last month, I heard Emerging Revolutionary War co-founder Phill Greenwalt remark “when you think about retreats, victory is a word that doesn’t come to mind.” The period of January 18 to February 14, 1781 is the exception to the rule. During this time frame, the American army under Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene and the British under Charles, Lord Cornwallis, marched across the backcountry of the Carolinas. Known as the “Race to the Dan”, this episode between the engagements at Cowpens and Guilford Courthouse, is a largely forgotten but consequential even in the Southern Campaign of 1781.
A reflection on the previous month’s exploration in South Carolina.
August 16, 1780 would prove to be a devastating day for the American Army in the south, known as the “Grand Army” by its commander, Maj. Gen. Horatio Gates, the Hero of Saratoga. The battle between this army and that of Lt. Gen. Charles, Earl Cornwallis, in the Pine Barrens near the South Carolina town of Camden, would end in the total rout of the Americans and the destruction of the reputation of its commander. It would also temporarily leave the southern colonies without a central army to oppose the British.
On November 1, members of the Emerging Revolutionary War Era staff took a road trip to Camden, SC to research the battle, walk the battlefield and meet with local historians in preparation for an upcoming addition to our book series, on the Battle of Camden. On the way down, we took the opportunity of visiting other sites of combat, actions that occurred prior to and after the fight at Camden. Continue reading “Visiting the Scene of Action: Battle of Camden”→
I know we’re getting close to the Cowpens battlefield when we pass Redcoat Drive and then Tory Trail. Unfortunately, my GPS takes us to the maintenance shed rather than the visitor center, but the park’s signage finally manages to get us where we need to go.
I know nothing about the battle of Cowpens, but my colleague Rob Orrison has strongly recommended I visit the battlefield. It involves some of the most colorful characters of the war, he tells me: Daniel Morgan and Banastre Tarleton. “The battle changed the course of the war in the Carolinas, in my humble opinion,” Rob adds.
Emerging Revolutionary War welcomes back guest historian Malanna Henderson
“It is not for their own land they fought, not even for a land which had adopted them, but for a land which had enslaved them, and whose laws, even in freedom, oftener oppressed than protected. Bravery, under such circumstances, has a peculiar beauty and merit.” – Harriet Beecher Stowe.
The words spoken by “the little woman who wrote the book that started this Great War,” so said Abraham Lincoln, according to legend, upon meeting Mrs. Stowe sometime in 1862, rang true for black patriots in the Civil War as well as those in the Revolutionary War.
The Smithsonian tome, The American Revolutionary War: A Visual History quotes a Hessian officer in 1777, as saying, “No regiment is to be seen in which there are not Negroes in abundance and among them are able-bodied and strong fellows.”
In every battle of the Revolutionary War from Lexington to Yorktown; black men, slave and free, picked up the musket and defended America; and yet, many historians as well as visual artists have omitted their contributions in the history books and their images on canvases depicting historic battles. The need for white historians to “overlook,” “underestimate,” and or “erase,” these sacrifices is a gross negligence that distorts and misrepresents American history; and furthermore, it continues to disenfranchise the patriotic heroes of the past and malign the self-image of millions of Americans today simply because of the color of their skin.
Black soldiers have always fought two wars simultaneously; wars declared by their government and the unspoken wars at home for liberty, equality and before the Civil War, for citizenship.
What kind of men fight for the liberty of others when their own liberty isn’t guaranteed?
True patriots: James Armistead Lafayette was one such person.
Slaves serving in the rebel military was a question that manifested itself early amongst the colonial government agencies. Their presence rankled many, while others welcomed them and praised their bravery. Some men of color had fought gallantly and with distinction as they stood alongside their white compatriots, defenders of liberty on the Lexington Green in April of 1775.
For instance, in the Battle of Bunker Hill, Peter Salem, a slave, served with courage under fire, as varying accounts reported. Salem was introduced to George Washington as “the man who shot Pitcairn,” the British Royal Marine Major who shouted to his men before Salem shot him down, “The day is ours.” Despite the competence and bravery of such men on the battlefield their exploits didn’t convert the wide-spread reluctance of most colonists to accept black men as soldiers.
