Episode 064

Tarleton v Morgan – The Battle of Cowpens, Part II

This week we continue our discussion on the Battle of Cowpens and we see what happens when an over eager Tarletan engages a poised and ready Daniel Morgan.

We have seen something of Tarleton and his operating model at Waxhaws a few months ago. The cocky redhead and his black dragoon helmet stand out in about as dashing a pose as a cavalryman could wish. In fact, Tarleton is so famous (or infamous depending on what side of the battle you were on) that in the movie The Patriot (to which I have many problems historically, but that’s the scope of another podcast) the villain character: Col. William Tavington is based upon and inspired by, you guessed it: Banastre Tarleton. And also, Mel Gibson’s character: Benjamin Martin is comprised and inspired by 4 patriots we’ve talked alot about – Andrew Pickens, Francis Marion, Thomas Sumter, and you guessed it: Daniel Morgan

By the time the Battle of Cowpens would roll around, Tarleton was in control of the British Legion which was a combined force of green-jacketed dragoons and light infantry, sometimes mounted, recruited from Loyalists in New York and New Jersey. He and his legion had come to South Carolina with Clinton and Cornwallis, and by January of 1781 he had three victories in the south: Monck’s Corner, Lenud’s Ferry, and Waxhaws. We didn’t see much of him during the Battle of Kings Mountain or the campaign surrounding it as he had become desperately ill with a fever, but he was now completely recovered and itching for action.

His force moving after Morgan consisted of his legion of 300 dragoons and 250 infantry; a battalion of the 71st Highlanders, 200 men; the 7th Regiment, whose 200 men had yet to see action; 50 troopers of the 17th Light Dragoons; a detachment of the Royal Artillery with two “grasshoppers”, and a small party of Loyalist militia; in all a total of 1,100 men. Now, grasshopper artillery is not something we’ve had a lot of experience with so far, they were light three-pound guns carried on horseback and mounted on legs in the firing position. The legs and the fact that the gun bounced when fired, apparently account for the name “grasshopper”.

Tarleton’s northwest advance after Morgan got off to anything but a good start. The rains set in to slow down operations. Tarlteon moved only as far as Duggin’s Plantation on Indian Creek. There he was stuck, halted by rains and swollen streams, from Jan 6 – 9. In the meantime, Cornwallis was having his own troubles. It took him eight days to cover the forty miles from Winnsboro to Hillhouse Plantation on Turkey Creek, where he encamped on 16 January. During the 9-16 of Jan, Cornwallis received only 1 communication from Tarleton, and as a result did not know that on the 14th, Tarleton had crossed the Enoree and the Tyger Rivers and was in hot pursuit of Morgan. Tarleton was unaware that Cornwallis had slowed his own advance at Turkey Creek on the assumption that Tarleton was still being delayed by swollen rivers.

From his camp at Grindall Shoals on the Pacolet River, Morgan had written Nathaniel Greene a gloomy letter on 4 January wherein, in uncharacteristic fashion, he set down a whole catalog of woes. Greene, however, was cheerful in both his knowledge of the enemy’s troubles and his reply on 13 January: “It is my wish also that you should hold your ground if possible, for I foresee the disagreeable consequences that will result from a retreat….Col Tarleton is said to be on his way to pay you a visit. I doubt not but he will have a decent reception and a proper dismission” – Prophetic words indeed.

Morgan no doubt intended to “hold his ground” but he wanted the ground to be that of HIS choosing not of Tarleton’s. Consequently, when he learned of his enemy’s crossing the Enoree and Tyger rivers with a force of over a thousand men, Morgan moved on 15 January to block the fords across the Pacelot. His scouts then informed him that Tarleton had moved up the Pacolet to Old Iron Works. Morgan saw at once that if Tarleton got his force across the river above him, he would be posted to turn him out of his main position at Grindall Shoals, or by moving eastward get between Morgan and Greene. So Morgan moved his force upriver and camped on the north side at Old Iron Works.

