On January 17, 1781, the American brigadier 45-year-old Daniel Morgan, faced in Cowpens, in a small battle without operational transcendence, with the British regular forces of the lieutenant colonel 27-year-old Banastre Tarleton. Both were possessing similar forces. But half of the large thousand men of Morgan were territorial militias. The shock with the regular British would ruin them, as the fixed bayonets in closed formation terrify the militiamen. These, nevertheless, were good shooters, accustomed hunt, having a great personal initiative. Only the 200 militiamen of Virginia had received training of regular. And together with the Delaware, Maryland and Virginia Continentals, might form part of an infantry line, to resist the assault of the more than 1000 regular British. Morgan neither came to a very reflexive deduction, nor planned too much. He simply guided by his instinct and experience and used his men successively, according to their qualities. And he bore in mind Tarleton’s behavior with the rebels in other occasions, thinking in slowly wearing out the British. In Cowpens acted a capable, impulsive and haughty enemy. That was an example of the arrogance of the command. This is one of the best characters to face him in a dialectic of wills. Showing convincingly him a fodder and a weakness, these «invincible controls» grow bolder and thoroughly insist, mentally and tactically, up to the sink.
Precedents of Cowpens’s Battle.
The mission given to Daniel Morgan by the general Nathanael Greene, commander of the South Department of the Continental Army, was as simple as wide and vague. And had a high degree of interpretation, of adjustment and of possibilities of use of his scanty and unlike resources. «Your force and all those who could join you, will operate at the west of the Catawba river, as much defensive as offensively, according to your prudence and discretion, acting with all care and precaution to avoid surprises and stumbles with the enemy. Your aim is to protect this zone of the country, to raise the spirit of her inhabitants and to be a nuisance (to scourge) in it to the enemy». Morgan, who already had fought in the Indian and French wars of last times of the Colonies, was put by George Washington in 1777 in charge of a select light force of 500 infantrymen with rifles, which were known as «Morgan’s Shooters». This unit played a principal role in Saratoga’s American victory, which was an inflexion point of the Independence War. The post of the brigadier general Morgan was Commander of the Southwest Department. Though his initial forces were only approximately 300 regular infantrymen from Maryland, Delaware and Virginia, under the control of the lieutenant colonel John Howard, approximately 200 militiamen of Virginia, commanded by the major Frank Triplett and around 80 dragoons commanded by the lieutenant colonel William Washington (second cousin of George Washington).
From his part, the British commander of the territory, Lord Cornwallis, was planning to return to North Carolina and lead the invasion postponed after his defeat in King’s Mountain. And the force of Morgan was a vague threat on his left flank. To defeat her and protect the British fort in Ninety Six, that his intelligence indicated erroneously him that Morgan was going to attack, Corwallis called lieutenant colonel Banastre Tarleton to the west of the Catawba. Tarleton’s troops were the «taskforce» called the British Legion, a combined unit of infantry and cavalry formed by some of the best British troops in the Carolinas. The Legion had gained important victories in Monck’s Corner and in Fishing Creek. But Tarleton had acquired an odious and irrevocable reputation of cruelly and merciless among the «patriots» after Waxhaws’s battle, when he allowed his men to massacre the rebellious soldiers who had given up. Tarleton asked Cornwallis more regular and went after Morgan with a reinforced force, trying to corner him in the Broad river.
The Preparations for the Battle.
In the cold and moist morning of Friday, the 16th of January, 1781, the Morgan’s regular went out of his night camp in Burrs Mill towards the Broad river. The rebels were in South Carolina, near her border with North Carolina. In both Carolinas, the Americans had suffered several reverses the previous year: In the siege of Charleston they had to surrender an «army» and lost another one in Camden’s battle. And great part of South Carolina was in British hands, commanded by Lord Cornwallis. The column was advancing following paths and gullies, framed by low still defoliated bushes, at the west of the Catawba river. Daniel Morgan known be followed by the British forces of Tarleton, placed behind at only 4 hours of march. The successive reports of his cavalry explorers, who were keeping visual contact with the enemy explorers and vanguard, were confirming that this “distance in time» was not changing. But brigadier Morgan was thinking that it might diminish very much this night, if Tarleton, as it was his custom, was deciding to continue the pursuit during part of it, to fall at the dawn over the «rebels». The principal danger was to be reached by 300 Tarleton’s dragoons during the crossing of the Broad, which was flowing then in flood and was impeding furthermore its passage. At middle of the evening, the Americans were approximately 16 km to the river and only were remaining 4 hours of the languid winter daylight. Already they could not realize the passage this day. Morgan knew about the existence of an opened area of pastures, sprinkled with trees, at half way to the river. It was the Hannah’s Pasture (Cowpens), where the local farmers give up freely their cattle. Furthermore, this night he would receive the support requested to colonel Andrew Pickens, chief of Carolina and Georgia‘s militias, which also were at south of the Broad and which were directing to their meeting. Morgan decided to go toward him and take his decision, after realizing a visual reconnaissance and know his chiefs‘ opinion.