General George Washington, Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army, harbored the same common prejudices of the southern-planter ruling class of which he was a member. In July, he instructed recruiters “not to enlist any stroller, negro, or vagabond, or person suspected of being an enemy to the liberty of America.” Commanders in each colony and regiment made up their own minds. Some ignored his command. Their decision was based on need and experience. Those who had already served successfully with black militia and minutemen may have seen no cause to alter their regiments.
By December of 1776, Washington back-pedaled on his decision, allowing for black veterans of Lexington, Concord and Bunker Hill to serve; but of the slave, he maintained his objection. However, some junior officers appreciated the contributions of blacks. Col. John Thomas wrote John Adams on October 24, 1775, “We have negroes, but I look upon them as equally serviceable with other men, for fatigue (labor); and, in action many of them have proven themselves brave.”
As the war raged on, the necessity for able-bodied men settled the question. White soldiers, who usually served for only a few months to a year, mustered out, died or were wounded; while others deserted. Black soldiers who expected to receive their freedom if they served were in the war for the duration. This was a positive factor for the commanding officers who had to re-train all new recruits. Around five-thousand blacks served in the Revolutionary War as soldiers. However, a vast unknown number provided a myriad of support services.
Another reason the colonials reconsidered enlisting blacks was the bold military tactic that occurred in November of 1775. Lord Dunmore, the last royal governor of Virginia, ratified a proclamation freeing all indentured servants and slaves of rebels if they would fight for the British. Thousands of people fled the plantations to gain their freedom. This single act struck a devastating blow on two fronts, it threaten their economic stability and increased the tension between master and slave, with the master fearing slave revolts and the permanent loss of their property. Moreover, it upset the social order. Enslaved men serving alongside whites put them on an equal footing in the battlefield, which violated the white supremacy dogma that governed current thought and practice.
Born into slavery on December 10, 1748, in New Kent, Virginia to owner William Armistead, James enlisted in the Revolutionary War under General Marquis de Lafayette in 1781. His owner was a patriot and most likely received the bonus James would have gotten for enlisting had he been free or white. Enlistment bonuses comprised of money, land or slaves.
By the time Armistead entered the war, the efforts of Benjamin Franklin and other colonial agents had secured a military and economic alliance with the French. A long-time imperial rival of British expansion, the French provided naval ships, money and personnel.
Marquis de Lafayette (born Marie Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier) was a descendant of ancient French nobility. His father, a colonel in the French Grenadiers had died in the Seven Year’s War (known as the French and Indian War in America) when the young nobleman was only two years old. The political ideals of liberty and equality espoused by the colonials matched his beliefs and fired his military ambitions. Perchance, his yearning to play a role in America’s fight for independence from British rule may have been spawned by a desire to avenge his father’s death.
Since Lord Dunmore’s Proclamation, it was easy for Armistead to gain access in the enemy camps as a runaway slave seeking his freedom. While providing varied services to the British, he gained the confidence of Brigadier General Benedict Arnold, who by now had defected to the British. He charged Armistead with scouting, foraging and spying. Armistead was able to comfortably go between both camps, in essence becoming a double spy. He carried false and misleading information to the British but provided accurate intelligence on the movement of British forces and details of their military strategies to General Lafayette.
When Arnold left Virginia, Armistead was able to deceive General Charles Cornwallis as well, who rampaged through parts of Virginia and burned Richmond, the capital. He sent Colonel Banastre Tarleton to capture the entire legislative assembly, which included Daniel Boone, Patrick Henry and the governor. The plan was thwarted by an astute young man named Jack Jouett. Although, a few were apprehended, among them Daniel Boone; Jouett’s actions prevented the British from arresting the biggest prize: Governor Thomas Jefferson.
By early August, Cornwallis had made plans to establish fortifications in Yorktown, expecting reinforcements to increase his troops of approximately nine-thousand.
General Washington, in the meantime, had joined forces with Comte de Rochambeau to recapture New York. With intelligence supplied by James Armistead, they learned that Cornwallis was in Yorktown waiting for military support. French Admiral de Grasse, with a fleet of about twenty-eight naval ships, was on his way to the Chesapeake from St. Dominick (present-day Haiti). A plan to surround Cornwallis by land and sea appeared possible. The French naval fleet, along with the Washington’s Continental and Rochambeau’s French forces, headed to the enemy’s headquarters. Once Washington reached Yorktown, General Lafayette’s regiment joined him. Thus, Armistead’s accurate and meticulous reports were vital to the American victory that culminated in Yorktown on October 19, 1781.
