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The account of the battle of Cowpens that begins with this post is geared towards individuals that are already well acquainted with the Southern Campaign of the American Revolution. If this were a formal history of the battle, pains would be taken to explain the circumstances leading up to the battle of Cowpens and to introduce the major characters that were involved. Instead, this account begins on the eve of the battle and without such background information.
The small American army under Brigadier-General Daniel Morgan encamped near “the Cowpens” on the evening of January 16th, 1781. Not far from Morgan, and in pursuit of his army, was a British force under Lieutenant-Colonel Banastre Tarleton. Morgan monitored Tarleton’s movements carefully. The British had recently occupied a campground that the Americans had abandoned in the morning. Morgan later stated, “I received regular intelligence of the enemy's movements from the time they were first in motion. On the evening of the 16th inst., they took possession of the ground I had removed from in the morning, distant… about twelve miles.”
Unless the Americans resumed their retreat, the British would soon overtake his force. A further retreat would have been the prudent choice, and prudence had led him to abandon his previous encampment in favor of that near the Cowpens. Now, however, he had a change of heart. According to an acquaintance, Colonel Henry Lee, Morgan, “having been accustomed to fight and to conquer, did not relish the eager and interrupting pursuit of his adversary; and sat down at the Cowpens to give rest and refreshment to his harassed troops, with a resolution no longer to avoid action, should his enemy persist in pressing it.”
Morgan rode over the area and settled on a prospective battlefield. Captain Dennis Tramel of South Carolina was with Morgan at this time because he was “well acquainted with the local Situation of the ground.” Tramel, and “the company under his command” “went out and selected the ground upon which the Battle was fought” “with Genl. Morgan and his life-guard and Aide d camp.” [see Note 1]
According to Tramel, Morgan remarked, “Captain here is Morgan's grave or victory.” Colonel Richard Winn spoke with Morgan after the battle; Morgan told him that his words had been “on this ground I will Defeat the British or lay my Bones,” after which he chose “the place for his grave.”
Miniature Version of the Cowpens Battlefield.
Colonel Winn looked over the battlefield afterwards and said that it “would not have been my Choice.” The battlefield, he thought, was inadequate to the defense, especially against Tarleton’s large force of dragoons. He said, “In the first place it was Even Enough to make race paths Covered Over with a Small Growth of trees midling Open without underwoods.” In other words, there was nothing to impede a British cavalry charge. Furthermore, the British could easily maneuver around the American position because there was “Nothing to defend Either in front Rear or flank.” Under these circumstances, with “the force of the British Horse and Advantage of the Ground they had, the Advantage Over Morgan [was] as two is to One.”
Henry Lee made similar remarks. “The ground about the Cowpens is covered with open wood, admitting the operation of cavalry with facility, in which the enemy trebled Morgan. His flanks had no resting place, but were exposed to be readily turned.” Even worse, “the Broad river ran parallel to his rear, forbidding the hope of a safe retreat in the event of disaster.”
At this point, Morgan likely met with his principal subordinates, Lieutenant-Colonel John Eager Howard of the Continental infantry and Lieutenant-Colonel William Washington of the Continental cavalry. Their reaction to his decision is not recorded, but Lee knew both men well, and their concerns may have shaped Lee’s postwar comments.
Lee wrote, “This decision grew out of irritation of temper, which appears to have overruled the suggestions of his sound and discriminating judgment.” Lee thought that Morgan should have immediately crossed the Broad before Tarleton could reach him. Not far beyond was King’s Mountain, a well-known landmark. According to Lee, “Had Morgan crossed this river, and approached the mountain, he would have gained a position disadvantageous to cavalry, but convenient for riflemen; and would have secured a less dangerous retreat.” Perhaps Washington or Howard suggested as much. “But these cogent reasons, rendered more forcible by his inferiority in numbers, could not prevail. Confiding in his long tried fortune, conscious of his personal superiority in soldiership, and relying on the skill and courage of his troops, he adhered to his resolution.”
Morgan knew that the inexperienced militia were often unreliable once the fighting began. After the war he defended his decision to fight at Cowpens in cynical terms. “[A]s to covering my wings,” which as Winn and Lee pointed out, were vulnerable to attack, “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. I would have thanked Tarleton had he surrounded me with his cavalry. It would have been better than placing my own men in the rear to shoot down 1 broke from the ranks. When men are forced to fight, they will sell their lives dearly; and I knew that the dread of Tarleton's cavalry would give due weight to the protection of my bayonets, and keep my troops from breaking as Bufort's regiment did” [Note 2]. Besides, Morgan thought, crossing the Broad River would not have really brought his men to safety. “Had I crossed the river, one half of the militia would immediately have abandoned me.”
Morgan (with perhaps the assistance of Washington and Howard) then developed his battle plan.
That evening the American camp was abuzz with the news that Morgan intended to fight the British. Militiaman Thomas Young recalled that "We arrived at the field of the Cowpens about sun-down, and were then told that there we would meet the enemy. The news was received with great joy by the army." The militia either did not appreciate the fact that their position was a relatively disadvantageous one, or their eagerness to fight the British overruled whatever reservations they may have had about the chosen battlefield.
William Mitchel recalled that “on the night previous to the battle, a Council of war was held where it was determined that they should fight the next morning.” Morgan personally had decided to fight the British, but he was unable to offer battle without the full cooperation of the commanders of the Southern militia serving with him.
According to Captain Samuel Hammond of South Carolina, “A general order, forming the disposition of the troops, in case of coming to action" had been prepared earlier. At the meeting, this "was read to Colonels [Andrew] Pickens and [James] McCall, Major [James] Jackson and the author of these notes [Hammond]." Morgan's plan was sound and helped convince the militia commanders that Tarleton could be defeated. [see Note 3].
Major Joseph McJunkin of South Carolina, who may also have been present, remembered that “On the night of Jan. 16… [Morgan] now had his entire force [assembled] and the question must be decided, "Shall we fight or fly?" The South Carolina Militia demanded a fight… Here the final decision is to risk battle.”
1. The aide-de-camp was either Peter William Joseph Ludwig, the “Baron de Glaubeck.” or Major Edward Giles of the Maryland Regiment Extraordinary.
2. A reference to the destruction of Colonel Abraham Buford's command at the Battle of Waxhaws.
3. These were some of the principal commanders of the Southern militia with Morgan. Probably also present were Major Joseph McDowell of North Carolina, and Colonels Joseph Hayes and John Thomas of South Carolina, but Hammond did not mention them. Details of Morgan's plan will appear in a future post.
John Moncure's online history of the battle, The Cowpens Staff Ride and Battlefield Tour, includes a transcription of Morgan's report, and the statements by Tramel, Young, Hammond, and McJunkin.
Henry Lee's 1812 Memoirs of the War in the Southern Department of the United States
Will Graves transcribed the statement by Colonel Richard Winn.
William Johnson's 1822 Sketches of the Life and Correspondence of Nathanael Greene has the final quote from Morgan.
Will Graves transcribed the pension application of William Wilson (.pdf), which includes the statement by William Mitchell.
Joseph Johnson's 1851 Traditions and Reminiscences Chiefly of the American Revolution in the South is the original source of Hammond's statement.
This issue (.pdf file) of The Southern Campaigns of the American Revolution magazine provides a complete treatment of McJunkin's statements.
Related: The Cowpens Battlefield, Morgan's Report, The Hammond Map