George Washington’s Commitment to the Southern Theater

Although the American Revolutionary War staggered into a period of inaction after the Battle of Monmouth Court House in June 1778, General George Washington, in charge of all Continental forces, remained steadfast in New York until the late summer of 1781. Even though the principal actions of the war moved to the southern colonies, resulting in catastrophic losses at Charleston, Waxhaws, and Camden in 1780 through 1781, Washington did his utmost to quell British incursions, reinforce public opinion, and provide whatever succor he could from a distance. What is evidence of his mindset and depth of concern for this theater of operations?

Simple. Look at the general officers he dispatched south from the main army to help the American cause in the Carolinas and Virginia. The list includes some of the most trusted officers that served Washington.

First, Benjamin Lincoln, who met his fate at Charleston, but had served ably in the north, even working in the tense environment of the Saratoga campaign, between the volatile Benedict Arnold and the complacent Horatio Gates.

Second, Nathanael Greene, who had overcome growing pains, the recommendation to hold onto Fort Washington in New York in 1776 comes to mind, to swallowing his pride and taking the thankless job of quartermaster general during the winter that won the war at Valley Forge. Greene was probably second to Washington in understanding the political, social, economic, even the geographical components of warfare. Although a decisive battlefield victory constantly eluded him, his leadership at Guildford Court House set in motion Lord Charles Cornwallis’s eventual demise at Yorktown in October of that same year.

Moving into the Old Dominion, Washington dispatched Baron von Steuben with Greene to recruit, train, gather supplies, and provide the steady hand that the Prussian born leader had shown so admirably at Valley Forge. As inspector general of the Continental army, Washington’s orders sending the baron south was a major testament to the importance of stopping British incursions into Virginia.

Following the baron, was another European born officer, the Marquis de Lafayette, one of Washington’s favorites. This independent field command showed the growing confidence in the young Frenchman who responded admirably to the task at hand, doing what he can and for the most part, swallowing his brashness, except at Green Spring when he precipitously attacked what he thought was a rearguard of the British. Yet, his actions, coupled with the next general to be discussed, helped keep Cornwallis in the area of operations that would lead to his demise.

“Mad Anthony” Wayne and his Pennsylvania Continentals were also ordered south to join Lafayette in campaigning in Virginia. Wayne, arguably the best combat general in the Continental army, bordering on reckless to his critics though, had masterminded the storming of Stony Point, the last major action in the northern theater. Lafayette and he would be a solid tandem as they worked with limited resources and supplies in the summer of 1781 to contain the British.

Besides these general officers of high rank, “Light Horse” Harry Lee also was sent south to assist Greene and militia, most notably Francis Marion. The partnership between Lee and Marion worked as close to perfection as humanly possible and a model for regular and militia force combined operations.

Another cavalry commander that was sent for duty in the southern colonies was a second cousin of George Washington, William. In charge of light dragoons, mounted infantry who could dismount to fight as infantry, he served admirably in the southern army until his capture at the Battle of Eutaw Springs on September 8, 1781.

William Washington

This list, not intended to be exhaustive but just exploratory, is an example of the importance the southern theater had to the strategic mindset of George Washington. Although the Virginian was fixated on the recapture of New York City until the opportunity to ensnare Cornwallis at Yorktown presented itself, he provided an amazing array of officers of capability to quelling British intensions in the southern theater.

Feel free to comment below on other officers that were sent south that played vital role in the ultimate American victory in this theater of operations.

Captain John Ashby

Emerging Revolutionary War welcomes guest historian Travis Shaw. 

Part One

As he looked northward across the open ground in front of his position, Captain John Ashby could see the advance guard of the British army moving steadily closer. They came on in a loose, open line, taking time to return the fire of Ashby’s men. Made up of red-coated light infantry and their German counterparts, the rifle-armed Jaegers, the advance guard were the cream of the Crown forces – men chosen for their fitness, marksmanship, and ability to endure hardship. Ashby and his men were veterans, so they must have known they’d be in for a fight. As the battle intensified around him, one wonders if Captain Ashby’s thoughts turned to home. The Brandywine Valley of Pennsylvania was a long way from his native Virginia Piedmont.

