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By 1780 the British— stymied in their efforts to put down the rebellion of their American colonies by destroying George Washington’s Continental Army in New York and New Jersey—had switched to a “Southern strategy.” By subduing Georgia and the Carolinas, they hoped to rally what they imagined was the Loyalist majority there before turning in due course toward Virginia and points north to defeat Washington. Back in December 1778, British forces had taken Savannah, Georgia, and then in 1780, British General Henry Clinton had moved to capture Charleston, South Carolina, in May before he sailed off to New York City. Clinton left Lord Charles Cornwallis in charge of the day-to-day fighting. The British remained in control of much of the area, handing American General Horatio Gates a humiliating defeat at Camden, South Carolina, in August 1780. The Continental Congress had appointed Gates without consulting George Washington, despite obvious friction between the two generals. After Gates’ cowardly retreat at Camden, Congress allowed Washington to appoint the skilled and courageous Nathanael Greene as Gates’ replacement to command the Southern forces.

Thin, polite and bookish, Greene had been a Quaker ironmaster from Rhode Island before he got caught up with the American radicals in 1773. In his 30s, the former pacifist became a regular at Henry Knox’s Boston bookstore, where he quenched his thirst for military history and expanded his study of tactics. He went on to serve in the Rhode Island Assembly. After helping to raise a regiment, Greene, despite some initial distrust of him among the rank and file because of a pronounced limp (of unrecorded origin), had become brigadier general of the Rhode Island militia. He attracted the attention of General Washington during the siege of Boston in 1775. Washington, who appreciated Greene’s intelligence, grit, energy and even temper, also realized Greene had the essential military ability to see what was wrong and fix it on the fly. As he rose in Washington’s estimation, he rose in rank. He was a major general when Washington asked him to accept the Southern command.

Before Greene’s arrival in the Southern theater, Cornwallis had driven the American army from South Carolina and was well on his way to taking North Carolina as well. Accompanied by Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton, who headed up the British Legion (a Tory unit) and the regular light infantry, and Major Patrick Ferguson, who headed the Tory militia, Cornwallis took Charlotte, N.C., at the end of September. The colonel was dubbed “Bloody” or “Butcher” Tarleton for his habit of turning his Tory troops loose on Patriot prisoners of war, who were given what the rebels called “Tarleton’s quarter,” which was no quarter at all. Americans fighting on both sides, especially in the Carolinas, often were frontiersmen, and the Revolution in the South displayed all the bitter slaughter of a civil war.

In early October 1780, Cornwallis’ advance was halted by tough Scots-Irish settlers from over the mountains in what is today Tennessee. After the defeat at the Battle of Kings Mountain, the British general pulled his troops back down into South Carolina, ending (though no one then realized it) Tory influence in North Carolina once and for all. Nevertheless, as Greene became aware immediately upon his arrival in North Carolina in December, Cornwallis’ army outnumbered the Americans by a ratio of 3-to-1. Greene therefore continued the guerrilla tactics that had proved effective so far. As he described it, “We fight, get beat, rise, and fight again.”

Greene dispatched the best commander he could find, Daniel Morgan, to harass British positions in the western wilderness of South Carolina while Greene himself supported operations (most of them mounted by partisans) in the north-central portion of the state. By thus dividing his forces in the face of a superior enemy, he violated one of the major tenets of military strategy. But ultimately his plan worked, which sparked a debate among military historians ever afterward about whether he was brilliant or just lucky, which in military matters—as Napoleon Bonaparte pointed out—may amount to the same thing.

Born in New Jersey around 1735, Morgan had been a teamster in Maj. Gen. Edward Braddock’s army during the French and Indian War, which is where he met and befriended the young George Washington. Having distinguished himself at the 1777 Battle of Saratoga, Morgan retired in 1779, infuriated—as were Greene and Benedict Arnold—by Congress’ penchant for ignoring good commanders and promoting dunderheads. Greene stuck it out, Arnold turned traitor and the “Old Wagoner” took up farming. After the debacle at Camden, Morgan swallowed his pride and returned to the Continental Army as a brigadier general.