Later Cornwallis met the Marquis at his headquarters and was flabbergasted to find his spy James Armistead present.
The Treaty of Paris in 1783 severed ties from Britain, the mother country, and established America as an independent nation. That same year, the Act of 1783 was passed freeing slaves who had fought in the Revolutionary War on their masters’ behalf. However, it excluded slave-spies. Ergo, James Armistead, who risked his life by providing information to help win the freedom of many, was himself denied freedom. Was his life in less danger operating under subterfuge as a spy amongst the British than it would have been, had he served as a soldier on the battlefield? I think not. Had his espionage been discovered, he surely would have had to forfeit his life.
After the war, Armistead was returned to slavery. Even his own master didn’t have the legal right to free him because of the Act of 1783, omitting slave-spies from emancipation.
When learning of his compatriot’s status, the Marquis penned a certificate to the Virginia legislator in October of 1784 imploring them to grant Armistead his freedom, declaring:
“This is to Certify that the Bearer By the Name of James Armistead Has done Essential Services to me While I had the Honour to Command in this State. His Intelligences from the Ennemy’s Camp were Industriously Collected and More faithfully deliver’d. He properly Acquitted Himself with Some Important Commissions I Gave Him and Appears to me Entitled to Every Reward his Situation Can Admit of. Done Under my Hand,” Richmond, November 21st 1784.
The legislator didn’t act upon the request straightaway. However, again in 1786, James Armistead applied for his freedom and it was duly granted on January 9, 1787, with a fair compensation to his master, William.
In honor of his benefactor, James Armistead added Lafayette to his surname. After emancipation, he moved a short distance south of New Kent, near Richmond, Virginia and acquired forty acres of less than suitable farmland. He married and had a family. He even owned slaves. History doesn’t tell us if he bought enslaved relatives to free them or if they were bought to farm his land as field hands.
It wasn’t until 1819 that he applied to the state legislature for financial assistance to ease his poverty. This time, the response was immediate; he received $60 and an annual pension of $40 for his service during the Revolutionary War.
Unlike James Armistead Lafayette, many blacks who worked as laborers, guides, messengers and spies were not as fortunate. Whether they were pressed into service or willingly answered the call, most neither received their freedom nor wages for their behind-the-scene contributions to the war.
In 1824, the Marquis de Lafayette visited the United States and was lauded as a hero of the American Revolutionary War in Richmond with festivities and a parade. Spying Armistead in the crowd, it is said he halted the procession, dismounted from his horse and embraced his old comrade.
On October 7, 1780, one of the most pivotal battles of the American Revolution fought in the South occurred on a hillside in northwest South Carolina.The engagement brought militia from both sides; those loyal to the British and those adhering to the independence movement against each other. In fact, only one regular British soldier was present on that autumn day; the British commander Major Patrick Ferguson.
How did Ferguson and his militia end up on King’s Mountain? This was due to the campaign being waged by British General Lord Cornwallis in the Southern colonies.
Ferguson’s role was to protect the flank of Cornwallis’ force as it turned north from South Carolina. After issuing a call of bravado, where Ferguson gave Patriot militia an ultimatum; lay down your weapons or suffer the consequences, the British officer began to move through the South Carolina countryside. This decree emboldened the Patriot militia, some of which would come from across the Appalachian Mountains–or “Overmountain”–to join in the fight against Ferguson. This combined force would gather around Sycamore Shoals in present day Tennessee.
Word quickly reached Ferguson near Gilbert Town, North Carolina by way of deserters that a large force of Virginia, Carolinas, and militia from the area of Tennessee had arrived and were planning to march toward his encampment.
Still showing a high degree of disdain for the Patriot militia, Ferguson did not act immediately on the intelligence. Three days later, the Loyalist militia and the British officer started their retrograde movement toward Charlotte and Lord Cornwallis’s main army.
By October 4, 1780 now joined by a sprinkling of Georgia militia, the Patriots had reached Ferguson’s old encampment site. Two days later the militia forced marched through the Cowpens of South Carolina, which had not witnessed the hard hand of battle yet. Just a day’s march ahead was Ferguson’s forces.