For once Morgan underestimated his opponents maneuvering skill, Tarleton did indeed move to Old Iron Works and camped across the river from Morgan. In the darkness of the early morning, however, Tarleton quietly broke camp and slipped away downriver to cross the Pacolet at Easterwood Shoals, only six miles below Morgan. Morgan learned of Tarleton’s crossing about 6:00am on 16 Jan and wasted no time in falling back toward Thicketty Creek, His retreat was followed by Tarleton’s patrols, one of which discovered that the Americans had moved again, and so hurriedly that their breakfast had been left half cooked on their camp fires. Tarleton let his light troops finish off the breakfast while he wrote to Cornwallis that “Morgan is in force and gone for Cherokee Ford…I am now on my march. I wish he could be stopped.”

Tarleton was now expecting Cornwallis to move toward Kings Mountain in order to prevent Morgan from moving east towards Greene. Perhaps they could entrap the rebel between the two British forces. Unfortunately for Tarleton, Cornwallis was not close enough to threaten Morgan, Equally unfortunate for the British cause was Tarleton’s assumption that Morgan would not stand and fight. Morgan had given Tarleton good reason for believing that the American force was in full retreat – for indeed it was. In Kenneth Roberts words, from his work “The Battle of Cowpens”: “There was no question about it: Morgan and his army were running for dear life, and the one certain thing that Morgan couldn’t risk was having Tarleton’s cavalry catch him in the running”

There were plenty of things to weighed in Morgan’s mind while he was making the forced march on the 16th Jan 1781. John Eager Howard’s mixed force of Continentals and veteran Virginia militia constituted no problem, they were superbly led, and the Virginians were mostly old Continental soldiers who had served their terms of enlistment and rejoined as volunteers. It was the other militia that bothered Morgan, if he positioned them near swamps to protect his flanks or rear from Tarleton’s dragoons, he might as well wave them a goodbye; militia were attracted to swamps, because most of these low country boys could disappear into a swamp like magic.

He had to find a field where he could put his militia of Carolinians and Georgians where they would be fighting in front of Howard’s men, which comprised the hardcore line of his army. Morgan was bold to stay and fight. Only two days before, he had learned that his enemy’s force consisted of mainly regular and veteran units, and those units probably outnumbered his own by 3 to 1. Nevertheless, he was sick and tired of running, and moreover, if he kept on running he would soon face the problem of getting his force across the swollen Broad River with Tarleton hot on his trail.

Daniel Morgan was not dismayed, however; all indications are that he was more annoyed than anything. He was well aware of Tarleton’s impetuous charges, his hell-for-leather tactics that could destroy and enemy caught by surprise. Morgan talked with a number of officers who could give him their personal experience of his foes tactics, Morgan was STUDYING his enemy. “Tarleton never brings on the attack himself” said Colonel Winn, who had commanded Sumter’s reserve at the battle of Blackstock’s Plantation. “His mode of fight is surprise. By doing this he sends two or three troops of horse, and if he can throw the party in confusion, with the reserve he falls on and cuts them to pieces.”

Sometime by mid afternoon a messenger from Andrew Pickens reached Morgan. Pickens had crossed the Broad River with about 150 mounted militia. Other groups of militia were also coming, by different routes to join him. The question was of course, where should they meet him? Since Morgan and all the joiners were in motion, there had to be a designated place where all could converge and it had to be nearby.

One of the most trusted officers Morgan could ask for advice was Major Joseph McDowell. The Patriots last assembly area before the battle had been at Suander’s place at Cowpens. McDowell described Cowpens: It consisted mainly of rolling or flat ground, with some stands of hickory, pines, or red oaks he said. There was no underbrush, and the long grass made fine pasturing for cattle that were turned loose to forage through the open forest. The center of the area, marked by the Green River Road, was about five miles from the Broad River and from Morgan’s present location.

Morgan made his decision. He sent messages to Pickens and the other oncoming militia leaders to meet him at Cowpens. Then he rode ahead to recon, taking with him Howard and the senior military leaders. They approached the Cowpens area from the south, coming up the red clay trail known as the Green River Road, because Morgan wanted to familiarize his officers with the road that Tarleton’s force would have to use to come into Cowpens. Again – we see Morgan gathering INTELLIGENCE. When he lead his party out of the woods at the south end of Cowpens, Morgan halted to survey the ground in front of him to the northwest. The ground – meadowlike, as described by McDowell – sloped gradually upward to a low crest about 400 yards ahead. Beyond that was what appeared to be a ridge formed by two small hills. Morgan would later find that behind the nearer crest was a swale or extended dip running about 80 yards to the far more northern crest.

