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A Devil of a Whipping
The Battle of Cowpens
By Lawrence E. Babits
University of North Carolina Press
Copyright © 1998 The University of North Carolina Press.
All rights reserved.
I was desirous to have a stroke at Tarlton . . . & I have Given him a devil of a whiping [sic].
Daniel Morgan to William Snickers, 26 January 1781
American drummers beating a staccato long roll called infantry into formation in the raw predawn hours of 17 January 1781. The drummers signaled a climax to events that began nine months earlier when the British captured Charleston, South Carolina. Less than an hour away from the wet fields in front of the American camp, Banastre Tarleton's feared British Legion and other battalions were closing in on Daniel Morgan's Americans. An uncertain situation would be resolved within two hours on the gentle slopes of a South Carolina crossroads called the Cowpens. The battle marked a turning point in American fortunes. The road through the American position led symbolically, if not quite literally, to Yorktown and British surrender on 19 October 1781.
Three years earlier, in 1778, the Revolutionary War in the North was at a stalemate. The British were unable to destroy General George Washington's army, isolate New England, or convince the rebels to quit fighting. They lost one army at Saratoga and evacuated Philadelphia. Content to hold their base at New York, the British shifted their emphasis southward.
The British effort was directed at the southern colonies for a number of reasons. Repeated calls for help came from southern Loyalists and British policy was to aid their subjects. The 1778 Carlisle Commission, which attempted, unsuccessfully, to reach a negotiated settlement with the Americans, reported Loyalist support in America. However militant they seemed, northern Loyalists usually turned out only when the British army could support them and then in small numbers.
The southern colonies appeared to be different. For one thing, the British had a base in Florida from which Loyalists raided Georgia. Earlier Loyalist uprisings in the South failed because they lacked British military support. Southern Loyalists in England made their feelings known to Lord George Germain, the secretary of state for the American Department. Reports written by former colonial governors of Georgia and South Carolina asked for a military expedition to retake those colonies.
Despite lukewarm northern Loyalists, Germain opted to support the southerners. Germain's internal political problems threatened the government, and France entered the war. He could point to the Howes's failure. They were mild Whigs relieved of command for inadequately prosecuting the war in the North.
In New York, the commander in chief of the American theater, Sir Henry Clinton, was in a defensive position due to the French entry into the war and his declining military strength. Clinton's forces were depleted by reinforcements sent to Florida, the West Indies, and Canada. Concerned about Washington's army in front of New York, French sea power, and British strategic plans, Clinton issued vague orders to Lieutenant Colonel Archibald Campbell about reinforcing the garrison in Saint Augustine, Florida.
Instead of sailing directly for Florida, Campbell landed in Georgia where his "reinforcements" easily captured Savannah in December 1778. They expanded their hold on Georgia by taking Augusta and Sunbury. After an aborted attack on Charleston, South Carolina, the British bloodily repulsed a French-American attempt to recapture Savannah in October 1779.
The next spring, Clinton directed a major effort against Charleston, which capitulated in May 1780. The British moved quickly to solidify control over South Carolina. While two columns moved into South Carolina's interior, Major General Charles, the Earl Cornwallis, commanded a third force moving toward North Carolina. He sent Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton, a ruthless cavalry leader, after the last Continentals who were already retreating. Tarleton's rapid movements enabled him to catch the Americans at Waxhaws, just below the North Carolina border. After a brief call for surrender, Tarleton's dragoons attacked, broke American resistance, and then engaged in what infuriated Americans termed a massacre. Waxhaws set the stage for many similar bloody encounters over the next eighteen months. Tarleton's reputation for brutality was established, and his name became a byword for terror and no quarter throughout the South.
While the British successfully waged conventional war against the Continentals and embodied militia, American partisans proved impossible to suppress. After Charleston fell, the British tried to govern South Carolina as a royal colony and reinstituted a Loyalist militia to protect the frontier and maintain order. Even with garrisons across the backcountry, the British colonial government and military could not halt the internecine warfare. British pacification efforts were thwarted by shifting policies, ferocity against rebellious Americans, and Loyalist desires to retaliate against their Whig oppressors. The military's inability to protect paroled Americans and their property alienated inactive Whigs and drove them back into rebellion.
The backcountry erupted after Tory raids, the most notorious led by a New York Loyalist ironically named Christian Huck. Outraged at the murders of neighbors, Whigs wiped out Huck's party in July 1780. In short order, attacks came against British outposts at Hanging Rock, Musgrove's Mill, Rocky Mount, and small foraging parties. The raids served to create further animosity.
