Memoirs of the War in the Southern Department, Volume One
Henry Lee


SOON after Tarleton had been detached in pursuit of Morgan, the British general put his army in motion. Having in view the interception of Morgan, should he elude Tarleton; and preferring to advance into North Carolina on the upper route, to avoid as much as possible the obstructions, usual at that season, from the rising of water courses; Cornwallis directed his march between the Catawba and Broad river. To keep in doubt the plan of our enemy, general Leslie had been continued at Cambden; but he was now directed to move on the eastern side of the Wateree and Catawba, parallel to his lordship’s route.

Lieutenant colonel Tarleton lost no time in approaching his enemy. Morgan was duly apprised of his advance, and of the movement of the British army. At the head of troops, able and willing to fight, he was rather disposed to meet than to avoid his foe; and would probably have resolved on immediate action, had he not felt the danger of delay in consequence of Cornwallis’s advance up the Catawba. Nevertheless he indicated a desire to dispute the passage of the Pacolet, to which Tarleton was fast approaching; but he relinquished this plan, in consequence of the enemy’s having passed the river on his left, and retired with a degree of precipitation, which proved how judiciously the British commandant had taken his first steps. Tarleton passed through the ground, on which Morgan had been encamped, a few hours after the latter had abandoned it; and, leaving his baggage under a guard with orders to follow with convenient expedition, he pressed forward throughout the night in pursuit of the retiring foe. After a severe march through a rugged country, he came in sight of his enemy about eight o’clock in the morning (January 17, 1781); and having taken two of our videts, he learned that Morgan had halted at the Cowpens, not far in front, and some distance from the Broad river. Presuming that Morgan would not risk action unless driven to it, Tarleton determined, fatigued as his troops were, instantly to advance on his enemy, lest he might throw his corps safe over the Broad river.

Morgan, having been accustomed to fight and to conquer, did not relish the eager and interrupting pursuit of his adversary; and sat down at the Cowpens to give rest and refreshment to his harassed troops, with a resolution no longer to avoid action, should his enemy persist in pressing it. Being apprised at the dawn of day of Tarleton’s advance, he instantly prepared for battle. This decision grew out of irritation of temper, which appears to have overruled the suggestions of his sound and discriminating judgment. The ground about the Cowpens is covered with open wood, admitting the operation of cavalry with facility, in which the enemy trebled Morgan. His flanks had no resting place, but were exposed to be readily turned; and the Broad river ran parallel to his rear, forbidding the hope of a safe retreat in the event of disaster. Had Morgan crossed this river, and approached the mountain, he would have gained a position disadvantageous to cavalry, but convenient for riflemen; and would have secured a less dangerous retreat. But these cogent reasons, rendered more forcible by his inferiority in numbers, could not prevail. Confiding in his long tried fortune, conscious of his personal superiority in soldiership, and relying on the skill and courage of his troops, he adhered to his resolution. Erroneous as was the decision to light in this position, when a better might have been easily gained, the disposition for battle was masterly.

Two light parties of militia, under major M’Dowel, of North Carolina, and major Cunningham, of Georgia, were advanced in front, with orders to feel the enemy as he approached; and, preserving a desultory well aimed fire as they fell back to the front line, to range with it and renew the conflict. The main body of the militia composed this line, with general Pickens at its head. At a suitable distance in the rear of the first line a second was stationed, composed of the continental infantry and two companies of Virginia militia, under captains Triplett and Taite,[note 92] commanded by lieutenant colonel Howard. Washington’s cavalry, reinforced with a company of mounted militia armed with sabres, was held in reserve; convenient to support the infantry, and protect the horses of the rifle militia, which were tied agreeably to usage in the rear. On the verge of battle, Morgan availed himself of the short and awful interim to exhort his troops. First addressing himself, with his characteristic pith, to the line of militia, he extolled the zeal and bravery so often displayed by them, when unsupported with the bayonet or sword; and declared his confidence that they could not fail in maintaining their reputation, when supported by chosen bodies of horse and foot, and conducted by himself. Nor did he forget to glance at his unvarying fortune, and superior experience; or to mention how often, with his corps of riflemen, he had brought British troops, equal to those before him, to submission. He described the deep regret he had already experienced in being obliged, from prudential considerations, to retire before an enemy always in his power; exhorted the line to be firm and steady; to fire with good aim; and if they would pour in but two volleys at killing distance, he would take upon himself to secure victory. To the continentals, he was very brief. He reminded them of the confidence he had always reposed in their skill and courage; assured them that victory was certain if they acted well their part; and desired them not to be discouraged by the sudden retreat of the militia, that being part of his plan and orders. Then taking post with this line, he waited in stern silence for the enemy.