The terrain was ideal for the movements of cavalry and there were no obstacles such as thick woods, swamps or underbrush which could have served to cover Morgan’s flanks. In addition the Broad River about five miles distant curved around the rear of the position, cutting off a retreat in that direction. But Morgan had more on his mind as we see in one of his later writings: “I would not have had a swamp in view of my militia on any consideration; they would have made for it….And as to covering my wings, I knew my adversary, and was perfectly sure I should have nothing but downright fighting. As to retreat, it was the very thing I wished to cut off all hope of…Had I crossed the river on 16th Jan one half of my militia would immediately have abandoned me”. Morgan has essentially given his men only one option to go home to their families. Fight through the enemy. Push them off the field.

Morgan positioned his infantry in three battle lines, using the Green River Road to mark the center of positions. The first line to encounter Tarleton’s advance would be made up of 150 picked riflemen: North Carolinians under Major McDowell and Georgians under Major John Cunningham. The riflemen were to take cover – and wait until their targets were within fifty yards. Then they were to pick off “the men with the epaulets” getting at least two hits before they fell back to take their places in the second line of militia. Now an epaulet is a type of ornamental shoulder piece or decoration used as insignia of rank by armed forces and some civilian organizations. Essentially what Morgan told these men to do was simple: “Shoot the officers”

The second line of militia about 300 men, would be commanded by Andrew Pickens and would be posted astride the road 150 yards to the rear of the first line. Morgan instructed the second line to get off at least two aimed volleys at a killing distance of 50 paces and then withdraw – but not to the rear. Instead the whole force – the riflemen and militia of both lines – was to file off to the left, pass round the left flank of the third line and reassemble in the rear, under cover as part of the army’s reserve. Morgan did this for 2 reasons. 1 – he knew they would break and retreat, so rather than letting them do it themselves, he ordered them to do it, thus controlling the situation. 2 – By withdrawing to the side of the line, it kept the 3rd line of men in position and ready to fire sooner than if men were retreating through their line.

The third line, the main battle line was to be positioned 150 yards behind the second line, just below the topographical crest of the first ridge. It would consist of the Maryland and Delaware Continentals in the center astride the road, flanked on the right by Tate’s Virginians and a company of Georgians. On the left of the Continentals would be Triplett’s Virginians. The whole was to be commanded by Lt. Col Howard. Morgan’s main battle line was composed of as good a veteran infantry as would ever be found in an American army – battle hardened men under of the the outstanding leaders of the war. John Eager Howard.

Finally in reserve, under another formidable leader would be Col William Washington’s 80 dragoons, reinforced by a provisional battalion of 45 mounted militiamen from North Carolina and Georgia under Lt Col James McCall. McCall’s men were to be armed with sabers issued from a supply wagon. The cavalry were to be posted to the rear of the second ridge, about a half mile behind Howard’s line. In Morgan’s summation one can imagine him ending his orders with something like this “The whole idea is to lead Benny into a trap, so we can blast his cavalry and infantry as they come up these slopes. When they’ve been cut down by our fire, THEN we’ll attack THEM”. Morgan liked to refer to Tarleton as Ben or Benny, I doubt that he did so out of respect.

Morgan did one more thing that shows his savvy as a commander. He informed his senior officers and his junior officers of the plan, but he would not rest until he was assured that EVERY soldier understood the plan and the part that he was to play in the battle. He also personally greeted Andrew Pickens and his 150 mounted men as they came in as well as other groups, also making sure that THEY knew the plan. Thomas Young, of Major Jolly’s SC militia remembers: “It was upon this occasion that I was more perfectly convinced of General Morgan’s qualifications to command militia than I had ever been before…Long after I laid down, he was going among the soldiers encouraging them and telling them that the “old Wagoneer” would crack his whip over Ben in the morning, as sure as he lived – ‘Just hold up your head boys’ he would say, ‘three fires and you’re free! And then when you return to your homes, how the old folks will bless you, and the girls kiss you, for your gallant conduct’ I don’t think he even slept a wink that night.”