On January 16, 1781, Morgan, commanding 1,000 men, learned that Tarleton was nearby with 1,100 Tories and regulars. Understanding that retreat from the justly feared Tarleton would prompt his militia to disband and go home, Morgan decided both to fight it out and to arrange matters so that the militia could not run. He would make his stand at a place called Cowpens, little more than a backwoods cow pasture in northwest South Carolina.

It looked as if he’d chosen to fight in a trap. The plain he held was dotted with widely spaced trees that would prove no hindrance to the maneuverings of Tarleton’s superior horsemen. At his back lay the Broad River, which cut off any avenue of retreat. For the militia, who—as Morgan pointed out—might otherwise have vanished in the local bogs, the battle would be do or die. In another unconventional move, Morgan put his rawest militiamen in the front line, backing them up with seasoned men from Virginia and his veteran Continental troops. Morgan picked about 150 riflemen to form the forward skirmish line. Some 150 yards behind them were the 300 or so Virginia militia under Andrew Pickens. And back another 150 yards, on the crest of a hill, lay his main line of 400 Continentals under John Howard. Farthest to the rear, behind another hill, Morgan held his cavalry—conventionally frontline troops—in reserve. These hundred or so horsemen were led by the corpulent but capable William Washington. Washington (a distant relative of George) had won his bona fides in December 1776 at the Battle of Trenton, where he was badly wounded when, then but a captain, he and future president Lieutenant James Monroe led a charge right into the mouth of the enemy’s cannons, which they captured.

According to Morgan’s plan, the sharpshooters on the skirmish line were to open fire only at the last possible minute, when the enemy was within 50 yards. Then they were to aim at the officers—the “men with the epaulets,” Morgan explained. After delivering two volleys, they were to fall back on Pickens’ militia. These more seasoned troops were themselves to fire only two volleys, then retire around the American left and march to the rear of the main line up on the hill. Once behind the main line they were to re-form as a reserve.

Morgan personally informed each of his men about his plan and assured their safety; he did not want them to think the planned withdrawals were retreats and flee in panic. His daring tactics worked. Predictably, Tarleton’s forces charged headlong into battle. His Legion Dragoons rode straight toward the skirmish-line sharpshooters, and the militiamen’s scathing fire blasted 15 of the cavalrymen out of their saddles. As their riderless horses galloped off the field, the accompanying Tory cavalry also fled. Nothing Tarleton could say or do persuaded them to reenter the battle. Now the British, badly cut up, moved against the second line, consisting of Pickens’ more seasoned militia. The real test was yet to come. Tarleton’s troops—the 7th Foot, Legion Infantry and Light Infantry—came charging on. If the American militia showed the same reaction to British steel and fled, as it had at Camden, the battle would be over. Pickens’ men, however, stood their ground. They fired, loaded and fired again, sending two volleys into the Redcoat line before shearing off to the left as planned.

The American militia on the far right had the farthest to swing, and the British 17th Light Dragoons came thundering on them. Then, suddenly, out of the American rear rode William Washington’s horsemen, the cavalry Morgan had held in reserve. They fell on the shocked dragoons, sabers swinging, routing Tarleton’s men and chasing them off as all of Pickens’ militia gained the rear and reformed. Meanwhile, the British infantry, still overconfident, had misread Pickens’ orderly withdrawal as a typical militia retreat and came shouting forward against the main line of Howard’s Continentals. Kneeling on the hill, the Americans blasted away at the enemy rushing uphill to meet them. Still, the British came.

Tarleton sent in his 71st Regiment of Foot, Fraser’s Highlanders, famously ferocious fighters, to his left, where they stretched beyond the American line. Howard saw the problem immediately— he was being outflanked. He called for his right-hand company to face about. But they misunderstood and instead of wheeling and forming a right angle to the main line and then turning to face the Highlanders’ flanking movement, they faced about and marched to the rear, the whole line following their lead.

According to Howard, Morgan came riding up, screaming, “What is this retreat?”

“A change of position to save my right flank,” Howard explained.

“Are you beaten?” Morgan yelled.

Howard snapped back: “Do men who march like that look as though they were beaten?”

