Battle of the Cowpens

“There was Greene in the South; you must know him,–Whom some called a ‘Hickory Quaker;’ But he ne’er turned his back on the foemen, Nor ever was known for a “shaker”.”

After the unfortunate battle of Camden, on the 16th of August, 1780, where Gen. Gates lost the laurels he had obtained at Saratoga, Congress perceived the necessity of appointing a more efficient commander for the Southern army. Accordingly Gen. Washington was directed to make the selection from his well-tried and experienced officers. Whereupon the commander-in-chief appointed General Nathaniel Greene, late the Quartermaster General, on the 30th of October, 1780, who, in a few days afterward, set out for his field of labor. As he passed through Delaware, Maryland and Virginia, he ascertained what supplies it was likely could be obtained from those States; and leaving the Baron Steuben to take charge of the defense of Virginia he proceeded to Hillsboro, then the temporary seat of government for North Carolina. Gov. Nash received him with much joy, as the safety of the State was in imminent danger. After a short stay in that place he hastened on to Charlotte, the headquarters of the Southern army. Gen. Gates there met him with marked respect, without displaying any of those feelings which sometimes arise from disappointed ambition, and immediately set out for the headquarters of Washington, then in New Jersey, to submit to an inquiry into his conduct, which had been ordered by Congress.

Gen. Green took charge of the Southern army in the town of Charlotte on the 3rd day of December, 1780. After surveying his troops and supplies he found himself at the head of about two thousand men, one half of whom were militia, with only a sufficiency of provisions for three days, in an exhausted country, and with a scanty supply of ammunition. With the quick eye of military genius, he determined at once to divide his army, small as it was, and provide the needful supplies in different localities. Relying upon Gen. Davidson’s militia, as a central force and protection, to be called out upon emergencies from the surrounding counties, he led the largest portion of his army under himself, and encamped on Hick’s Creek, opposite Cheraw, and about seventy miles to the right of Cornwallis, who was then at Winsboro, South Carolina. While encamped at this place he was joined by the legionary corps of cavalry under Lieutenant-Colonel Henry Lee, more familiarly known as “Light Horse Harry,” and father of the late distinguished Gen. Robert E. Lee, of the Confederate army, whose memory the Southern people and an “impartial world” will ever delight to honor! The other detachment of the army, about one thousand strong, under Brig. Gen. Morgan was placed about fifty miles to the left to disperse bands of Tories and protect the country between the Broad and Pacolet rivers. Gen. Morgan’s division, near the close of 1780, consisted of four hundred of Continental infantry under Lieutenant-Colonel Howard, of the Maryland line, two companies of the Virginia militia under Captains Triplett and Tate, and about one hundred dragoons under Lieutenant-Colonel William Washington. This force, at the time just mentioned, was considerably augmented by North Carolina militia under Major McDowell–“Mountain boys,” ever reliable, and some Georgia militia, under Major Cunningham. Gen. Morgan encamped on the northern bank of Pacolet river, and near Pacolet Springs. From this point Col. Washington frequently sallied forth to disperse bodies of Tories who assembled at different places and plundered the Whig inhabitants. He attacked and defeated two hundred of them at Hammond’s store, and soon afterward a section of his command dispersed another Tory force under the “bloody Bill Cunningham.”

Cornwallis, who was still at Winnsboro, perceived these successes with alarm, and fearing an attack upon his important post at Ninety-Six, determined to disperse the forces under Morgan or drive them into North Carolina before he should rally the Mountain Men in sufficient numbers to cut off his communication with his post at Augusta. He accordingly dispatched Tarleton with his legion and a strong force of infantry, with two field pieces, to compel Morgan to fight or hastily retreat. Tarleton’s entire force consisted of about eleven hundred well-disciplined men, and in every respect he had the advantage of Morgan.

It is related of Tarleton that when he heard of Morgan’s forces being encampted near the post of Ninety-Six, he begged of Lord Rawdon the privilege of attacking the American officer. “By Heaven, my lord, said he, I would not desire a finer feather in my cap than Colonel Morgan. Such a prisoner would make my fortune. Ah, Ban,” (contraction of Banastre, Tarleton’s Christian name) replied Rawdon, “you had better let the old wagoner alone.” As no refusal would satisfy him, permission was given, and he immediately set out with a strong force in pursuit of Morgan. At parting Tarleton said to Rawdon with a smile, “My lord, if you will be so obliging as to wait dinner, the day after to-morrow, till four o’clock, Colonel Morgan shall be one of your lordship’s guests.” “Very well, Ban, said Rawdon, we shall wait; but remember, Morgan was brought up under Washington.”

Tarleton commenced his march from Winnsboro on the 11th of January, 1781, Cornwallis following leisurely in the rear with the main army. He crossed Broad river near Turkey creek, and advanced with all possible speed in the direction of Morgan’s camp. That officer was at first disposed to dispute Tarleton’s passage of the Pacolet river, but being informed of the superiority of his numbers, and that a portion of the British army had already crossed above him, he hastily retreated northward, and took post for battle on the north side of Thicketty Mountain, near the Cowpens. Tarleton pressed eagerly forward in pursuit, riding all night, and making a circuit around the western side of the mountain. At eight o’clock in the morning he came in sight of the advanced guard of the patriots, and fearing that Morgan might again retreat and get safely across Broad river, he resolved to attack him immediately, notwithstanding the fatigued condition of his troops. Tarleton was evidently disposed to view Morgan as “flying game,” and he therefore wished to “bag him” while clearly within scope of his vision. The sequel will show how sadly he was mistaken.