Morgan made his final round of the camp before first light, ignoring his rheumatism. There was still time left to make the most important inspection of all. He rode the lines. He joked with McDowell’s and Cunningham’s forward-line riflemen as he rode past, but his oft-repeated reminders to aim for the epaulet men had deadly meaning. When he reached Howard’s line of Continentals and veteran militia, he ceased his exhortations. Stirring speeches or instructions on how to do their duty would have been insulting to these veterans. So Morgan took up his post behind his final line, His men were as ready as they could get. As for his enemy, Morgan could only hope that Tarleton’s men had been turned out to march in the cold darkness across creeks, ravines and rough trails.

Tarleton had indeed turned his men out long before daylight. He had reveille beaten at 2:00am and within the hour his column was on the march. During the night Tarleton had gotten reports that the rebels “had struck into byways” that led toward Thicketty Creek. That same evening some of the Loyalist scouts brought in a prisoner, a rebel militia colonel who had apparently lost his unit. Tarleton questioned him and the information he got confirmed that of his scouts: he was within striking distance of Morgan’s force, and it was imperative that the Americans be prevented from crossing the Broad River.

Accordingly Tarleton took up a tactical order of march appropriate to a mobile column of pursuit prepared for a swift strike against its enemy. He stripped his force of its baggage and wagons, which were left to follow at daybreak. Three companies of light infantry, supported by the legion infantry made up the British advance guard. The 7th Regiment (with the two three pound grasshoppers) and the 1st battalion of the 71st composed the armies center, and the cavalry and mounted infantry brought up the rear. An advance guard of light infantry and the cavalry in the rear was a sensible arrangement for moving through broken terrain much intersected by creeks and ravines. The march proceeded even more slowly because of the need to scout out the front and flanks. Thicketty Creek was crossed before dawn, when and advance guard of cavalry was ordered forward.

Part of the advance cavalry ran into an American patrol of Georgia Rangers led by Cpt Inman. The British captured two Americans, but Inman and the rest got away to report the encounter to Morgan. When questioned, the prisoners revealed that the Americans had encamped only five miles further on at Cowpens. Tarleton at once sent forward Cpt Ogilvie of the legion with two companies of dragoons. About 6:45AM, Ogilvie rode up the Green River Road and came out of the woods into Cowpens – He had a few troopers advance cautiously into the open and drew scattered shots from over eager riflemen – Ogilvie sent his fastest messenger back to Tarleton – Morgan had not only halted – but his army had formed for battle.

Tarleton took his time and called in his local Loyalist guides, who gave him a hasty but accurate description of the ground General Morgan and his men occupied. An exultant Tarleton was sure that at last he had got Morgan where he wanted him, pinned down with a swollen river at his rear!

Tarleton took no time to rest his troops, who had just made a four hour night march through rugged terrain, nor did he even consider a halt – he rode forward with his command party to scout the American position while his column continued to advance up the Green River Road. According to Christopher Ward, in his work: War of the American Revolution ” a sight of the first line of riflemen checked him before he was near enough to observe satisfactorily the main battle line. He at once ordered his Legion cavalry forward to dislodge the sharpshooters”. They broke from a walk into a trot, an advance calculated to drive in the American forward line. A sudden rattle of rifle fire, caused the dragoons to pull up short. The lucky ones wheeled and returned to the woods, with fifteen out of 50 saddles empty.

Undismayed Tarleton ordered his column to move into the open some 400 yards in front of the American front line, and deploy into battle formation. He put his light infantry on the right with one grasshopper on its left. In the center the legion infantry was deployed with the other grasshopper on it’s left. The 7th Regiment formed on the left of the legion infantry. A detachment of fifty dragoons covered each force clank, with the 71st Highlanders and 200 legion cavalry in reserve. Tarleton was eager, and he couldn’t restrain himself, he issued the order to attack before all of his commanders were ready to advance. He had the grasshoppers open fire as the infantry marched forward, the first line of American riflemen fell back, firing as they withdrew, still taking their toll of British casualties. They then found places in Picken’s line, which was standing steadily in place, ready to deliver the first volley.