The British lieutenant colonel, urging forward, was at length gratified with the certainty of battle; and being prone to presume on victory, he hurried the formation of his troops. The light and legion infantry, with the seventh regiment, composed the line of battle; in the centre of which was posted the artillery, consisting of two grasshoppers; and a troop of dragoons was placed on each flank. The battalion of the seventy-first regiment, under major M’Arthur, with the remainder of the cavalry, formed the reserve. Tarleton placed himself with the line, having under him major Newmarsh, who commanded the seventh regiment. The disposition was not completed, when he directed the line to advance, and the reserve to wait further orders.[note 93] The American light parties quickly yielded, fell back, and arrayed with Pickens. The enemy, shouting, rushed forward upon the front line, which retained its station, and poured in a close fire; but, continuing to advance with the bayonet on our militia, they retired and gained with haste the second line. Here, with part of the corps, Pickens took post on Howard’s right, and the rest fled to their horses; probably with orders to remove them to a further distance. Tarleton pushed forward, and was received by his adversary with unshaken firmness. The contest became obstinate; and each party, animated by the example of its leader, nobly contended for victory. Our line maintained itself so firmly, as to oblige the enemy to order up his reserve. The advance of M’Arthur reanimated the British line, which again moved forward; and, outstretching our front, endangered Howard’s right. This officer instantly took measures to defend his flank, by directing his right company to change its front; but, mistaking this order, the company fell back; upon which the line began to retire, and general Morgan directed it to retreat to the cavalry. This maneuvre being performed with precision, our flank became relieved, and the new position was assumed with promptitude. Considering this retrograde movement the precursor of flight, the British line rushed on with impetuosity and disorder; but as it drew near, Howard faced about, and gave it a close and murderous fire. Stunned by this unexpected shock, the most advanced of the enemy recoiled in confusion. Howard seized the happy moment, and followed his advantage with the bayonet. This decisive step gave us the day. The reserve having been brought near the line, shared in the destruction of our fire, and presented no rallying point to the fugitives.[note 94] A part of the enemy’s cavalry, having gained our rear, fell on that portion of the militia who had retired to their horses. Washington struck at them with his dragoons, and drove them before him. Thus, by simultaneous efforts, the infantry and cavalry of the enemy were routed. Morgan pressed home his success, and the pursuit became vigorous and general. The British cavalry having taken no part in the action, except the two troops attached to the line, were in force to cover the retreat. This, however, was not done. The zeal of lieutenant colonel Washington in pursuit having carried him far before his squadron, Tarleton turned upon him with the troop of the seventeenth regiment of dragoons, seconded by many of his officers. The American lieutenant colonel was first rescued from this critical contest by one of his Serjeants, and afterwards by a fortunate shot from his bugler’s pistol. This check concluded resistance on the part of the British officer, who drew off with the remains of his cavalry, collected his stragglers, and hastened to lord Cornwallis. The baggage guard, learning the issue of the battle, moved instantly towards the British army. A part of the horse, who had shamefully avoided action, and refused to charge when Tarlelon wheeled on the impetuous Washington, reached the camp of Cornwallis at Fisher’s creek, about twenty-five miles from the Cowpens, in the evening. The remainder arrived with lieutenant colonel Tarleton on the morning following. In this decisive battle we lost about seventy men, of whom twelve only were killed. The British infantry, with the exception of the baggage guard, were nearly ail killed or taken. One hundred, including ten officers, were killed; twenty-three officers and five hundred privates were taken. The artillery, eight hundred muskets, two standards, thirty five baggage wagons, and one hundred dragoon horses, fell into our possession.

The victory of the Cowpens was to the South what that of Bennington had been to the North. General Morgan, whose former services had placed him high in public estimation, was now deservedly ranked among the most illustrious defenders of his country. Starke fought an inferior, Morgan a superior, foe. The former contended with a German[note 95] corps; the latter with the elite of the Southern army, composed
of British troops. In military reputation the conqueror at the Cowpens must stand before the hero of Bennington. Starke was nobly seconded by colonel Warner and his continental regiment; Morgan derived very great aid from Pickens and his militia, and was effectually supported by Howard and Washington. The weight of the battle fell on Howard; who sustained himself gloriously in trying circumstances, and seized with decision the critical moment to complete with the bayonet the advantage gained by his fire.

Congress manifested their sense of this important victory by a resolve, approving the conduct of the principal officers, and commemorative of their distinguished exertions. To general Morgan they presented a golden medal, to brigadier Pickens a sword, and to lieutenant colonels Howard and Washington a silver medal, and to captain Triplett a sword.

While all must acknowledge the splendor of this achievement, it must be admitted, that the errors of the British commandant contributed not a little to our signal success. The moment he came in sight of the American detachment, he must have been sure of his first wish and object,—battle. Where then was the necessity for that hurry with which he took his measures? It was but two in the afternoon; and consequently, after giving an hour’s rest to his fatigued troops, there would have been time enough for the full accomplishment of his views. That interval he might have advantageously employed in a personal examination of his enemy’s position, and in a disclosure of his plans to his principal officers. He knew well the composition of Morgan’s corps, and the American mode of fighting. The front line, being composed of militia, he was well apprised would yield; and that the struggle for victory must take place after he reached our regulars. He ought not to have run upon the retiring militia with his infantry, but should have brought them up in full bodily capacity for the contest. A portion of dragoons might and ought to have borne down on Pickens, when retiring. But instead of that, Tarleton himself, with the first line, pressed forward and fell on our main body with exhausted breath. The fatigued, panting, disappointed British, as might have been expected, paused. Tarleton instantly called up his reserve, which approached near the line, suffered with it from our fire, and became useless. Here he violated the fundamental rules of battle. The reserve, as the term indicates, ought not to be endangered by the fire levelled at the preceding body; but, being safe from musketry by its distance, should be ready to interpose in case of disaster, and to increase advantage in the event of victory. In “his Campaigns,” he acknowledges that the ground was disadvantageous to his adversary, and favorable to himself; speaks of the alacrity with which his troops advanced into action; and admits the leading facts, on which these observations are founded. He could not deny that he had two field pieces, and Morgan none; that he was vastly superior in cavalry; that his troops were among the best of the British army; and that he rather exceeded his enemy in numbers, whose regulars, horse and foot, were less than five hundred.

These facts admitted, how can the issue of the battle be satisfactorily explained without acknowledging, that the British leader did not avail himself of the advantages he possessed, that his improvidence and precipitancy influenced the result, and that general Morgan exhibited a personal superiority in the art of war? This conclusion, however contested by lieutenant colonel Tarleton and his particular friends, will be approved by the enlightened and impartial of both armies; and posterity will confirm the decision.

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