At this juncture, Ferguson made a fateful decision. Instead of continuing his retreat and he was less than a full-days march away from the main British army, the British officer held up his forces on a forested hill just inside South Carolina and laid out his camp on the highest point; Kings Pinnacle.
Realizing that time was of the essence, the Patriot force, now numbering 900 men, found plentiful horseflesh to mount up and close the gap between the two sides. Riding through the rain and darkness of the night of October 6, the fifteen-mile gap between forces was erased and by late morning the Patriot militia was reining up within striking distance of Kings Mountain.
By mid-afternoon, at approximately 3:00 p.m. the fighting erupted. The Patriot militia broke into smaller commands, numbering between 100-200 men and started to ascend the slopes. Luckily for the Patriots, Ferguson had not detected just how close the enemy was and had also neglected to fortify his encampment. His force though, outnumbered the Patriots by approximately 200 men.
Some of the Loyalist militia did not realize that the enemy had arrived until the Patriot militia came hollering and yelling up the slope of the hillside. With the conglomerate of various militia, there was no unified command of the Patriot forces and the fight quickly boiled down to independent maneuvering and fighting. Using the terrain, the Patriot militia fired from behind trees and boulders. Answering this tactic, Ferguson ordered a bayonet charge down the hill. This caused the Patriot force to retreat to the base of the hill as most of the men were carrying rifles which did not accommodate the bayonet.
Virginia militia Colonel William Campbell and North Carolinian militia Colonel John Sevier helped rally the militia that had broken and sent the force back up the hillside. This back and forth would happen a few more times; Ferguson’s force charging down hill with bayonets, the militia backtracking, than reforming, and charging back up after the Loyalist momentum had waned.
Finally, after an hour of combat the Patriot militia forced their way to the crown of the hill and was able to flank the Loyalist force and attack in rear of their position. This maneuver forced the Loyalists back into their encampment where numbers of them began to surrender.
Ferguson sensing the tide turning against the Loyalists, tried to rally his troops, supposedly yelling, “Hurrah,brave boys, the day is ours!” Gathering a few stalwarts, Ferguson made a desperate move to fight his way out of the encircling Patriot militia. A volley from Colonel Sevier’s militia force unhorsed Ferguson who fell entangled in his stirrups. Unfortunately, the horse, spooked with the musketry and smell of gunpowder dragged Ferguson through the Patriot line. After getting untangled from the straps on the horse, Ferguson lay prone on the ground, where a Patriot officer demanded his surrender. Still with some fight in him, Ferguson shot and killed the man. Other Patriot militia responding to the scene fired a collective volley at the downed British officer, killing Ferguson.
Some of the Patriot militia were opposed to accepting the Loyalist surrender, as they remembered the massacres and atrocities committed to their brethren in arms by the infamous Banastre Tarleton. Cooler heads prevailed and the firing died down.
By the time the second white flag was sent out by Captain Abraham DePeyster, Patriot militia officers were finally able to reign in their commands and over 600 Loyalist soldiers surrendered.
Within the one-hour and five minute engagement, Ferguson’s force ceased to exist. Total casualties for the Loyalist force was 290 killed, 163 wounded, and 668 captured. The Patriots suffered a total of 87 casualties; 29 killed and 58 wounded.
The Patriots, with the close proximity of Cornwallis’s forces, who the day after the battle would finally get the request for reinforcements from his slain subordinate, quickly retreated back into the safety of the South Carolina countryside.
However, the Battle of Kings Mountain would become a critical turning point, not only in the Southern Campaign of the American Revolution, but in the entire war itself. The victory, which demolished the Loyalist militia force covering his flank, forced Cornwallis to altere his strategy for the campaign. He would be forced to return to South Carolina, giving up advancing further than Charlotte into North Carolina in order to re-solidify control of territory in his rear. When Cornwallis finally returned to the Tar Heel State the following year, he would suffer eventually suffer a Pyrrhic victory at Guilford Court House in March 1781.
All that was in the future and so is your visit to this battlefield of the American Revolution.
On March 3, 1931, Kings Mountain National Military Park was formed by an act of Congress and placed under the control of the United States War Department. Two years later, in March 1933, the property was transferred to the National Park Service by an executive order. At this juncture, the entire land mass of the park was comprised of 40 acres that had been originally donated by the Kings Mountain Battlefield Association. The park has grown since that time and now preserves slightly under 4,000 acres.