In August 1780, an American army under Major General Horatio Gates moved into South Carolina. On 16 August, the Americans were defeated outside Camden. Even though shattered American forces began regrouping in Hillsborough, North Carolina, the British had no regular opposition for the next two months. They also achieved some success against Whig partisans such as General Thomas Sumter.
General Cornwallis was one of the best British field commanders in North America when he succeeded Henry Clinton in command of the southern British forces. He served in America from 1776 until 1778, when he returned to England because his wife was ill. After her death, he returned to America and served until his surrender at Yorktown in 1781. His long experience in America with key roles during the 1776 New York campaign, Brandywine, Monmouth, and Camden demonstrated his abilities. Short and stout, Cornwallis was not a commanding figure, but subordinates respected him. He was fearless in battle, and at a time when other British generals were inclined to be somewhat indecisive and conservative, Cornwallis was a forceful leader.
Cornwallis seized an opportunity presented by the lack of opposition, invaded North Carolina, and occupied Charlotte. He intended to advance against Salisbury, but American resistance stiffened, and militia units attacked British foraging parties. Then a force, composed largely of Tories sent into western North Carolina under Lieutenant Colonel Patrick Ferguson, encountered trouble. Responding to a threat to "lay waste their country," "overmountain" frontiersmen gathered to oppose Ferguson's advance and then moved rapidly against him. Faced with opposition, Ferguson withdrew to Kings Mountain, where he was killed, and his men captured. The Kings Mountain debacle ruined Cornwallis's plans for a further advance because his left-flank screening force was wiped out and Tory support was badly eroded. Cornwallis withdrew from Charlotte and went to Winnsboro, South Carolina, to refit his men.
The Kings Mountain victory secondary impacts on the war in the South were that the overmountain men's performance reinforced southern attitudes that militia could win the war, as well as diverting British attention from a "serious deterioration" of control around their bases at Augusta, Ninety Six, and Camden. The British commander at Ninety Six, Colonel John Harris Cruger, failed to win Andrew Pickens to the British side after Loyalist depredations against his family and property, even though Pickens acted as a commissioner to look into treatment of his Tory neighbors captured at Kings Mountain.
For Cornwallis and his troops in South Carolina, the strategic situation in late December 1780 was complex. His men were scattered in a wide arc running across South Carolina from Georgetown, through Camden and Winnsboro to Ninety Six. South of Ninety Six, the line continued to Augusta, Georgia, and a series of small outposts downriver to Savannah. Inside this arc, British or Tory detachments were stationed at Fort Granby (modern Columbia), Fort Watson, Orangeburg, Monck's Corner, and other small posts. The British created these posts to reestablish a Loyalist government, but the small garrisons were vulnerable if a sizable American force moved against them. British troops were stationed between some posts, including Banastre Tarleton's detachment on the Broad River west of Winnsboro.
Cornwallis positioned the main British force in upcountry South Carolina at Winnsboro. Equidistant between Cheraws and Ninety Six, he was about 30 miles from both Friday's Ferry (at Columbia) and Camden. The road net connecting these towns to Winnsboro also fanned north, providing Cornwallis with several options for moving his army. It was an ideal situation to control the upcountry and threaten North Carolina.
The American situation was exceedingly bleak in December 1780. The southern army was located in Charlotte with a detachment at New Providence. At Charlotte, approximately 950 American Continentals and some 1,500 militia were erecting huts for a winter camp. Adding to shortages of food, forage, and other supplies, smallpox broke out in town.
Demoralized American forces received their most important reinforcement when Major General Nathanael Greene rode into Charlotte on 2 December 1780. Greene was a remarkable man. Raised a Quaker, he ran the family ironworks in Coventry, Rhode Island. Excluded from the Quakers when he volunteered for the militia in 1774, he led Rhode Island troops sent to Boston in 1775, and in 1776 was placed in charge of the Long Island, New York, defenses. Appointed quartermaster general of Washington's army in 1778, he performed admirably and organized the department's affairs to ensure a regular supply system. His combat role included participation in every major battle under Washington between 1776 and 1779.
The business skills acquired as an ironworks manager and administrative experience as quartermaster general under Washington prepared Greene for the complex task of keeping the southern army supplied. During his southern campaign of 1780 and 1781, he won no victories but drove the British into a small enclave between Charleston and Savannah. His major accomplishment was keeping his army in the field. As long as it existed, the army posed a threat to the British and became rallying point for Whigs. In the meantime, small detachments wiped out isolated British garrisons.