The second line of militia had not long to wait, undeterred by the fire of the skirmishes, the long ranks of British soldiers were coming on. When those ranks were at a sure killing distance – less than 100 paces – the first volley tore into the British line. The effect was a shock that was quickly followed by a second volley. The overall effect was to smash the British into a stunned halt; more than 40 percent of the marksmen’s victims were officers, just as Morgan had urged.

Even so, the British reformed and, bayonets at the ready, their realigned line came on. Now was the moment of decision. If Andrew Pickens militia panicked and fled, all would be lost for the Americans…But the militia proceeded to carry out Morgan’s order to take off to the left – though not without a hitch – rather than filing around and reforming, they headed for their horses tethered far to the rear, eventually however their officers stemmed the flood and reformed the men into their companies and battalions.

Tarleton saw the running retreat of Picken’s militia as a golden opportunity for a cavalry charge. He ordered Ogilvie to take the 50 dragoons on the right and charge into the “fleeing” Americans. Ogilvie’s dragoons charged – sabers ready. Then they were hit, first by the fire of Triplett’s Virginia riflemen, then by a counter charge by Washington and his dragoons. Coming down on Ogilvies right flank – Washington’s dragoons with McCalls mounted men sent the British dragoons flying for the rear. Now Picken’s militia could complete their retreat in safety.

All of the actions, from the first cavalry movement by Tarleton to the Failed charge by Ogilvie had taken place in less than 20 minutes, and by 7:15 AM Tarleton was readying for a renewed frontal attack. His infantry, with the American militia out of the way, could now advance and finish up the job on Morgan’s third line. A cheering British infantry advanced up the slopes, only to be stopped abruptly by a volley from Howard. The line staggered, but recovered. British discipline prevailed over shock and Tarleton’s infantry returned the American volley.

For nearly half an hour a vicious firefight continued with neither side giving ground. Seeing the opposing forces apparently equally balanced. Tarleton decided to tip the scales in his favor and gave Major McArthur of the 71st the order to move out around 7:30 AM. Spotting the movement of the Highlanders – Morgan looked down his right front and saw Howard riding toward his right flank. Well beyond the right of Howard’s line he could see the Highlanders marching in column and swinging wide around the British left flank. As Morgan watched, however, mere observation changed to something like shock – unknown to Morgan, Howard had decided to draw back his right flank to oppose the oncoming Highlanders – but to Morgan it looked as if howard and his men were turning away and putting their backs to the oncoming enemy.
In reality Howard had ordered Wallace to change front by 90 degrees. The company should have been given the command to face about, followed by the command to wheel to the left and halt. Instead of wheeling left, however, through some error or misunderstanding the company had marched straight ahead after facing about – that is – straight to the rear. The adjacent units followed suit. Seeing that so far nothing had been lost, Howard decided to let the motion continue until he could halt the line and form them into a new position.

Soon after Howard’s movement, the British infantry resumed their attack – rushing forward for the kill. This time their spirited and hasty advance was disorganized and out of control. The situation was EXACTLY what Howard wanted. When his line had moved far enough up the slope of the second ridge, he was ready for Morgan’s order to face about and fire. When the British were only fifty paces away, Howard gave the order to fire and the Americans delivered their most destructive volley yet. This time, shock beat discipline and Howard ordered a bayonet charge into the reeling mass of stunned survivors.

