We’re still in the southern theatre this week. For the last two weeks, we talked about a pivotal battle in the south: The Battle of Kings Mountain, and this week we’ll start the discussion on one of the most requested battles from my listeners: The Battle of Cowpens, here’s hoping that I do the story justice.
The Battle of Kings Mountain last week revolved heavily around the “Over Mountain Men” and local militia in the south. What we’ve neglected to talk about for the past two weeks was the status of the actual Continental Army under George Washington. Two days prior to the Battle of Kings Mountain, on October 5 1780 – the Continental Congress passed a resolution declaring that “that the Commander-in-Chief be and is hereby directed to appoint an officer to command the southern army, in the room of Major General Gates”
George Washington appointed Major General Nathanael Greene and on 2 December of 1780 – Greene arrived in Charlotte, NC to officially assume command of the “Grand Army” of the Southern Department. When he arrived, his command had a strength of 2500 on paper, 1000 fewer than that were actually present for duty, and of these, fewer than 800 were properly clothed and equipped. The army’s soldiers had, in Greene’s words, “lost all discipline” and had become “so addicted to plundering that they were a terror to the inhabitants”
To Greene the immediate material needs were obvious: the scanty reserve rations had to be replenished; horses and wagons must be found to haul provisions and supplies. Once these material needs were to be filled, discipline must be restored. Nothing could be accomplished in the army’s present location, however, so Greene’s first priority was to establish a “camp of repose” in an area where there was enough food and forage to sustain the army while it was being equipped and readed to take the field against Cornwallis.
Still not everything Greene inherited was a bad thing, From Gates he inherited superb leaders such as Brigadier General Daniel Morgan and Lieutenant Colonel John Eager Howard, as well as an able engineer in the Polish volunteer Thaddeus Koscuiszko.
Greene sent Kosciuszko on a recon mission to find a suitable location for his army’s camp. The engineer reported back with a recommended area centered on Cheraw near the Pee Dee River, some sixty miles southeast of Charlotte.
Cornwallis on the other hand had refitted his main body at Winnsboro SC and he had to continue to maintain his ring of outposts stretching from Augusta to Ninety-Six, to Camden, and to Georgetown on the coast. That widespread net of control required extensive lines of communication, and cutting those supply lines and raiding their security posts was the modus operandi of patriot militia leaders such as Marion, Sumter and Pickens.
Continental General Nathaniel Greene’s solution for his forces seemed as out of character as it was daring; he decided to divide his army in the face of a formidable opponent. In M.F. Treacy’s appraisal in his work, Prelude to Yorktown: “He did it himself, on his own responsibility. He called no council of war. He simply issued the orders, knowing full well that he was violating all the classic rules of warfare…Greene kne w the rules and the penalties for breaking them, but he was also a realist”
Greene’s reasoning for the decision to split his army between himself and Dan Morgan, with Morgan operating over 100 miles to the west, can be seen in five elegant pieces:
If Cornwallis struck in force against Greene at Cheraw, Morgan could at once attack Ninety-Six or Augusta
Conversely if Cornwallis moved in strength against Morgan, Greene could move to threaten Charleston and the British main supply line
If Cornwallis chose to resume his advance into North Carolina along the Camden-Charlotte-Salisbury axis, Morgan and Greene could move to threaten both British flanks or the main force’s rear
Greene and Morgan could rely on the superior mobility of their small forces to avoid pitched battle with the slower-moving main force of Cornwallis
In the unlikely event of Cornwallis’s remaining inactive at Winnsboro, Greene could use that valuable time in rehabilitating his army while increasing his support of partisan forays.
On 20 Dec 1780 Greene’s own wing of the army, nominally commanded by General Issac Huger of South Carolina, marched to Cheraw in order to establish Greene’s camp. Greene took with him about 1,100 men; 650 Continentals, 157 Maryland militia, and 303 Virginia militia. He then reconfirmed Morgan as commander of the light infantry and reinforced him, so that his total strengh of 600 included 320 Maryland and Delaware Continentals, 200 Virginia militia and 80 dragoons under Lt Colonel William Washington.
Morgan placed his infantry under the command of Lt Col John Eager Howard of Maryland. If Greene was fortunate in having Morgan in his army, Morgan was fortunate in having Howard and Washington, as events would soon show. Also, if Daniel Morgan name sounds familiar, it’s because we’ve talked about him when we discussed the events in Canada as well as Saratoga. Morgan, and the men he commanded were fierce fighters, respected and tough.
However after Canada and Saratoga Congress had not done right by Daniel Morgan. Forced to see junior officers promoted over him time and time again, he resigned his Colonel’s commission in July 1779 and returned to his farm in Frederick County, Virginia. In June of the following year, 1780, Morgan received orders from that same Congress that had passed him over to report to General Gates and be “employed in the Southern Army”. Since there was no mention of Brigadier General or even his former rank of Colonel – Morgan ignored the order. When he heard about the Camden disaster, however, he set aside his injured pride and went straight to HIllsboro to report to Gates, who assigned Morgan to the command of his newly formed corp of light infantry.
