Part 2: The Defense in Depth as a Revolutionary War Battlefield Tactic

For part one, click here

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.

Banastre Tartleton, British commander at Cowpens
Banastre Tartleton, British commander at 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.

Andrew Pickens, commanded some of the South Carolina militia at Cowpens
Andrew Pickens, commanded some of the South Carolina militia at Cowpens

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!”

William Washington, commander of American cavalry at Cowpens and a distant relation to George Washington
William Washington, commander of American cavalry at Cowpens and a distant relation to George Washington

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.

Battle of Cowpens (Courtesy of Campaign 1776/CWT)
Battle of Cowpens
(Courtesy of Campaign 1776/CWT)

*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.

The Defense in Depth as a Revolutionary Battlefield Tactic

Part One of Four 

As a general statement, most people don’t think of the Revolutionary War as a testing ground for battlefield tactics. That assumption would not be correct. In fact, the Revolutionary War proved beyond doubt that traditional European set-piece battlefield tactics were largely ineffective against a determined enemy that was not bound by the traditional rules of war.  As just one example, the extremely effective hit and run tactics used by the Minutemen to harass and deplete the British forces that marched to Lexington and Concord that were based on the tactics used by Native American fighters prove this beyond doubt. The British Regulars had no experience or training in dealing with these tactics, and they suffered as a result.

Also, in the European model, wherein gentlemen fought wars and assiduously avoided civilian casualties, it was considered impolite and improper to target the other side’s officers during the course of battle. American forces refused to comply with these rules, causing serious losses among the ranks of British officers, and the British had to adapt to these tactics also.

Another tactic adopted by American officers proved to be incredibly effective during the campaigns in the South in 1781. Brig. Gen. Daniel Morgan and Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene, in particular, made extremely effective use of the defense in depth in carrying out their Fabian strategy during the Southern Campaigns of the Revolutionary War.

A Fabian strategy—named for its most famous practitioner, the Roman dictator, Quintus Fabius Maximus Verruscosus—avoids pitched battles and frontal assaults in favor of wearing down an opponent through a war of attrition and indirection. While avoided decisive battles, the side employing a Fabian strategy harassed the enemy through skirmishes to inflict losses, disrupt supply, and affect enemy morale. Typically, the employment of this strategy suggests that the side adopting it believes that time is on its side. George Washington was absolutely convinced that a Fabian strategy would ultimately wear down the British, and he was right.

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General Nathanael Greene, who mastered the Fabian strategy in the Southern Campaign of 1781

His protégé, Greene, also believed that a Fabian strategy was the way to defeat the British. Faced with the task of defending a large swath of the South with a small army, he had little choice. His subordinate, Brig. Gen. Daniel Morgan, a rough but extremely effective amateur soldier, pioneered the use of a defense in depth at the Battle of Cowpens in January 1781, and Greene then used it on a larger scale at the Battle of Guilford Courthouse about sixty days later. That two untrained amateur soldiers could develop and use such a tactic so effective demonstrates their genius.

A defense in depth, also known as a deep or elastic defense, seeks to delay, rather than prevent, the advance of an attacker, buying time and inflicting additional casualties by trading time for space. Instead of facing an attacker with a single, strong defensive position, a defense in depth relies upon the tendency of an attack to lose momentum and cohesion over time as it covers a larger area. Thus, a defender can yield lightly defended territory in an effort to outstrip an attacker’s logistics or spread out a numerically superior attacking force. Once that attacker has lost momentum, or has become spread out to hold territory, well-planned and well-placed counterattacks can be directed at the attacker’s weak points, with the objective of causing attrition warfare or driving the attacker back to its original starting position.

A conventional defensive strategy concentrates all of a defender’s military resources in a well-defended front line, which, if breached by an attacker, would expose the remaining troops in danger of being flanked, cut off, and surrounded, and leaving lines of supply, communications, and command vulnerable to being cut.

By contrast, a defense in depth requires that defenders deploy their resources, such as prepared fortifications, earthworks, and additional forces at and well behind the front line. Once an attacker breaches the weaker initial position, it continues to meet resistance as it presses on. As the attacker penetrates further, its flanks become vulnerable, and if the advance stalls, the attacking force can find itself completely surrounded and subject to being destroyed or forced to surrender. Thus, a defense in depth is particularly effective against an attacker that can concentrate its force to attack a small number of places along an extended defensive position.

In a well-designed and properly implemented defense in depth, the defending forces fall back to a succession of prepared positions designed to inflict a heavy price on the advancing enemy while minimizing the risk of being overrun or outflanked. By delaying the enemy’s advance, a defense in depth neutralizes manpower advantages and the element of surprise, and buys time for additional forces to be readied for well-timed counterattacks. A well-designed defense in depth will use its forces in mutually supporting positions and in appropriate roles. In this scenario, poorly trained soldiers—such as militiamen—can be used in static positions at the front line, while more experienced and better-trained soldiers can form a mobile reserve, or man the ultimate defensive position to be defended.  Further, a well-designed defense in depth will make good use of the natural advantages offered by terrain features and other natural obstacles such as streams, ponds, etc.

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General Nathanael Greene, who mastered the Fabian strategy in the Southern Campaign of 1781

There are disadvantages associated with the defense in depth. For one thing, constantly retreating can take a toll on the morale of defending forces. Further, these forces also require a high degree of mobility to accommodate those retreats, and also the space to do so.

Morgan designed and implemented a very effective defense in depth at Cowpens that proved so effective that Greene adopted that tactic and, while he lost the Battle of Guilford Courthouse, the heavy losses his army imposed on Lord Cornwallis’ army prompted Greene to note that the British, “have met with a defeat in a victory.”