The Crooked Run Valley in northern Fauquier County looks much as it did when John Ashby lived there two centuries ago (Author_s photo)
The Crooked Run Valley in northern Fauquier County looks much as it did when John Ashby lived there two centuries ago (Author’s photo)

John Ashby was born in 1740 in northwestern Fauquier County, among the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The son of Robert Ashby and Rosanna Berry, he grew up at Yew Hill, the family estate that lay just a few miles from the Gap that bears the family’s name to this day[1]. John’s uncle and namesake, Captain “Jack” Ashby commanded a company of Virginia rangers during the French and Indian War, where he made the acquaintance (and drew the ire) of a young George Washington[2]. Continue reading “Captain John Ashby”

Eutaw Springs

Emerging Revolutionary War is pleased to welcome back historian Bert Dunkerly, who is the co-author (with Irene B. Boland) of the upcoming book; “Eutaw Springs; The Final Battle of the American Revolution’s Southern Campaign” slated to be released this month. 

Part One

The weather was warm and the men had been marching for days, but their morale was high.  They had been through a lot recently: caught off guard and defeated at Hobkirk’s Hill, a month of grueling siege work – and for naught, at Ninety Six.   Not to mention the engagements that many of them had fought in previously: Kings Mountain, Cowpens, Guilford Courthouse, and dozens of smaller battles.

Yet the army that General Nathanael Greene led forward on the morning of September 8, 1781, was confident and ready to come to grips with its adversary.  Everyone from the private in the ranks on up to the commanding general knew that ahead lay an opportunity.

Battles in the Revolution were, in fact, rare opportunities for commanders.  Engagements were the short, pulse-pounding events that broke up the monotony of marching and maneuvering.  An army spent most of its time in garrison, in camp, or on the road.  In battle the infrequent opportunity came to crush an opponent and influence the outcome of a campaign, or the war.  These chances were few and far between.

Fig 8
“Eutaw Springs” by Benson Lossing

Both commanders at Eutaw Springs appreciated this fact.  General Nathanael Greene’s forces had experienced a series of close calls at Guilford Courthouse, Ninety Six, and Hobkirk’s Hill.  The American army fought well in all of these engagements, save Hobkirk’s Hill, yet they met defeat in every one.  Greene hoped Eutaw Springs would put the finishing touches on his South Carolina campaign, and end it with a clear cut victory.[i]

Eutaw Springs was a rare chance for Greene to pick the time and place of engagement, array his forces to his choosing, and initiate the battle, and control its \tempo.  It was the only set engagement of the campaign, other than Guilford Courthouse, in which Greene chose the ground and initiated the battle.  Commanders do not often have this luxury, and Greene earnestly hoped to make the most of it. Continue reading “Eutaw Springs”

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.

LC
Lord Charles Cornwallis

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”

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.

James Monroe at War

RevWarWednesdays-header

 

Part One

Emerging Revolutionary War is honored to welcome guest historian Scott H. Harris, Director of the James Monroe Museum.

It is one of the great exploits of the American Revolution.  On the night of December 25, 1776, General George Washington led the Continental Army across the icy Delaware River to attack a Hessian garrison at Trenton, New Jersey.  Young Lieutenant James Monroe held the flag behind Washington as they were rowed across the freezing river (standing up).

Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze, Washington Crossing the Delaware.  Oil on canvas, 1851.  Only two figures in this fictitious image are identified—General George Washington and Lieutenant James Monroe (holding flag).
Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze, Washington Crossing the Delaware. Oil on canvas, 1851. Only two figures in this fictitious image are identified—General George Washington and Lieutenant James Monroe (holding flag).

 

Except, that’s not what happened.

Continue reading “James Monroe at War”