Today in 1781

…Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton seriously underestimated a colonial army with militia at its center, arrayed against him in an open South (!) Carolina pasture called a “Cowpens”, of all places…

…Dawn at the Cowpens on January 17, 1781, was clear and bitterly cold. Morgan, his scouts bearing news of Tarleton’s approach, moved among his men, shouting, “Boys, get up! Benny’s22 coming! Tarleton, playing catch up, and having marched his army since two in the morning, ordered formation on the Green River Road for the attack. His aggressive style was made even now more urgent, since there were rumors of Overmountain men on the way, reminiscent of events at Kings Mountain. Yet he was confident of victory: he reasoned he had Morgan hemmed in by the Broad, and the undulating park-like terrain was ideal for his dragoons23. He thought Morgan must be desperate, indeed, to have stopped at such a place. Perhaps Morgan saw it differently: in some past battles, Patriot militia had fled in face of fearsome bayonet charges – but now the Broad at Morgan’s back could prevent such a retreat. In reality, though, Morgan had no choice – to cross the flood-swollen Broad risked having his army cut down by the feared and fast-traveling Tarleton.

Tarleton pressed the attack head on, his line extending across the meadow, his artillery in the middle, and fifty Dragoons on each side. It was as if Morgan knew he would make a frontal assault – it was his style of fighting. To face Tarleton, he organized his troops into three lines. First, out front and hiding behind trees were selected sharpshooters. At the onset of battle they picked off numbers of Tarleton’s Dragoons, traditionally listed as fifteen24, shooting especially at officers, and warding off an attempt to gain initial supremacy. With the Dragoons in retreat, and their initial part completed, the sharpshooters retreated 150 yards or more back to join the second line, the militia commanded by Andrew Pickens. Morgan used the militia well, asking them to get off two volleys and promised their retreat to the third line made up of John Eager Howard’s25 Continentals, again close to 150 yards back. Some of the militia indeed got off two volleys as the British neared, but, as they retreated and reached supposed safety behind the Continental line, Tarleton sent his feared Dragoons after them. As the militia dodged behind trees and parried saber slashes with their rifles, William Washington’s26 Patriot cavalry thundered onto the field of battle, seemingly, out of nowhere. The surprised British Dragoons, already scattered and sensing a rout, were overwhelmed, and according to historian Babits, lost eighteen men in the clash. As they fled the field, infantry on both sides fired volley after volley. The British advanced in a trot, with beating drums, the shrill sounds of fifes, and shouts of halloo. Morgan, in response, cheering his men on, said to give them the Indian halloo back. Riding to the front, he rallied the militia, crying out, “form, form, my brave fellows! Old Morgan was never beaten!”

Now Tarleton’s 71st Highlanders27, held in reserve, entered the charge toward the Continental line, the wild wail of bagpipes adding to the noise and confusion. A John Eager Howard order for the right flank to face slightly right to counter a charge from that direction, was, in the noise of battle, misunderstood as a call to retreat. As other companies along the line followed suite, Morgan rode up to ask Howard if he were beaten. As Howard pointed to the unbroken ranks and the orderly retreat and assured him they were not, Morgan spurred his horse on and ordered the retreating units to face about, and then, on order, fire in unison. The firing took a heavy toll on the British, who, by that time had sensed victory and had broken ranks in a wild charge. This event and a fierce Patriot bayonet charge in return broke the British charge and turned the tide of battle. The re-formed militia and cavalry re-entered the battle, leading to double envelopment28 of the British, perfectly timed. British infantry began surrendering en masse.

The Americans lost 12 men and had 60 wounded in a little over an hour, but they left the field with 500 British prisoners. Tarleton had 110 dead and 200 wounded to add to his report of the action to Lord Cornwallis.

Green went hot-footing north out of Dodge, towards Virginia, knowing Cornwallis would try to chase him down, as indeed he did. Thus began a game of attrition and seeming British “victories”, which really did nothing more than force Cornwallis to move faster and lighter each time.

…Soon, Greene’s strategy was evident: Cornwallis and his weary army gave up on the Carolinas and moved on to Virginia. On October 18, 1781, the British army surrendered at Yorktown. Cowpens, in its part in the Revolution, was a surprising victory and a turning point that changed the psychology of the entire war. Now, there was revenge – the Patriot rallying cry Tarleton’s Quarter 37. Morgan’s unorthodox but tactical masterpiece had indeed “spirited up the people”, not just those of the backcountry Carolinas, but those in all the colonies. In the process, he gave Tarleton and the British a “devil of a whipping”.

I thought of Cowpens the other night, first because of my Moore’s Creek bridge post and then, oddly enough, because The Patriot was on that evening. I always choke up at the final battle scene, where our beautiful flags go so proudly into the chaos of that horrific, antiquated, unfathomable mode of armies facing each other. We were talking, that the Smithsonian had been cheek by jowl in the production as historical advisors, the Mel Gibson character is based on Francis Marion “The Swamp Fox”, “Tavington” is Tarleton, etc., but then major dad asked, “I wonder if this (the battle scene) has a real counterpart” and I said, “Pretty sure the Battle of Cowpens.” He hadn’t heard of it, so there we are. There are a few liberties taken ~ Cornwallis wasn’t actually AT the field, etc., but the bulk of the action is true to the field that gallant day.

