Sunday, March 29, 2009

Cowpens in Miniature 5

Part 5: Tarleton's Pursuit
Previous: Morgan's Decision

In the evening of January 16th, the British force commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Banastre Tarleton reached what had been the encampment of the American army under Brigadier-General Daniel Morgan.

Tarleton’s men were given a chance to rest and eat. Meanwhile, “Patroles and spies were immediately dispatched to observe the Americans.” Tarleton had with him men well suited to this task, including a large body of cavalry and some mounted infantry. He also had the services of a number of Loyalist volunteer scouts. Tarleton remarked that, “The dragoons were directed to follow the enemy till dark, and the other emissaries to continue their inquiries till morning, if some material incident did not occur.” Tarleton did not immediately learn to where his enemy was fleeing. However, “Early in the night the patroles reported that General Morgan had struck into byways, tending towards Thickelle [Thicketty] creek: A party of determined loyalists made an American colonel prisoner, who had casually left the line of march, and conducted him to the British camp.”

Following “The examination of the militia colonel,” [see Note 1] and after receiving other reports, Tarleton made up his mind to pursue Morgan further. At the very least he was convinced of “the propriety of hanging upon General Morgan's rear, to impede the junction of reinforcements, said to be approaching.” Tarleton also knew that ahead of Morgan was a formidable obstacle, the Broad River. Tarleton hoped to “prevent his passing [the] Broad river” if at all possible.

From the state of the Americans’ former encampment, it appeared that they had retreated hastily. Tarleton found there “plenty of provisions, which they had left behind them, half cooked, in every part of their encampment.” He concluded that, “The Americans to avoid an action, left their camp, and marched all night.” One of Tarleton’s junior officers, Lieutenant Roderick Mackenzie, remembered reaching Morgan’s abandoned encampment “about ten o'clock on the evening of the l6th of January,” and also thought that “Morgan had quitted [only] a few hours before.” In fact, the Americans had begun their retreat in the morning and had arrived at their new encampment by the evening.

One who would have had a better knowledge of the timing of the Americans’ retreat was the Loyalist Alexander Chesney. Chesney was out scouting for Tarleton on the 16th and was perhaps the first scout to discover the Americans’ retreat. When he reached their encampment he “found the fires burning but no one there.” This must have been at some time in the afternoon. However, rather than immediately report this fact to Tarleton, he apparently first tried to learn where the Americans were heading. He “rode to my father's who said Morgan was gone to the Old-fields about an hour before” [see Note 2]. Chesney then rode home, where his wife confirmed what his father had said. There he also learned that the Americans “had used or destroyed my crop & took away almost every thing.” At this point he “immediately returned to col Tarleton,” but did not find him. By this time (early morning on the 17th), Tarleton had long since “marched to the Old fields.”


1. The identity of this alleged colonel is unknown.

2. The “old-fields” was evidently another term used to refer to the Cowpens area; one American participant used the same term.


Marg Baskin's Banastre Tarleton website has transcriptions of Tarleton's account, Mackenzie's Strictures, and other records pertaining to the British Legion.

The Journal of Alexander Chesney

Related: Tarleton's Narrative, Alexander Chesney's Rivulet, The Cowpens Battlefield

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