Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Cowpens in Miniature 6

Part 6: In the Night
Previous: Tarleton's Pursuit

Early on the night of January 16, 1781, the American force, commanded by Brigadier-General Daniel Morgan, was making final preparations for the battle that was expected the following day.

Captain Samuel Hammond remembered that “Orders… [were] issued to the militia, to have twenty-four rounds of balls prepared and ready for use, before they retired to rest.”

Of special concern to Morgan was the huge British cavalry force. Some days before the battle, Morgan met with Colonel Richard Winn of South Carolina, who had previously fought against Lieutenant-Colonel Banastre Tarleton. According to Morgan, Winn asked him, “Do you think I shall be attacked by the British?” He answered, “I do and that by a Strong force from Winn's boro….” Morgan then asked, “Can you inform me the Manner Colo. Tarleton brings on his Attack?” Winn responded, “I can, Tarleton never brings on the Attack himself his mode of Fighting is to Surprise, by doing this he sends up two or three Troops of Horse and if he can throw the party into Confusion with his reserve he falls on and will cut them to pieces.”

More than anything, Morgan needed as many cavalrymen as possible to counter Tarleton. He had with him a force of Continental light dragoons under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel William Washington, but according to Josiah Martin, this force “amounted [only] to 72 as counted by the applicant the day before the battle.” Tarleton had around 300 mounted men (301 in my order of battle, not counting mounted infantry).

According to Thomas Young of South Carolina, “Night came upon us, yet much remained to be done. It was all important to strengthen the cavalry. Gen. Morgan knew well the power of Tarlton's legion, and he was too wily an officer not to prepare himself as well as circumstances would admit. Two companies of volunteers were called for. One was raised by Major Jolly of Union District, and the other, I think, by Major McCall. I attached myself to Major Jolly's company. We drew swords that night, and were informed we had authority to press any horse not belonging to a dragoon or an officer, into our service for the day.

Major Joseph McJunkin of South Carolina had a similar recollection. “On the night before the battle forty-five militia soldiers were enrolled as dragoons and placed under the command of Col. McCall and annexed to Washington's cavalry. These officers and men, in the respective commands, were far from being tyros in the art of war. They were marksmen and had generally been in the war from the commencement.”

In the meantime, Morgan visited his men in their encampment and offered words of encouragement. According to Young, “It was upon this occasion I was more perfectly convinced of Gen. Morgan's qualifications to command militia, than I had ever before been. He went among the volunteers, helped them fix their swords, joked with them about their sweet-hearts, told them to keep in good spirits, and the day would be ours. And long after I had laid down, he was going about among the soldiers encouraging them, and telling them that the old wagoner would crack his whip over Ben. (Tarleton) in the morning, as sure as they lived.

Young continued, “‘Just hold up your heads, boys, three fires,’ he would say, ‘and you are free, and 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 believe he slept a wink that night!”

He wasn’t as upbeat with all of the men as he was with Young. William Mitchel remembered Morgan sharing a bit of gallows humor. “General Morgan went around among the troops to give orders &c that when he got to Captain William Wilson's quarters, he said to him ‘Captain, don't let your men sleep too sound tonight, for Tarleton will attack us in the morning & we'll feel damn ugly with cold bayonets in our guts.’”

The British commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Banastre Tarleton, assumed that the Americans were retreating away from his force when in fact they were preparing for battle. Tarleton’s own bone-tired men slept on the grounds of the Americans’ former encampment. Finally, after hearing from his scouts he decided to make a night march of his own in the hope that his force would overtake the Americans before they crossed the Broad River.

Tarleton recorded that “at three o'clock in the morning on the 17th [see Note 1], the pickets… [were] called in, [and] the British troops… were directed to follow the route the Americans had taken the previous evening.” To expedite the march, “the baggage and wagons were ordered to remain upon the ground till daybreak, under the protection of a detachment of each corps” [see Note 2]. During the march, “Three companies of light infantry, supported by the legion infantry, formed the advance; the 7th regiment, the guns, and the 1st battalion of the 71st, composed the center; and the cavalry and mounted infantry brought up the rear.”

Tarleton thought that his movements were conducted in secrecy. In fact his force was being closely monitored. According to Major Joseph McJunkin of South Carolina, militia Colonels “Brandon and Roebuck, with some others, had the special charge of watching Tarleton's movements from the time he reached the Valley of the Pacolet. They sat on their horses as he approached and passed that stream and counted his men and sent their report to headquarters. They watched his camp on the night of the 16th until he began his march to give battle. Morgan appears to have had the most exact information of everything necessary.”


1. Lieutenant Roderick Mackenzie stated that the march began by 2pm. The earlier time implies that Tarleton gave his troops little time to rest between marches. Mackenzie felt that Tarleton had denigrated the troops in his postwar memoir. Differences in the accounts such as this one were designed to show that the troops had performed heroically under trying circumstances (and, by implication, that it was Tarleton who was at fault for the British defeat).

2. A very rough estimate, based on my earlier analysis of the British order of battle, is that 10 men each were selected for this purpose from the ranks of the 7th Foot, the 71st Foot, and the British Legion infantry. According to Mackenzie these men were placed under the command of Ensign Fraser of the 71st.


Joseph Johnson's 1851 Traditions and Reminiscences Chiefly of the American Revolution in the South is the original source of Hammond's statement.

Will Graves transcribed the statement by Colonel Richard Winn (.pdf file).

Susan K. Zimmerman and R. Neil Vance transcribed the pension application of Josiah Martin (.pdf file).

John Moncure's online history of the battle, The Cowpens Staff Ride and Battlefield Tour, includes a transcription of the statements by Hammond, Martin, Young, Hammond, McJunkin, Tarleton, and Mackenzie.

This issue (.pdf file) of The Southern Campaigns of the American Revolution magazine provides a complete treatment of McJunkin's statements.

Will Graves transcribed the pension application of William Wilson (.pdf), which includes the statement by William Mitchell.

Marg Baskin's Banastre Tarleton website has transcriptions of Tarleton's account and Mackenzie's Strictures.

Related: The American Cavalry - Part 1, The American Cavalry - Part 2, Mounted Militia

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