THIS day.

The clip is here, if you’d like to see it. I get weepy thinking about those flags now…

…I’m such a sap.

9 Responses to “Today in 1781”

  1. Ad Ingle says:

    Love your blog, but you got to get this right. Cowpeas is in South Carolina! It’s is a big deal to us South Carolinians…

  2. tree hugging sister says:

    Well, DUH and THANKS! Fixed that. My brain was thinking ahead faster than my fingers were typing, and they couldn’t keep things straight.

  3. Kathy Kinsley says:

    Sorry – we never would have won had we fought like that. Lovely tale, though.

    We won because we were not heroes. We hid behind trees and anything else we could find. Our founding fathers weren’t heroes, they were winning warriors.

    “And where is that band who so vauntingly swore
    That the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion,
    A home and a country, should leave us no more?
    Their blood has washed out their foul footsteps’ pollution.
    No refuge could save the hireling and slave
    From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave:
    And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave,
    O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.”

    It’s too bad only the first verse of our national anthem is generally sung. Most of the other verses should make us think. (The one I just quoted was the third.)

  4. greg newsom says:

    Everyone,the generals,soldiers
    and politicians were all so young back then.30 or less most everyone.Nowadays everyone is 60 or
    older,even Congressmen.
    What does that mean?We’re entrenched in a dying society.
    Like the Eastern Byzantium they sent out a 90 year Eunuch
    to lead their forces against the Barbarians.Actually he won.He didn’t have balls but, he sure found some.

  5. tree hugging sister says:

    Kathy, I hate to break it to you, but no. Plenty of militia did their part to rip up the British, borrowing from our Indian neighbors and the learned skills from foraging and forging a living out of this great, new land, BUT…well…

    I’ll let Colonial Williamsburg’s experts take it from here:

    …The rocks, rifles, and militia scenario originated with the story of Lexington and Concord, April 19, 1775, the skirmishes that started the fighting. British redcoats did indeed face colonial militiamen in linear formation. As the British force retreated to Boston, the colonists, armed with their own civilian weapons, sniped at their antagonists from behind fences and trees rather than confronting the professionals in formal lines of battle. With such guerilla tactics, the militiamen killed and wounded more British soldiers than British soldiers killed and wounded Americans. But the majority of the prominent battles of the war were contested quite differently.

    Massed forces, British and patriot, in the linear formations at which Cosby’s monologue pokes fun, fought the battles of Long Island, Brandywine, Monmouth Courthouse, Hobkirk’s Hill, White Plains, Germantown, Camden, and Cowpens, to name a few. Sometimes, as these engagements evolved, one side or the other retreated in disarray, and some soldiers sought protection behind fences or trees or other defensive barriers. But the battle plans developed by the generals relied on linear tactics in the European fashion that dominated eighteenth-century warfare…

  6. Kathy Kinsley says:

    Damn, if that’s true, my parent’s ancestors were idiots who survived by sheer luck. Sigh. But it explains a lot about modern politics.

  7. tree hugging sister says:

    One of my great greats, Kathy, who wouldn’t have a clue WTF you were talking about with your “modern politics’ crack:

