While the Americans were deploying for battle, the British were on the last leg of their march to Cowpens. In front, the British vanguard swept down the Green River Road, seeking out the Americans. After engaging Sergeant Lawrence Everhart’s patrol, they next encountered Morgan’s vedettes. Major Joseph McJunkin recalled that, “The guns of the vedettes, led by Capt. [Joshua] Inman, announce the approach of the foe.” Major James Jackson of George confirmed that Inman was in command. In a letter to Morgan he wrote, “[Inman] was particularly serviceable to you in advertising you of the enemy’s approach and skirmishing with their advance.”
Little is known about these vedettes, but they appear to have included both Georgians and South Carolinians and to have been sufficiently numerous to pose some armed resistance to the advancing British. A “vedette” is, by definition, a mounted sentry, although it's not clear that all were in fact on horseback [see Note 1]. The British vanguard charged at the vedettes with slashing sabres. Some were cut down, others nearly so. South Carolina militiaman Thomas Young recalled “Our pickets were stationed three miles in advance…. Samuel Clowney was one of the picket guards, and I often heard him afterwards laugh at his narrow escape. It was about day that the pickets were driven in.”
As the vedettes were driven back, the British vanguard was soon able to come within sight of the American army. The horsemen halted and sent word to Tarleton, who was with the main body.
Tarleton soon learned from “the commanding officer in front… that the American troops were halted and forming.” Tarleton knew nothing about this location, only that he had caught up with the Americans before they could retreat across the Broad River (or so he supposed; see Note 2).
Tarleton wrote, “The guides were immediately consulted relative to the ground which General Morgan the occupied, and the country in his rear. These people described both with great perspicuity: They said that the woods were open and free from swamps; that the part of Broad river, just above the place where King's creek joined the stream, was about six miles distant from the enemy's left flank, and that the river, by making a curve to the westward, ran parallel to the rear.”
Now, the British column marched the last couple of miles to the Cowpens. Perhaps at this interval word began to filter through the ranks that the Americans had stopped and would fight.
The Americans, who had completed their deployment, stood in ranks quietly awaiting their enemy.
Thomas Young, who was serving with the mounted militia, recalled, “The morning of the 17th of January, 1781, was bitterly cold. We were formed in order of battle, and the men were slapping their hands together to keep warm-an exertion not long necessary.”
Captain Benjamin Brooks of Maryland, Brigade Major to the Continental infantry was on horseback in front of the main line. He peered down the Green River Road, past the British dragoons and into the shadows beyond. At last, the British infantry column strode into view. According to Private John Thomas of Virginia, Brooks then “rode up to Gel. Morgan and informed him that the British were in Sight.”
Colonel Henry Lee stated that, “On the verge of battle, Morgan availed himself of the short and awful interim to exhort his troops.” He spoke to the militia and “extolled the zeal and bravery so often displayed by them, when unsupported with the bayonet or sword; and declared his confidence that they could not fail in maintaining their reputation, when supported by chosen bodies of horse and foot, and conducted by himself. Nor did he forget to glance at his unvarying fortune, and superior experience; or to mention how often, with his corps of riflemen, he had brought British troops, equal to those before him, to submission. He described the deep regret he had already experienced in being obliged, from prudential considerations, to retire before an enemy always in his power; exhorted the line to be firm and steady; to fire with good 'aim; and, if they would pour in but two volleys at killing distance, he would take upon himself to secure victory.”
Major Joseph McJunkin, who was with the South Carolinians on the right of the militia line, remembered Morgan appealing to Providence. With “the Enemy in sight between day light and sun-up, Gen. Morgan addressed the Sovereign of the Universe in the following words, saying—‘O thou Great Disposer of all Events, the battle is not to the strong, nor the race to the swift: Our domineering Enemy now being in sight, Oh, leave us not nor forsake us!’”
Morgan then rode over to the Continentals, and with them, according to Lee, “he was very brief. He reminded them of the confidence he had always reposed in their skill and courage; assured them that victory was certain, if they acted well their part; and desired them not to be discouraged by the sudden retreat of the militia, that being part of his plan and orders.”
1. Lawrence Babits, in A Devil of a Whipping, quotes the account of South Carolinia militiaman James Caldwell (p 59) that clearly served as one of these vedettes. Caldwell was cut down by the British vanguard; the quoted passage implies he was on foot at the time.
2. The British after action report credits Tarleton with having, “conducted his march so well & got so near to General Morgan, who was retreating before him, as to make it dangerous for him to pass the Broad River, and came up with him at 8:00 AM on the l7th instant.” The British did not realize that the Americans had chosen to fight at this location despite the disadvantageous circumstances.
This issue (.pdf file) of The Southern Campaigns of the American Revolution magazine provides a complete treatment of McJunkin's statements.
Theodorus Bailey Myers' 1881 Cowpens Papers has a copy of Jackson's letters.
John Moncure's online history of the battle, The Cowpens Staff Ride and Battlefield Tour, has a transcription of the statement by Young and Thomas, among other sources.
Marg Baskin's Banastre Tarleton website has a transcription of Tarleton's memoir.
Henry Lee's 1812 Memoirs of the War in the Southern Department of the United States
Lawrence Babits' A Devil of a Whipping: The Battle of Cowpens is available through amazon.com.
A transcription of the British after action report (letter from Lieutenant-General Charles Cornwallis' to Lieutenant-General Henry Clinton) can be found here.