Morgan nodded. Seeing that the line was under control, he issued Howard a fragmentary order and, pointing to the rising ground in the rear of the hollow, told him that that was the ground he wished Howard’s troops to occupy.

Meanwhile, Tarleton, like Morgan, misread what was going on. Sensing victory, he chased after the “retreating” troops, ordering Fraser’s 71st Foot to make the all-out sword-and-bayonet charge that was a Highlander tradition. His men broke ranks and ran forward. William Washington, who in chasing off the dragoons had advanced ahead of the American lines (not an unusual place for him to be), saw the poor order and the British confusion. He sent a message to Morgan: “The’re [sic] coming on like a mob. Give them one fire, and I’ll charge them.”

Morgan gave the order to the Continentals. They faced about and blasted away. Tarleton’s line, such as it was, crumpled, and Howard shouted, “Give them the bayonet.” Taking advantage of the confusion, Morgan ordered Pickens’ troops, who had returned to the American rear and re-formed, to swing around and behind Tarleton’s left while he ordered his cavalry around to the rear of Tarleton’s right. It was a classic double envelopment. Deep in the Southern wilderness, whether he knew it or not, Morgan had emulated the tactics used by the great Carthaginian General Hannibal to defeat the Romans at Cannae in southwest Italy in 216 BC during the Second Punic War.

The Americans cheered as they rushed forward with their blades just as Washington’s cavalry thundered down on the enemy’s flank and rear, and Pickens’ re-formed militia hit the Highlanders and cut them to shreds. The Battle of Cowpens was over. During the course of the fighting, there had been an inconclusive mounted skirmish between Tarleton and Washington, when the latter—once again ahead of his horsemen—was set upon by Tarleton himself and some of his mounted dragoons. Washington’s orderly deflected the sword attack of one dragoon while another, possibly Tarleton, shot Washington’s horse out from under him and then rode off.

At least those out front with Washington claimed it was Tarleton. Certainly the callow and cruel “Butcher” would have been hard to miss with his brilliant plumed helmet and bright green uniform as he slipped away, leaving behind nearly total defeat. Nine-tenths of his force had been destroyed: 100 killed, 229 wounded, 600 more captured. Of the 66 British officers engaged, 39 died. In contrast, only 12 Americans were killed and 60 more wounded. Little wonder Morgan’s victory inspirited the Americans.

Almost immediately, Tarleton began the litany of blame on others—his men, his cavalry, his commander Cornwallis— that appeared in his memoirs. He certainly never admitted the truth that he was totally surprised by the tactical genius of old Dan Morgan, America’s backwoods Hannibal, who had given Tarleton, as Morgan wrote a friend, “a devil of a whipping.” It was certainly a gem of a battle, and—strategically—it proved a turning point in Nathanael Greene’s war of attrition against Cornwallis.

Trying to recoup quickly, Cornwallis took steps to improve his position after Cowpens. He streamlined his army by jettisoning many supplies as excess baggage and pushed the pursuit of Greene’s army northward into North Carolina, all the way to the Dan River. There, Greene simply took all the boats in the area to cross the river, leaving Cornwallis stranded for the moment on the far shore, desperately short of supplies in a region where, in no small measure due to Cowpens, the support of former Tories was fast drying up. At Guilford Courthouse, N.C., on March 15, Greene pulled up to fight, aiming to duplicate Morgan’s success. By the end of the day, although Cornwallis held the field, the British commander had lost a fourth of his army. It was a Pyrrhic victory that led him to abandon the interior of the Carolinas altogether and head for Wilmington, N.C., on the coast.

Although he was reinforced and began a series of raids into Virginia, American opposition stiffened and, hoping in vain for more supplies and reinforcements from General Clinton in New York, Cornwallis eventually retreated to Yorktown, Va., arriving in August. In the meantime, George Washington was moving the bulk of his Northern forces south to link up with Greene’s army and surround Yorktown on land while the French navy, under Admiral François Joseph Paul DeGrasse, arrived to begin a naval blockade of the city. Finding himself boxed in, Cornwallis officially surrendered on October 19, 1781, ending the last major campaign of the American Revolution.


Originally published in the February 2006 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.