Congress finally made Morgan a brigadier general, effective the 13 Oct 1780. Greene then appointed Brigadier General Morgan to command of a force that would operate independently under Greene’s “instructions”. Morgan was to proceed to the west side of the Catawba River, where he would be joined by a body of volunteer militia units from General Davidson’s and General Sumter’s forces. He would operate against the enemy on the west side of the river, either offensively or defensively, “as your prudence and discretion may direct” An essential part of Morgan’s mission would be to “give protection to that part of the country and spirit up the people, to annoy the enemy in that quarter, collect the provisions and forage” If the enemy moved after Greene’s force, Morgan was to “move in such direction as will enable you to join me if necessary, or to fall back upon the flank or into the rear of the enemy, as occasion may require. You will spare no pains to get good intelligence of the enemy’s situation, and keep me constantly advised of both your and their movements.”
Morgan’s orders were dated 16 December 1780. Four days later, Greene and Huger were on the way. Heavy rains turned the roads to rivers of mud and the weak horses and men found it tough going, but on 26 December, they came to Cheraw Hill and established their base camp.
Morgan left Charlotte on the twenty-first, the day after Greene’s departure, made the fifty-eight miles to Pacolet River and on Christmas Day set up his camp near Grindall’s Shoals. The miserable weather and hard march were soon forgotten with the arrival of Major Joseph McDowell of Kings Mountain fame (we talked about him last week) with his 190 North Carolina riflemen, bringing Morgan’s strength to nearly 800 men. While planning his operations MOrgan had not forgotten his instructions to “give protection to the people” and to “annoy the enemy in that quarter”
Seeing an opportunity to do both, on 27 December he dispatched William Washington with his 80 dragoons and 200 mounted militia to intercept and destroy a Tory raiding party of 250 riders who had been raiding the Patriot settlements near Fair Forest Creek. Washington rode hard and struck with a vengeance. After covering forty miles on his second day, he attacked the Tories at Hammond’s Store, about thirty miles northeast of Ninety-Six, SC. Washington destroyed his enemy, killing or wounding 150 and capturing 40. Before returning to base, he sent Col Joseph Hayes fifteen miles closer to Ninety-Six with 40 dragoons to take a small British stockade called Fort Williams. Although Hayes did not linger in the area, a frantic message reached Cornwallis on New Year’s Day 1781 that the rebels were mounting a massive raid and he had already neared Ninety-Six
Over in Winnsboro, Cornwallis was puzzled. Why had the new rebel General (Greene) split an army that was already inferior in numbers and quality to his own? In regard to the division and size of Greene’s army, Cornwallis’s intelligence was accurate. The latest reports that he had received by the evening of 1 Jan had to be exaggerated. Morgan advancing on Ninety-Six with 3,000 men? Nonsense! He went back to his map and began to discern what Greene had done. Although it defied all the rules, the American general’s move made sense. Cornwallis saw what would happen if he struck out in force to his left at Morgan, toward his right at Huger (Greene’s main body) or up the center in North Carolina. Essentially Cornwallis now understood the five key points of Greene’s plan that we talked about a few moments ago
Cornwallis decided to answer not by dividing his army into two forces, but into three forces, to undertake a three pronged offensive. A mobile force under Lord Rawdon at Camden would operate to fend off Huger should he advance from Cheraw. Cornwallis himself with the main body would move north on or about 7th of January to mop up any of Morgan’s forces that remained. In order to combat Morgan, Cornwallis decided to set loose the now infamous Tarleton to track Morgan down, catch him, and/or destroy him.
Once Tarleton had destroyed Morgan, the next and final phase would be to turn on Greene and Huger with his main force, which would be aided by Rawdown and Tarleton.
Tarleton had in the meantime disposed of the rumor that Morgan was moving on Ninety-Six with 3,000 men; the British cavalry leader’s reconnaissance elements had confirmed that Washington’s strikes at Hammond’s Store and Fort Williams were made by raiders who had since withdrawn. In a letter to his chief dated 4 Jan 1781 – Tarleton proposed that he be sent to destroy Morgan’s corps or push it over the Broad River, toward Kings Mountain.
Cornwallis replied on 5 January “you have exactly done what I wished you to do [pushing on in pursuit of Morgan], and understood my intentions perfectly…. I propose marching on Sunday 7 Jan” Cornwallis actually left Winnsboro on 8 Jan, preceded by Tarleton, who had started after Morgan two days earlier. The hunt was on.
Banastre “Bloody Ban” Tarleton is hunting down Daniel “The Old Wagoneer” Morgan. While Tarleton’s nickname sounds more imposing, don’t let Morgan’s fool you. The man is intelligent, capable and tough, but hasn’t seen much action since Saratoga. This will be a battle to be remembered, and we’ll continue discussing it next week.
Also published on Medium.