Howard’s charge, itself enough of a blow to have finished off Tarleton’s infantry, was capped by another blow. While Howard’s line had been marching to the rear, Washington had sent a message to Morgan stating: “They’re coming on like a mob, Give them one fire, and I’ll charge them” Morgan ordered Washington to do just that. Washington’s and McCall’s horsemen thrust aside Ogilvie’s dragoons on the British right and smashed into the flank and rear of the shaken British infantry, sabering down fugitives right and left. The first mass surrender was made by Major New Marsh’s recruits of the 7th Regiment, who threw themselves on the ground and bellowed for quarter. They might have gotten a taste of “Tarleton’s Quarter” but American officers stopped it before it got started and called on the beaten British to “thrown down your arms, and we’ll give you good quarter”

Other British troops on the far right – light infantry and legionnaires – now tried to get away by fleeing to the right rear, but McCall led his horsemen in pursuit and rounded up some 200 fugitives

. By this time Tarleton was seeing his right and center dissolving before his eyes. On his left the Highlanders were still hotly engaged with the right of Howard’s line. The fighting Scots, however, were a doomed lot. Picken’s reformed units had by this time made a three quarter circle of the battle and had formed into a firing line on the Highlanders left rear. Tarleton sent forward a company of legion cavalry to relieve the pressure on McArthur’s men, but the dragoons, taken under fire by Picken’s riflemen, broke and fled the field. Even then, the Highlanders, surrounded now on three sides by the incessant fire of Picken’s and Howard’s men, continued to fight on. Major McArthur tried to lead them in a breakout, but after losing nine of sixteen officers, with his men reduced to hand to hand fighting, the gallant Scot was forced to surrender his battalion.

The only reserve that Tarleton now had left was the 200 legion dragoons. But when he gave the order to advance the dragoons, the men that Tarleton himself had led to victory in at least a dozen actions, in Tarleton’s own words: “forsook their leader, and left the field of battle”

Even then, Tarleton was not through fighting. He rallied “fourteen officers and forty horsemen” and made a dash to save the guns. But this last desperate effort was too late. The blue-coated Royal Artillery gun crews had fought their guns to the last. Patriots under Captains Anderson and Kirkwood, on Howard’s orders, took the guns in a swift charge. The British artillerymen continued to defend their guns until the last of them fell.

Tarleton could now only save himself and a handful of followers. He led their retreat from the field; when he looked over his shoulder he saw Washington following in hot pursuit, doubtless intending to make Tarleton the finest trophy of the American victory. What followed was a pure drama…Tarleton and his horsemen turned, and Washington slashed at the officer on Tarleton’s right, only to have his sword break near the hilt. Before the British officer could saber him, however, he was shot through the shoulder of his sword arm. Next the officer on Tarleton’s left slashed at Washington, but Sgt Maj Perry deflected the blow. Now Tarleton himself, his saber upraised, charged Washington, who parried the slash with his broken sword. Tarleton then fired his pistol at Washington, missing his target, but wounding Washington’s horse. In Robert Bass’s words, in The Green Dragoon “having fired the last shot at Cowpens, Banastre Tarleton galloped after his fleeing Green Horse”

It is said that Morgan, in his excitement over his dazzling victory picked up a nine-year-old drummer boy and kissed him on both cheeks. But there was much to be done, and little time in which to do it. He placed Pickens in charge of mopping up the battlefield: taking care of the wounded, dead, and prisoners while supervising the loading up of the captured material and supplies. Morgan marched off at noon followed by his wagon train, to cross the Broad River and camp on its far side that same day.

The comparison of losses at Cowpens is startling: Tarleton had, in effect, lost his entire force: 110 killed, 830 captured (including 200 wounded) 2 regimental colors, 2 grasshoppers, 800 muskets, 35 baggage wagons, 60 Negro slaves, 100 cavalry horses and large stores of ammunition. An interesting fact about the 2 grasshoppers, these artillery pieces were captured from the British at Saratoga, lost to the British at Camden and retaken by the Americans at Cowpens.

Morgan’s losses were 12 killed, 61 wounded. In one hour he had cost Cornwallis his entire left striking arm and brought the opening strategy of his campaign down in ruin.

The news of Cowpens was a boost to American morale that spread across the colonies from south to north. In contrast to Kings Mountain, which was regarded as an affair between backwoodsmen and Loyalists, Cowpens was seen as a victory of an American combination of regulars and militia over veteran British regulars in a stand-up fight. The news so shocked Congress that it voted Brig. General Morgan, who was usually passed over for honors, a gold medal. Washington and Howard were awarded with silver medals, and Pickens was awarded a sword.

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