For further details on how to visit the battlefield, which includes trails, a visitor center, exhibits, and a bookstore, click here. The park is open daily 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. with extended hours on the weekend between Memorial and Labor Days. Even better there is no fee to access this national military park!
*All the photos taken for this post was done by the author during a visit to the battlefield in autumn.*
As we have seen, two untrained, amateur, but very effective soldiers perfected the concept of the defense in depth during the campaigns of 1781. Morgan was the first to experiment with the concept, and he did so with great effect at Cowpens, thoroughly defeating Tarleton’s Legion and sending “Bloody Ban” flying in a wild panic. Greene then adopted the tactic and applied it on a much larger scale at Guilford Courthouse. Even though he lost the battle, he scored a major strategic victory by punishing Cornwallis’ army and inflicting enormous losses on it for little gain—Greene’s army escaped to fight another day. His stand at Guilford Courthouse set the stage f Continue reading “Defense in Depth as a Revolutionary War Battlefield Tactic”→
Part Three (click here for first two installments)
Determined to avenge his embarrassing defeat at Cowpens, Lt. Gen. Charles Lord Cornwallis set his army out in a determined pursuit of the American army. Knowing that he was too weak to face Cornwallis in a pitched battle, Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene, the Southern Department commander, retreated northeastward from Salisbury, North Carolina toward the Virginia state line, where he hoped that additional militia troops would reinforce his army and he would receive supplies. The British chased Greene to the Dan River, near the Virginia border, but Greene wisely put the river between his army and the enemy. Cornwallis and his weary soldiers arrived at the rain-swollen river on February 15, too late to catch Greene’s army, which had finished crossing earlier that day. Frustrated, Cornwallis withdrew to Hillsborough, North Carolina.
After receiving both the expected supplies and reinforcements, and after an opportunity to rest his command, Greene soon marched back into North Carolina to face Cornwallis’ tired and poorly supplied army, which now numbered less than 2000 men. After several weeks of skirmishing with Loyalist militiamen and a great deal of maneuvering Greene assumed a defensive position around Guildford Courthouse (near modern Greensboro, North Carolina) on March 14, 1781. Greene had more than 4000 Continentals, militiamen and cavalry, meaning that his army outnumbered Cornwallis’ by more than twice their strength. Continue reading “Defense in Depth as a Revolutionary War Battlefield Tactic”→
Brig. Gen. Daniel Morgan, the “Old Wagoner,” as he was known, commanded a light infantry corps assigned to Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene’s southern army. Morgan met with Greene in Charlotte, North Carolina on December 3, 1780. Implementing a Fabian strategy, Greene split his army to harass the British while buying time to recruit additional soldiers. Greene ordered Morgan to use his 600-man command to forage and harass the enemy in the back country of South Carolina while avoiding battle with Lt. Gen. Charles Lord Cornwallis’ British army.
Once Cornwallis realized what was going on he dispatched Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton’s British Legion to track down Morgan’s command and bring it to battle. Tarleton commanded a combined force of Loyalist American troops. The Legion consisted of fast-marching light infantry and dragoon units. At its peak strength, the Legion numbered approximately 200 infantry and 250 dragoons. It was known for its rapid movements and for its ruthless policy of giving the enemy no quarter. Patriot forces feared Tarleton and his Legion, and for good reason.
By January 12, Tarleton’s scouts had located Morgan’s army in the South Carolina back country, and Tarleton began an aggressive pursuit. Morgan hastily retreated to a position at the Cowpens, a prominent crossroads and pasturing grounds for cattle. The field was about 500 yards long and about as wide, dotted with trees, but devoid of undergrowth, which served as a food source for grazing battle.
Once Morgan learned that Tarleton was pursuing him, he spread the word for local militia units to rendezvous with him at the Cowpens. Through the night, South Carolina militiamen drifted into camp. Morgan visited their camps, encouraging them to stand and fight. Morgan’s words were particularly effective; the grizzled veteran knew how to motivate these men. They would need to be prepared, because they faced a stern task the next day.