    Colonel Kelly died on the 18th of February, aged eighty-eight. The following sketch of him is taken from an address made by James Merrill, Esquire, on the 8th of April, 1835, when the monument, purchased by his relatives, was put in position with public ceremony.
    Colonel John Kelly was born in Lancaster county, in this State, in February, 1744. After the purchase from the Indians of 1768, and before the opening of the land office in 1769, he came to Buffalo Valley, then a part of Berks County. Here he suffered all the hardships and privations, which are inseparable upon the first settlement of a new country. He was tall, about six feet two inches in height, vigorous and muscular, with his body so inured to labor as to be almost insensible to fatigue, and a mind so accustomed to dangers, that dangers ceased to alarm. In the prime of manhood, and in the vigor of health, with intelligence to understand correct principles, and with firmness to adhere to them, it may well be supposed that he took a commanding position among his fellows. He was a captain, and a major at twenty-seven years of age, and when his country called on her sons to save her from the fangs of a tyrant, he was ready. At the very darkest period of the Revolutionary War, when all was lost, but honor and hope, and when hope was almost buried in despair, in the fall of 1776, he volunteered to assist in the protection of New Jersey. He was present at Trenton, when the Hessians surrendered, and assisted in that most masterly movement on Princeton, by which the chain of communications of the enemy was broken, all their plans deranged, and their army compelled to return to New York and its neighborhood, and to leave New Jersey free to avenge her wrongs. When we consider the depression of public spirit, how public confidence in the final success of our cause was shaken by the battle of Long Island, and the losses of Fort Washington and Lee, with most of our military stores; when we consider that at one time the American army numbered less than two thousand men, we would not think it wonderful if all should have been given up for lost— and so it would, if the stake had been less. But our people believed that they had no right to abandon their cause of liberty. They were bound to protect it for themselves, and upon their success depended the freedom of their posterity. They must decide, whether or not, their children should be slaves. They must decide whether all people must bow their necks to the iron yoke of despotism, or whether they might anticipate a time when free institutions should prevail through the world. Our friend and his confederates of that day might have retired into an ignoble and contemptible security. They might have said, what is New Jersey to us? We have homes and firesides, which may be endangered. But they argued better: if we refuse to come to the rescue, we cannot expect security. We cannot propitiate the monster tyranny, by shrinking from our duty. Influenced by these considerations, our friends went to the rescue of our sister State.
    Our friend joined the army fully resolved to do his duty. Then was the time to test his vigor of body, as well as the firmness of his mind. For three days at one time, there was no regular service of provisions, and for more than thirty-six hours, at another time, they were constantly on the march, or in action, without a moment’s sleep or giving up their arms. In the course of one of their retreats, the commander-in-chief, through Colonel Potter, sent an order to Major Kelly to have a certain bridge cut down to prevent the advance of the British, who were then in sight. The major sent for an axe; but represented that the enterprise would be very hazardous. Still the British advance must be stopped, and the order was not withdrawn. He said he could not order another to do what some might say he was afraid to do himself; he would cut down the bridge.
    Before all the logs on which the bridge lay were cut off, he was completely within the range of the British fire, and several balls struck the log on which he stood. The last log broke down sooner than he expected, and he fell with it into the swollen stream. Our soldiers moved on, not believing it possible for him to escape. He, however, by great exertions, reached the shore through the high water and the floating timber, and followed the troops. Incumbered, as he must have been, with his wet and frozen clothes, he, on his road, made a prisoner of a British scout, an armed soldier, and took him into camp. What did Curtius do more than this? If such an instance of devoted heroism had happened in Greece or Rome, the day would have been distinguished from all other days. A medal would have been struck, and every means used to secure the everlasting remembrance of such a deed. In England such a man would have been made a knight or a lord, with the thanks of Parliament. In our poor devoted land such instances were too common to receive a special notice. History mentions that our army was preserved by the destruction of that bridge; but the manner in which it was done, or the name of the person who did it, is not mentioned. It was but one of a series of heroic acts, which happened every day, and our soldiers then were more familiar with the sword than with the pen. As we have met to erect a marble tomb over the remains of that individual, it is right for us to bring out this act into more bold relief.
    Let it be borne in mind, that at this time no arrangement had been made respecting prisoners; that the British commanders only admitted that they arrested rebels, and not that they took prisoners of war. Thus all who fought on our side, in addition to the common dangers of war, might expect, if taken, to suffer an ignominious death.
    After his discharge, Major Kelly returned to his farm and his family, and during the three succeeding years the Indians were troublesome neighbors to this then frontier settlement. He became colonel of the regiment, and it was his duty to keep watch and ward against the incursions of hostile Indians, through our mountain passes. At one time our people were too weak to resist, and our whole beautiful country was abandoned. Colonel Kelly was among the first to return-for at least two harvests reapers took their rifles to the fields, and some of the company watched while others wrought. Colonel Kelly had the principal command of the scouting parties in this Valley, and very often he was out in person. Many and many nights has he lain among the limbs of a fallen tree to keep himself out of the mud, without a fire, because a fire would indicate his position to the enemy. He had become well skilled in their mode of warfare. One circumstance deserves particular notice. The Indians seem to have resolved on his death, without choosing to attack him openly. One night he had reason to apprehend that they were near. He rose in the morning, and, by looking through the crevices of his log-house, he ascertained that two, at least, if not more, were laying with their arms, so as to shoot him when he should open his door. He fixed his own rifle, and took his position, so that by a string he could open the door, and watch the Indians. The moment he pulled the door open, two balls came into the house, and the Indians rose to advance. He tired and wounded one, and both retreated. After waiting to satisfy himself that no others remained, he followed them by the blood; but they escaped…

    He was sent home in 1777 by Gen Washington to “assist the settlers in resisting the Indians on the frontier”, so he knew all about the armies on those great battlefields, as well as those who fought everyday without names for the fields of their the fight.

  8. Kathy Kinsley says:

    THS, that’s an ancestor to be proud of – wish he’d been one of mine. Instead, I got Daniel Webster – who could outtalk the Devil (or so it’s said) but probably couldn’t fight worth a damn. Unfortunately, his sons evidently inherited the latter problem – anyone descended from him is descended through his daughters. 🙁

  9. Crusader says:

    I’m such a dork I think of the CVL USS Cowpens, the first USN flat top into Tokyo harbor at yhe end of yhe war. Yeah it was named after the battle, tho , so theres that.

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