A Devil of a Whipping: Daniel Morgan and the Battle of Cowpens
A renewed spirit sifted through the cold Southern air as Brigadier General Daniel Morgan and his troops stood ready for battle on a 500 yard grazing pasture called “the cowpens” near Thicketty Creek, South Carolina on January 17, 1781. Not long before this moment, the might of the British Crown had proven all but unstoppable in fights across the American South dating back to late December 1778. Just when the fight for Independence seemed to be on its last legs, however, everything changed after the resounding Patriot victory at the Battle of Kings Mountain in October 1780. Now, a new year had opened with momentum back on the American side. With this renewed power flowing through their veins, and coupled with their own fighting skill, Morgan and his men would deliver “a devil of a whipping” to the British at the Battle of Cowpens, inflicting another shattering blow to the Crown in the American South.
Shortly after the triumph at Kings Mountain, General George Washington’s highly skilled and trusted subordinate, Major General Nathanael Greene, was appointed to command the Southern Department of the Continental Army. After arriving in Charlotte, North Carolina on December 2, 1780, Greene quickly went to work revitalizing the troops he had inherited and formulating a plan to tackle the elite Redcoats in the South under the command of General Charles Lord Cornwallis. Low on supplies and recognizing that his small army was not ready for a direct confrontation against Cornwallis, Greene took a bold risk and split his force in two, personally leading one division and entrusting the other to his second-in-command, Brigadier General Daniel Morgan.
Brigadier General Daniel Morgan. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
A hardy Virginian who had earned the nickname “Old Wagoner” from his service as a wagon driver during the French and Indian War, Daniel Morgan was one of the very best soldiers in the American service. In the fall of 1777, Morgan and his elite Virginia riflemen played a pivotal role in the defeat of General John Burgoyne’s British army at Saratoga, New York, a triumph that changed the course of the Revolutionary War by convincing France to openly join the Americans in their struggle against the Crown. With his “flying army” composed of roughly 300 Contiental regulars and 700 militia, Morgan would prove to be a thorn in the side of the British once again in the American South.
After discovering that a force under Morgan had been sent west from Charlotte, Cornwallis acted quickly. Fearing an attack against Fort Ninety Six in the South Carolina backcountry, he ordered his tenacious young subordinate, Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton, to hunt down Morgan’s army. Given around a thousand troops for this mission, the fiery 26-year-old pushed his men past the point of exhaustion in pursuit of Morgan. The strength of the cavalry and other units under Tarleton’s command convinced Cornwallis that his subordinate was primed to achieve “the most brilliant success.”
Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Pursuing Morgan was one of the most hated Redcoats in all of America. Within Patriot circles, Tarleton had earned a reputation for barbarity. Near the border of North Carolina at the village of Waxhaw in late May 1780, Tarleton and his men massacred a column of Virginians who were attempting to surrender. On January 13, 1781, Morgan received word from General Greene that the British commander who had been condemned as a “butcher” was hot on his trail. As Greene added, “I doubt not but he will have a decent reception and proper dismission.” In a few days time, Morgan would certainly provide Tarleton with a reception that he would never forget.
After choosing to make his stand at “the Cowpens,” Morgan devised a brilliant strategy for the coming fight. In what would later be known to military tacticians as defense in depth, the American commander decided to place his men in three successive lines. Aware that militiamen were prone to take flight when the firing got hot, Morgan posted his militia units in the front lines to meet the enemy and asked them to fire three good volleys at killing range before running away and re-forming behind the army’s left flank. Behind them, the general posted his Continental regulars and cavalry. By luring Tarleton into attacking his militia and pursuing them once they fled, Morgan hoped to wear the British down with his first two lines and to inflict a finishing blow with his final line composed of his best troops.
Morgan spent the night before the battle encouraging his men and rousing their spirits for the fight to come. “Just hold up your heads, boys, three fires,” one American reported the general telling his volunteers, “and you are free, and then when you return to your homes, how the old folks will bless you, and the girls kiss you for your gallant conduct!” The “Old Wagoner” is said to have told his troops that he would “crack his whip over Ben [Tarleton] in the morning, as sure as they lived.”
After traveling several miles across rugged terrain in the early hours of Wednesday, January 17, 1781, Colonel Tarleton and his men reached the field and attacked at sunrise. With his enemy’s back to the Broad River, the young British commander believed the ground before him was the perfect place for a fight. Speaking of himself in the third person, he said, “It is certainly as good a place for action as Lieutenant Colonel Tarleton could desire. America does not produce any more suitable to the nature of the troops under his command.” Not long after launching his attack, Tarleton would come to rue those words.
The Battle of Cowpens by Don Troiani. (Photo Credit: Don Troiani)
In under an hour, General Morgan and his troops achieved one of the most complete American victories of the Revolutionary War. As ordered, Morgan’s militiamen fired their three volleys and then retreated, giving the British the impression that they had won the battle. As the Redcoats reached the main American line, however, they faced their toughest fighting of the day. As Tarleton commited his cavalry and elite Highlanders of the Seventy-first regiment to the brawl, Lieutenant Colonel John Eager Howard ordered a withdrawal of his stout Continental regulars. Seeing the enemy falling back, Tarleton’s troops once again saw victory in sight and pursued the fleeing rebels. Instead of rushing toward triumph, though, “They charged into hell,” as noted by historian John Ferling.
“Face about boys! Give them one good fire and the victory is ours!” So yelled General Morgan to his men before they turned and poured a devastating fire into the advancing British ranks. With the Redcoats stunned, the Americans thrusted their bayonets forward and charged. At this critical moment, Morgan’s militiamen reappeared and took sharp aim at the enemy. With the British on the verge of collapse, Morgan called in his cavalry under Lieutenant Colonel William Washington, a cousin of George Washington, and the horsemen slashed their way through the enemy. With Tarleton's center and his two flanks struck simultaneously, his battle line crumbled. The fiery British leader tried to rally his troops until the very end and even charged Washington’s cavalry in a daring final effort, but realizing he had been utterly defeated, he ultimately fled the field with what remained of his shattered command.
Tarleton and William Washington personally traded sword blows during the cavalry fight at the end of the battle. The defeated British commander managed to shoot Washington's horse out from under him before fleeing the field. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Daniel Morgan and his band of warriors had stared down some of the best soldiers in the world and won comprehensively. The victorious commander was so overjoyed that he picked up his nine-year-old drummer boy and kissed him on both cheeks. “Old Morgan never was beaten,” shouted the triumphant general as he rode about his men. In owning the battlefield, the Americans killed nearly 100 Redcoats, captured around 500 prisoners, and claimed scores of valuable supplies. Morgan’s losses came to approximately 60 wounded and 12 killed.
A few days after the battle, Morgan wrote to a friend, “I have given [Tarleton] a devil of a whipping.” In his eyes, Cowpens was a “complete victory” and it was achieved because of the “Justice of our Cause & the Bravery of our Troops.” Coming after the turning point at Kings Mountain, Morgan’s success at the Battle of Cowpens helped to further strengthen the flame of liberty in the American South. It was yet another loss that the British Crown could ill afford. In the aftermath of the clash, momentum would continue to swing toward the American cause, setting the stage for the next great battle of the war later that March, which would pit the armies of Nathanael Greene and Charles Cornwallis against one another at the small North Carolina backcountry hamlet of Guilford Courthouse.
Almost a Miracle: The American Victory in the War of Independence by John Ferling.
American Battlefield Trust: Battle of Cowpens.
Angel in the Whirlwind: The Triumph of the American Revolution by Benson Bobrick.
George Washington's Mount Vernon: Battle of Cowpens.