January 17, 1781 dawned clear and very cold. After his scouts reported Tarleton’s approach, Morgan rode among his men, crying out, “Boys, get up! Benny’s coming!” Morgan designed a defense in depth that was intended to draw the British Legion in and then defeat them by pouncing on their exposed flanks. He knew that his militia had a reputation of being unreliable, and his ability to maneuver was limited, so he elected to design and implement a defense in depth that took advantage of the terrain features of the Cowpens.
Tarleton was overconfident. He believed that Morgan’s command was hemmed in by the nearby Broad River and also believed that the cleared fields of the Cowpens were ideal ground for his dragoons, and concluded that Morgan must be desperate to fight in such a place.
Morgan had prepared three defensive positions. Selected sharpshooters out front and hiding behind trees manned the first line. They picked off a number of Tarleton’s dragoons as they advance, specifically targeting officers. Traditional accounts indicate that they downed 15 of Tarleton’s dragoons this way. Confused, the dragoons retreated.
Having accomplished their initial goal, the sharpshooters then fell back about 150 yards or so to join the second line, which consisted of Brig. Gen. Andrew Pickens’ militiamen. Morgan asked these men to stand long enough to fire two volleys, after which they were to fall back to the third—and main line—manned by Col. John Eager Howard’s Continentals, another 150 yards or so in the rear of the second line. Thus, Morgan had designed a textbook example of a defense in depth.
Some of the militia got off two volleys and then most of the militia fell back to a spot behind the third line. Tarleton orders his dragoons to pursue the retreating militiamen, and as the dragoons bore down on them with their sabres drawn, Col. William Washington’s Continental cavalry suddenly thundered onto the field, seemingly from nowhere. They routed the surprised Loyalist dragoons, who fled the field with heavy losses.
The infantry then engaged. With their drums beating and their fifes shrilling, the British infantry advanced at a trot. Recognizing that the moment of crisis had arrived, Morgan cheered his men on, rode to the front and rallied the militia, crying out, “form, form, my brave fellows! Old Morgan was never beaten!”
Tarleton’s 71st Highlanders, a veteran unit made of Scotsmen, which had been held in reserved, now charged the Continental line, their skirling bagpipes adding to the cacophony of battle. Howard ordered his right flank to face slight right to counter a charge from that direction, but in the noise and chaos, was misunderstood as a call to retreat. As other companies along the line began to pull out, Morgan rode up to ask Howard if he had been beaten. Howard pointed at the orderly ranks of his retreat and assured Morgan that they had not been beaten. Morgan then put spurs to his horse and ordered the retreating units to face about and, on his order, to fire in unison. Their deadly volley dropped numerous British soldiers, who, sensing victory, had broken ranks in a determined charge. The combination of this volley and a determined bayonet charge by the Continentals turned the tide of battle in favor of the Americans.
At the moment, the rallied and re-formed militia and Washington’s cavalry attacked, leading to a double envelopment of the British, who began surrendering in masses. Tarleton and some his men fought on, but others refused to obey orders and fled the field in a panic. Finally, Tarleton realized that he had been badly beaten and fled down the Green River Toad with a handful of his men. Racing ahead of his cavalry, William Washington dashed forward and engaged Tarleton and two of his officers in hand-to-hand combat. Only a well-timed pistol shot by his young bugler saved Washington from the upraised saber of one of the British officers. Tarleton and his remaining forces escaped and galloped off to Cornwallis’ camp to report the bad news.
And bad news it was: Tarleton’s Legion lost 110 dead, over 200 wounded and 500 captured. By contrast, Morgan lost only 12 killed and 60 wounded. His perfectly designed and perfectly implemented defense had worked even beyond the Old Wagoner’s wildest dreams and highest hopes.
Knowing that Cornwallis would pursue him, Morgan buried the dead and then withdrew to the north to live and fight another day. Morgan reunited with Greene’s army and the combined force headed for North Carolina. Morgan, whose health was fragile, soon retired from further duty in the field, but he had left his mark. Cowpens was his finest moment, and set a precedent for Greene to follow two months later at Guilford Courthouse.
*Suggestions for additional reading: for a superb book-length microtactical treatment of the Battle of Cowpens, see Lawrence E. Babits, A Devil of a Whipping: The Battle of Cowpens (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998). This book is the primary resource consulted in drafting this article.