Salisbury, forty-two miles north of Charlotte, was a major transhipment point for supplies collected from the North Carolina piedmont and sent from states farther north. The garrison included craftsmen who manufactured a variety of needed items. Greene instituted clothing production by paying for work with salt. Finally, the town included a jail which held some remaining Kings Mountain prisoners. Hillsborough functioned as the state capital. The North Carolina Board of War resided there, and numerous Continental officers were in town, expediting supply convoys and forwarding troops southward. Supplies gathered from the surrounding area were stockpiled here until wagons were available to transport them to the army.
Greene's conclusions regarding the situation were grim. There were few supplies in Charlotte. Supplies the British did not capture in 1780, the militia plundered or consumed before they could be distributed to the army. Disruptions caused by the war and failed harvests compounded the situation. The Continentals were in a state of poor discipline because they lacked adequate clothing, food, and shelter. Smallpox posed a real problem to the militia but not the Continentals, who had been inoculated. Finally, the British garrison at Winnsboro was a distinct threat, both because of its proximity to Charlotte and the numbers of its reasonably mobile garrison.
When Greene took over the American army, he did not operate in a vacuum. He sent officers to explore river systems north of Charlotte as far as Virginia. Officers were sent south to find a suitable winter campsite. By the time Greene left Charlotte, he had a solid grasp of the strategic potential of the countryside and had reorganized the supply system.
When Greene arrived, a scouting detachment composed of Continental light infantry and militia was at New Providence, fifteen miles below Charlotte. From here they raided south, gathered supplies, encouraged Whigs, and intimidated Loyalists. Just before Greene's arrival, a raiding party from New Providence under William Washington captured the garrison at Rugeley's Mill using a log on wheels to intimidate the Tories.
Faced with a deteriorating situation, Greene had little choice. To alleviate supply problems, he reduced the men he had to feed in one place. The main army moved back into South Carolina. Morgan's light infantry were increased and sent into the South Carolina backcountry. In mid-December 1780, Greene issued the orders that set in motion maneuvers culminating in the American victory at Yorktown nine months later.
There were several aspects to Greene's plan. First, moving to Hick's Creek, South Carolina, enabled him to supply his main force while threatening British garrisons in eastern South Carolina. By sending Morgan west, British posts in the Carolina backcountry were threatened, and Morgan's detachment could obtain food. American militia operated as a screen in front of both American camps and between British posts, cutting off supplies, foragers, messengers, and small patrols.
Most important, American actions prompted a British reaction. Cornwallis responded by dispatching Tarleton to protect Ninety Six, where he also would be in a position to move against Morgan. Greene divided his army by moving his main force to Hick's Creek (Cheraws), South Carolina. His move back into South Carolina demonstrated that the entire state was not under British control as 1780 ended. Greene wrote both Samuel Huntington, president of the Continental Congress, and George Washington on 28 December 1780 and explained what he had done.
Greene had first-hand knowledge of problems inherent in dividing a force since he had studied tactics and participated in the 1776 New York campaign. Greene weighed economy of force against mass with his own strategic situation in mind. The Americans were not strong enough to fight the British, nor did available food and forage permit an American concentration in sufficient strength. The political situation demanded that Greene exploit momentum acquired by the Kings Mountain victory and keep South Carolina within the revolutionary fold.
Green marched his army from Charlotte on 20 December 1780. They reached the South Carolina campsite on 25 December. Greene partially solved supply problems by shipping food down the Peedee River, but, as he said, Hicks Creek was "no Eden." The men had wornout uniforms and suffered from the weather. The Americans were now positioned far enough to each side of Winnsboro so they could not be surprised by a sudden British movement. Reduced numbers at two locations meant they could better obtain adequate subsistence.
Morgan left Charlotte on 21 December and camped at Grindal Shoals on the Pacolet River. Two separated American units were not the only British problem. Swarms of militia operating over most of the territory Cornwallis nominally controlled terrorized supporters of both sides. One American veteran recalled the time as "almost Fire & Faggot Between Whig & Tory, who were contending for the ascendancy."
The worsening backcountry situation is a difficult aspect of the southern campaign to understand. British plans to maintain royal control behind a military screen were thwarted by Loyalists wanting to settle old scores and men calling themselves militia simply to plunder. Taking advantage of the unrest, Morgan and Greene authorized forays that did little to ease Cornwallis's mind. Lieutenant Colonel Henry Lee and Colonel Francis Marion attacked Georgetown, South Carolina, on 25 January 1781. In the west, Lieutenant Colonel William Washington's Continental dragoons and militia first destroyed a Tory force at Hammond's Store in late December, then moved farther south and burned a fortification a short distance from Ninety Six.