At the end of the evening, the regular rebel forces reached the pasture, placed 8 km south of the river, by its southwest side. It was a softly rolling or flat ground, provided with small dispersed spots of walnuts, pines or oaks. On having lacked low bushes, the high natural grass provided good pastures to the cattle. Morgan and his chiefs could estimate this way their defense area from the sights that the British would have. The ground opposite to them was ascending up to a long ridge that closed it, placed at 375 ms. of distance and with not more than 20 ms of high with this base. Beyond that, partially covered by the rear slope, 2 nearby hills were outlined at the right. It was a favorable area for the cavalry, where Tarleton might move at pleasure his dragoons, maneuvering, threatening, attacking or finishing off the task of his regular infantry. For it, it was of hoping that the British would not avoid a combat presented on it. Morgan decided to face the British there. Establishing in this great meadow chunk a defense in depth position, reserving his dragoons to reject assaults at his exposed flanks and using his men according to his qualities and real possibilities.
One of the means of the command to conquer the «combat laziness» of the men, is to use always the forces according to their real capacities. And allowing that the phases of the «cycles of action and recovery» are always fulfilled. As example, «national militias» could neither be the advance point in an assault or breaking through, nor permanently and aggressively operate far from their support bases. But they could defend established positions, «redoubts», against professional units and even come to locally countershocking them successfully, if they were well directed. Their aims had to be simple, easy and, even, staggered. In such way that they were not swept by an enemy higher combat capacity and could fulfill them. And that the gratifications for the successive obtained stages, supported them and were reinforcing their moral and confidence in themselves.
This night Morgan was joined by 600 state and local militiamen of Colonel Pickens. Morgan establishes with the militias a dispersed first line of expert shooters for the harassment, placed at the beginning of the gentle slope. And another second line, in closed formation, at 135 ms. behind, to receive the first one. He only asks the men of both lines to realize two deliberate aimed shots. Allowing them then to retreat at rearward, close to both nearby hills, slipping through the left flank, without waiting the close combat with the British. Morgan removes them from the bayonets and takes advantage of their attrition capacity by the fire at many dozens of yards of targets, even small. Neither he forgets to stimulate their survival instinct. He remembers them that if the enemy infantry charges triumph, the pursuit and their annihilation will be almost inevitable: they have at their back the Broad and the British possess a majority of regular cavalry of 3 to 1. Morgan’s third line, his only regulars line, is deployed a bit below of the military ridge. His right side is formed by the Virginia militiamen of Triplett and the center and the left side is formed by the Continental infantry, with Howard in command of the whole line. The Americans rested this night near their positions. And their direct commands and Daniel Morgan approached them with interest, to encourage and to clear them the doubts. At dawn, they took there the breakfast.
The Battle of Cowpens.
At sunrise and beyond the rebels positions, the first British dragoons were outlined between the line of trees that was framing the horizon. As Morgan thought, the British had use several night hours to continue the march to reach them at the first morning. The dragoons advanced at front, forming a clumsy vanguard, and were surprised by the running fire of the riflemen of the first enemy line, concealed between the trees. Morgan and Howard, observed the result from the height: 15 dragoons had fallen from their mounts. The rest went back and urgently penetrated between the trees. Very soon, all the units of the combined force of Tarleton went out the forest and began to form their assault line. In each end placed a dragoons company (<50 men). Together with that in the left side, as her a little behind, deployed the Scottish Highlanders' 71 battalion (the infantry reserve).
The principal British line was formed, from left to right, by the 7 infantry regiment (of recruitment), the regular infantry of the Legion, and her light infantry in compact guerrilla line. Inserted between these 3 units, were two small artillery pieces of 3 pounds, transported on horse and known as «grasshopper», due to the typical jump that they gave on having shot. Behind the Legion deployed her two dragoons companies (> 250 riders), forming the mobile reserve of the British detachment.
The British line began to advance at the pace of his drums. Little later, could be observed the smoke puffs from the rifles of the rebel free shooters. These got up and ran towards the line commanded by Pickens, retreating through the spaces between the formed companies. The British leveled muskets to bayonet charge. When his line was less than 40 ms. to the militias, his officials gave the order of open fire. The volley struck the British, whose discipline allowed them to rapidly close rows and to answer in turn with a volley. But, instead of continuing a determined advance, the British lost their impetus, on having decided to recharge the weapons. It was an opportunity for the rebels: the enemy was detained inside the range of their muskets. And another volley went out of their line, beating the whole British line and knocking down many «epaulettes». Again the British recovered and arranged to a bayonet charge. Fulfilled their orders, the militiamen broke formations and ran towards the left flank, looking for theit rear.
(TO BE CONTINUED)