It became known as the turning point of the war in the South, part of a chain of events leading to Patriot victory at Yorktown2 The Cowpens victory was won over a crack British regular army3 and brought together strong armies and leaders who made their mark on history. Such victories boosted Patriot morale and blunted British efforts, but, by , with stalemate in the North, British strategists again looked south. They came south for a number of reasons, primarily to assist Southern Loyalists5 and help them regain control of colonial governments, and then push north, to crush the rebellion6. They estimated that many of the population would rally to the Crown. In , British redcoats indeed came South en masse, capturing first, Savannah7 and then Charleston8 and Camden 8A in South Carolina, in the process, defeating and capturing much of the Southern Continental Army9. Such victories gave the British confidence they would soon control the entire South, that Loyalists would flock to their cause.
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To eliminate that possibility, he defied convention by placing his army between the Broad and Pacolet rivers, thus making escape impossible if the army was routed.
With a ravine on their right flank and a creek on their left flank, Morgan reasoned his forces were protected against British flanking maneuvers at the beginning of the battle. He arranged his troops to encourage this. He set up three lines of soldiers: one of skirmishers sharpshooters , one of militia, and a main one.
The second line, behind the skirmishers but in front of the third line of Continentals, consisted of militiamen under the command of Col. Andrew Pickens. The effect was the conspicuous placement of weak militia in the center front, to encourage the British to attack there. The skirmishers and militia would screen the strongest Continental troops, while inflicting damage as the British advanced.
The irregular militia commander, Colonel Pickens, would execute, in effect, a feigned rout to further embolden the British. The third line could be expected to stand and hold against the British force. Morgan expected that the British advancing uphill would be disorganized, and weakened both physically and psychologically by the first two lines, before engaging the third.
The third line would also withdraw a short distance to add to the appearance of rout. Lawrence Babits states that, "in the five days before Cowpens, the British were subjected to stress that could only be alleviated by rest and proper diet".
Babits concludes that they reached the battlefield exhausted and malnourished. Tarleton sensed victory and nothing would persuade him to delay. Most of his infantry including that of the Legion would be assembled in linear formation and move directly upon Morgan. The right and left flanks of this line would be protected by dragoon units. In reserve were the man battalion of Scottish Highlanders 71st Regiment of Foot , commanded by Major Arthur MacArthur, a professional soldier of long experience who had served in the Dutch Scotch Brigade.
Finally, Tarleton kept the man cavalry contingent of his Legion ready to be unleashed when the Americans broke and ran. Right flank cavalry of Lt. The British advanced in open order, anticipating victory only to encounter another, stronger line after exerting themselves and suffering casualties. The depth of the American lines gradually soaked up the shock of the British advance. Tarleton ordered his dragoons to attack the first line of skirmishers, who opened fire and shot fifteen dragoons.
When the dragoons promptly retreated, Tarleton immediately ordered an infantry charge, without pausing to study the American deployment or to allow the rest of his infantry and his cavalry reserve to make it out of the woods. Tarleton attacked the skirmish line without pausing, deploying his main body and his two grasshopper cannons. The British attacked again, this time reaching the militiamen, who as ordered poured two volleys into the enemy, especially targeting commanders.
They reorganized and continued to advance. Tarleton ordered one of his officers, Ogilvie, to charge with some dragoons into the "defeated" Americans. His men moved forward in regular formation and were momentarily paused by the militia musket fire but continued to advance. The 71st Highlanders were ordered to flank the American right.
John Eager Howard spotted the flanking movement and ordered the Virginia militiamen manning the American right to turn and face the Scots. They charged, breaking formation and advancing in a chaotic mass. Morgan ordered a volley. The Virginians fired into the British at a range of no more than thirty yards, with massive effect, causing the confused British to lurch to a halt.
John Eager Howard shouted, "Charge bayonets! Howard ordered the Virginia militia, whose withdrawal had brought on the British ill-fated charge, to turn about and attack the Scots from the other direction. Nearly half of the British and Loyalist infantrymen fell to the ground whether they were wounded or not. Their will to fight was gone. Historian Lawrence Babits diagnoses "combat shock" as the cause for this abrupt British collapse—the effects of exhaustion, hunger, and demoralization suddenly catching up with them.
Tarleton, realizing the desperate nature of what was occurring, rode back to his one unit left that was whole, the British Legion cavalry. He ordered them to charge, but they refused and fled the field. Desperate to save something, Tarleton found about forty cavalrymen and with them tried to save the two cannons his forces had brought, but they had been taken and held.
Additionally, British soldiers were killed in action, and every artilleryman was either killed or incapacitated by wounds. From surviving records, he has been able to identify by name Colonial soldiers who were either killed or wounded at Cowpens. He appears to have been so concerned with pursuing Morgan that he quite forgot that it was necessary for his men to be in a fit condition to fight a battle once they caught him, though Cornwallis himself did press Tarleton to take aggressive action.
As it was, the Americans were encouraged to fight further, and the Loyalists and British were demoralized. Furthermore, its strategic result—the destruction of an important part of the British army in the South—was crucial toward ending the war. Along with the British defeat at the Battle of Kings Mountain, Cowpens was a serious blow to Cornwallis, who might have defeated much of the remaining resistance in South Carolina had Tarleton won at Cowpens.
Instead, the battle set in motion a series of events leading to the end of the war. Skirmishes occurred at the Catawba River February 1, and other fords. Yet, after a long chase Cornwallis met Greene at the Battle of Guilford Court House, winning a pyrrhic victory that so damaged his army that he withdrew to Yorktown, Virginia, to rest and refit.
Washington seized this opportunity to trap and defeat Cornwallis at the Battle of Yorktown , which caused the British to give up their efforts to defeat the Americans. In the opinion of John Marshall, "Seldom has a battle, in which greater numbers were not engaged, been so important in its consequences as that of Cowpens.
Battle of Cowpens
To eliminate that possibility, he defied convention by placing his army between the Broad and Pacolet rivers, thus making escape impossible if the army was routed. With a ravine on their right flank and a creek on their left flank, Morgan reasoned his forces were protected against British flanking maneuvers at the beginning of the battle. He arranged his troops to encourage this. He set up three lines of soldiers: one of skirmishers sharpshooters , one of militia, and a main one. The second line, behind the skirmishers but in front of the third line of Continentals, consisted of militiamen under the command of Col. Andrew Pickens.
A Devil of a Whipping: The Battle of Cowpens
Depending heavily upon pension records and first-hand accounts, Babits uncovered aspects of the battle long forgotten or misunderstood. Unfortunately, the incredible detail of the account makes for poor narrative flow. The battle narrative is obscured by the fog of details. Many aspects of the engagement are simply overly-analyzed, such as the long discourse on the number of steps troops took in a certain number of seconds. The book is written in short choppy paragraphs which are awkwardly-paced.
The Battle of Cowpens
A devil of a whipping : the Battle of Cowpens