Cornwallis knew of Greene's activity. Spies and scouting parties around Charlotte reported departures with fairly accurate estimates of American numbers. Cornwallis was perplexed because Greene violated a principle dictating consolidation of inferior forces in the face of a superior enemy. Cornwallis felt Morgan could threaten Ninety Six while Greene might move against Camden, Georgetown, or other eastern British posts.
Cornwallis was in difficult straits because the region north of Winnsboro had been subjected to intense foraging by both sides and was virtually stripped of resources. Cornwallis located here partly because the town commanded a backcountry road network and because potentially adequate supplies were available just south of Winnsboro. Greene placed Americans upstream across the rivers most important for supplying British forces at Camden, Georgetown, Fort Granby, and other interior posts, including Winnsboro. While supplies could be floated downstream to American camps, resources the British could not obtain from the interior came from the coast, upstream, or over difficult roads where they were vulnerable to partisan raiders. This crucial logistical aspect of the southern campaign would, in the long run, help ruin Cornwallis and the British southern army.
Greene's innovative response to superior British numbers compounded Cornwallis's dilemma because he wanted to invade North Carolina and march through Charlotte against the American bases at Salisbury and Hillsborough. While Cornwallis gathered supplies, recruited his forces, and made dispositions to defend his rear, he had to deal with Morgan and Ninety Six.
Morgan's threat against Ninety Six so concerned Cornwallis that he wrote Tarleton, "I sent Haldane to you last night, to desire you would pass Broad river, with the legion and the first battalion of the 71st, as soon as possible. If Morgan is still at Williams', or any where within your reach, I should wish you to push him to the utmost: I have not heard, except from M'Arthur, of his having cannon; nor would I believe it, unless he has it from very good authority: It is, however, possible, and Ninety Six is of so much consequence, that no time is to be lost."
Tarleton moved westward and placed his force between Morgan and Ninety Six. Privy to Cornwallis's plans for an invasion of North Carolina, Tarleton was aware what Cornwallis wanted. When he learned Ninety Six was not in danger, Tarleton reorganized to "push [Morgan] to the utmost." In addition to acquiring supplies by foraging and impressment, he requested wagons and additional troops because he needed more men to destroy Morgan, and then explained how his movements fit into Cornwallis's plans.
Letters between Cornwallis and Tarleton explain the British response to Morgan. Tarleton would protect Ninety Six, then deal with Morgan. To accomplish the latter, he requested a reinforcement of light troops. Knowing he would move rapidly, he ordered that no women accompany his baggage. If Tarleton pursued Morgan, Ninety Six would be reinforced by the 7th Regiment. At the same time, Cornwallis would invade North Carolina, and by advancing slightly northwest, cut off Morgan. Tarleton clearly saw an opportunity in Greene's division of the Americans. His letter confirmed an understanding of Cornwallis's basic plan and proposed action to destroy a wing of the American forces.
Once it was clear Morgan did not threaten Ninety Six, Cornwallis authorized Tarleton to employ the 7th Regiment and its cannon in the effort to destroy Morgan. Tarleton had about 1,100 men, including local Tories who served as guides. He was now free to drive Morgan out of South Carolina. By advancing, Tarleton's detachment would screen Cornwallis's left flank and protect it from overmountain militia who destroyed Ferguson. British officers with Tarleton later said the force was "designed to penetrate into North Carolina."
Unfortunately for the British, weather interfered with their planned movements. Rains delayed reinforcements marching from the coast under Major General Alexander Leslie, and Cornwallis waited. The rain delayed Tarleton but did not stop his movement against Morgan. While Tarleton had problems gathering basic food to feed his men, his wagons carried some luxurious condiments for the officers.
Aware of coordinated movements against him, Morgan was concerned with feeding his troops. The Flying Army rarely bivouacked together because scattered detachments were positioned where they could obtain food more easily. Given Tory/Patriot animosities, American forces unsurprisingly supplied themselves at Tory expense because they were not required to issue them receipts.