The Americans were posted upon an eminence of gentle ascent, covered with an open wood. They were rested and refreshed after their retreat from the Pacolet. And, now expecting the enemy, they were drawn up in battle order. Tarleton was rather disconcerted when he found that Morgan was prepared to fight him, for he expected to overtake him on a flying retreat. It was now about nine o’clock. The sun was shining brightly over the summits of Thicketty Mountain, and imparted a glowing brilliancy to the martial array in the forests below. On the crown of the eminence were stationed two hundred and ninety Maryland regulars, and on their right the two companies of Virginia militia under Major Triplet. These composed the rear line of four hundred and thirty men under Lieutenant-Colonel Howard. One hundred and fifty yards in advance of this line was a body of about three hundred militia under Colonel Andrew Pickens, all experienced riflemen, and burning with a spirit of revenge on account of numerous cruelties previously inflicted by the British and Tories. This brave officer had arrived during the night, with his followers, and joined Morgan. About one hundred and fifty yards in advance of this first line, were placed the best riflemen of the corps under McDowell and Cunningham. The action soon commenced.

At a signal from Tarleton, his advance gave a loud shout and rushed furiously to the contest, under cover of their artillery, and a constant discharge of musketry. The riflemen under McDowell and Cunningham delivered their fire with terrible effect, and then fell back to the flanks of the first line under Pickens. The contest was close and severe, with alternate wavings of the British and American lines, under successive attacks of the bayonet, which the prescribed limits of this work forbid to be presented in all their animating details. Suffice it to say, Tarleton here met a “foeman worthy of his steel;” and the Americans, at the Cowpens, on the 17th of January, 1781, gained one of the most triumphant victories of the Revolutionary War. Almost the whole of the British infantry, except the baggage guard, were either killed or taken. Two pieces of artillery, eight hundred muskets, two standards, thirty-five wagons and one hundred dragoon horses fell into the hands of the Americans. Notwithstanding the cruel warfare which Tarleton had waged against the Americans, to the honor of the victors it is said not one of the British prisoners was killed, or even insulted after they had surrendered.

The loss of the Americans in this decisive battle was twelve killed and about sixty wounded. The loss of the British was ten officers and ninety privates killed, and twenty-three officers and five hundred privates taken prisoners. At the close of the action, Washington, with his cavalry, pursued Tarleton, who now in turn, had become “flying game.” In his eagerness of pursuit of that officer, Washington had dashed forward considerably in advance of his squadron, when Tarleton and two of his aids turned upon him, and just as an officer on Tarleton’s right was about to strike him with his saber, his sergeant dashed up and disabled the assailant’s sword arm. An officer on Tarleton’s left was about to strike at the same moment, when Washington’s little bugler, too small to wield a sword, wounded the assailant with a pistol ball. Tarleton, who was in the center, then made a thrust at him, which Washington parried, and wounded his enemy in the hand. Tarleton wheeled, and, as he retreated, discharged a pistol, wounding Washington in the knee. During that night and the following morning, the remnant of Tarleton’s forces crossed Broad river at Hamilton’s Ford, and reached the encampment of Cornwallis at Turkey creek, about twenty-five miles from the Cowpens.

This “hand-wound” of Tarleton, inflicted by Washington, gave rise, on two different occasions, to sallies of wit by two American ladies, daughters of Colonel Montford, of Halifax county, North Carolina. When Cornwallis and his army were at Halifax, on their way to Virginia, Tarleton was at the house of an American citizen. In the presence of Mrs. Willie Jones, Tarleton spoke of Colonel Washington as an illiterate fellow, hardly able to write his name. “Ah! Colonel,” said Mrs. Jones, “you ought to know better, for you bear on your person proof that he knows very well how to make his mark!” At another time, Tarleton was sarcastically speaking of Washington in the presence of her sister, Mrs. Ashe. “I would be happy to see Colonel Washington,” he said, with a sneer. Mrs. Ashe instantly replied: “If you had looked behind you, Colonel Tarleton, at the battle of the Cowpens, you would have enjoyed that pleasure.” Stung with this keen wit, Tarleton placed his hand on his sword with an inclination to use it. General Leslie, who was present, remarked, “Say what you please, Mrs. Ashe, Colonel Tarleton knows better than to insult a lady in my presence.”

The victory of the Cowpens gave great joy to the friends of liberty throughout the whole country. Congress received information of it on the 8th of February following, and on the 9th of March voted an award of a gold medal to Morgan; a silver medal to Howard and Washington; a sword to Col. Pickens, and a vote of thanks to the other officers and men engaged in the battle.

At this time, Cornwallis was advancing triumphantly in the direction of North Carolina, having placed South Carolina and Georgia, as he thought, in submission at his feet. The defeat and death of Ferguson, one of his most efficient officers, at King’s Mountain, and now of Tarleton, his favorite partisan, greatly withered his hopes of strong Tory cooperation. His last hope was the destruction of Greene’s army by his own superior force, and, with that design in view, he broke up his encampment near Turkey creek, and like Saul, “yet breathing out threatening and slaughter” against Morgan’s little army, he commenced that pursuit of the “hero of the Cowpens,” who, encumbered with his five hundred prisoners, under various Providential interpositions, made good his retreat into Virginia, constituting one of the most thrilling and successful military achievements of the American Revolution.

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