Despite supply problems and the coming and going of militia who claimed enlistments were expiring, Morgan accomplished Greene's strategic aims. He posed a threat to the Carolina backcountry that Cornwallis could not ignore; moreover, he raised American spirits. When Tarleton came after him, however, Morgan withdrew. Over the next week, both commanders prepared for a fight as they moved north. On 17 January 1781, when Tarleton's advance patrol came out of the pine forests and deployed south of the American battle lines, the Americans were ready. Knowing an engagement with Tarleton was inevitable, Morgan chose the ground and his men were rested, ready, and waiting.
What happened was standardized over the years. British infantry drove in Morgan's skirmishers before advancing against American militia. The South Carolinians stood their ground. Every battalion fired at least one close-range volley before retreating around the American left flank with Tarleton's dragoons howling in pursuit. Tarleton's infantry advanced again and engaged the Continentals and Virginia militia in a firefight.
When Tarleton moved to break the main-line deadlock, the American right withdrew. In the crisis, Morgan selected a point where the Continentals would halt, turn, and fire. When they did so, the British infantry collapsed in shock and began a panic-stricken withdrawal. The British fled, and although Tarleton and most of his dragoons eluded pursuit and rejoined Cornwallis, few infantrymen escaped the Americans.
This summation is drawn from popular traditional accounts. Official accounts and later historians related only part of the battle. Participants from the lower ranks provide additional details for incorporation into the battle's history. Morgan, as he described in a letter to his friend William Snickers, had given Tarleton "a devil of a whiping [sic]." Later, almost nine months to the day, British survivors of Cowpens and ensuing campaigns surrendered at Yorktown, Virginia. How Morgan managed to win with minimal support and a potentially disastrous mix of Continentals, state troops, and militia from six states is the tactical story of Cowpens. How Morgan took a disparate group of men and welded them into a force capable of using traditional European tactics in a new American fashion is the real story of Cowpens, which emerges from new study of published materials and the pension documents.
Excerpted from A Devil of a Whipping by Lawrence E. Babits. Copyright © 1998 by The University of North Carolina Press. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
What People are Saying About This
One of the best analyses that we have of an individual Revolutionary War engagement.Journal of American History
Babit's book, which includes use of personal memoirs and available pension records, is a model of historical interpretation.On Point
An engaging narrative. . . . An important contribution to Revolutionary War military history, sure to be of interest to Revolutionary War students and historians of the South.Southern Historian
An exceptionally well-researched and richly detailed treatment of one of the most important battles of the American Revolution.Military History of the West
A superb example of the 'new military history'. . . . Babits comes closer than any previous historian to reconstructing the eighteenth-century soldier's experience of combat and has given us as close to a definitive account of the battle of Cowpens as we are ever likely to have.Virginia Magazine of History and Biography
[A] superb new study. . . . Babits's account moves with the sharpness and decisiveness of the action he describes. . . . No other Revolutionary battle has been subjected to this level of meticulous, intensive, multifaceted analysis. This book will stand as the model for any such future effort. One of Babits's purposes was the hope that the Cowpens veterans would not be forgotten. The masterful work that he has produced goes far towards achieving that purpose.Journal of Southern History
An important work that draws upon untapped evidence and employs new methods for interpreting traditional sources. . . . Babits gives us the definitive history of this significant battle.Journal of Military History
Simply one of the bestperhaps the very beststudies we have of a Revolutionary War battle. . . . Babits has mastered the literature of the battle as no other scholar has, and he has made far greater use of contemporary maps and pension statements than any other student of the contest. . . . This study is one of the best examples I have seen of the 'new military history,' whichlike 'the new social history' of which it is a partfocuses on the use of the microscope rather than the telescope.Don Higginbotham, author of War and Society in Early America
The battle of Cowpens was so decisive an American tactical victorythe most complete of the Revolutionthat its contrast with numerous American defeats still causes us to marvel. Babits offers the best explanation of the outcome that we have, based on both a thorough knowledge of the tactics and weapons of the period and modern insight into the psychology of combat, particularly the probable impact of combat fatigue upon the British.Russell F. Weigley, Temple Universitythat grow in coastal habitats from northern Mass. to central Florida
No previous author has applied the power of social history to this battle; Babits's work should serve as the model for future historians trying to relate the chronology of events to the position of units and individual soldiers on the terrain of the battlefield. His methodology gives the common soldier a voice in unraveling the complex details of the fight from the smoke and bad information obscuring key facts. . . . With the tools of social history, Lawrence Babits has demonstrated what military historians have long argued: war is above all else a human endeavor worthy of study to complete the record of mankind's struggle to survive and to achieve.William & Mary Quarterly