Thinking Outside the Lines, the Battle of Cowpens
The Battle of Cowpens, South Carolina, January 17, 1781. Fought more than 200 years ago, this decisive battle of the American Revolutionary War is all but forgotten today. Hell, I bet few Americans could name even one battle in the Revolutionary War, and even then most would name Yorktown, where Cornwallis surrendered to Washington effectively ending the war. Forgotten or not though, Cowpens is a fascinating battle, and wonderful illustration of novel thinking on the part of a commander. One reference I read said that General Morgan, the American commander, demonstrated the only truly original tactical thinking on either side during the Revolutionary War.
So, Cowpens, what happened? A British force under the young and aggressive Lt. Colonel Tarleton had been pursuing an American force under General Morgan for weeks. After much marching to and fro, the British finally had the American force trapped, the Americans were deployed on a low hill, with a flooded river to their backs. The American force consisted of about half professional soldiers, the continentals, and half militia. In many previous battles, when the British attacked, the American militia had promptly fled, and the battle was over. The British expected no different this time, and with nowhere for the Americans to run, they were confident of victory when they formed up and marched forward. They even had two light cannons, something the Americans lacked.
Sadly for Tarleton, Morgan had different plans. He had done something different, instead of forming his men up into one defencive line, he had formed them into three lines, one behind the other. The first line consisted of basically Daniel Boone types. Guys who were well adept at shooting from cover and running. Their orders were to do just that, start shooting as soon as they could, and retreat as the British advanced. The second line was the militia. Their orders were simple: Fire twice and run. I kinda figure Morgan hoped that they would at least fire once and run, but he knew he was giving them orders they could follow. The third line, hidden from British view over the crest of the hill, consisted of Morgan’s regulars, Continental Army troops and trusted militia, guys that wouldn’t flinch in a fight.
So the battle begins, the British begin to advance up the hill at the crack of dawn. Two things to note here. The British force was utterly exhausted and hungry Their energetic young commander had pushed them to their limits to get them into this position, and there’s no doubt the British troops were in poor shape. Four hours sleep on the previous 48 hours, and no food for the past 24 hours, these guys were walking zombies. Secondly, the site of the battle had been carefully chosen by Morgan, for one thing, so he could conceal his third line of troops. And secondly, both flanks of the battlefield were inhospitable terrain, swamps and ravines and such, so the British would not be able to ride around behind the Americans with cavalry and attack or scope out his third line.
So the British march up the hill. They hit the first line of Americans, the Daniel Boon types. The Americans shoot and retreat. The British suffer losses, but seeing the Americans retreating, they march forward. They reach the second line of Americans, who true to their orders and nature, fire a shot or two and retreat. Now convinced the Americans are fleeing and victory is at hand, the British charge up the hill. They reach the top of the hill. There, 30 yards away or less, are 500 or more American Continental regulars. Who on command fire as one, a volley that even the British describe as “devastating.” Then with fixed bayonnets, the Continentals charge.
The British, to put it mildly, were a bit surprised by this unexpected development. And to add to their confusion, a lot of their officers had already been killed or incapacitated by American fire from the first two lines of Americans. It was all too much, especially when American cavalry and militia joined the attack from the flanks. The vast majority of the British troops just simply dropped to the ground of exhaustion and shock. And that, basically, was that. In about an hour, it was all over. Tarleton and a handful of hardcore British troops were able to escape, but the greater part of the British army was captured. It was one of the most crushing victories of the Revolutionary War, and one of the more crushing victories in history in certain senses. Tarleton lost nearly 90% of his force, and the cream of Cornwallis’ army. Cowpens set in motion a series of events that ultimately led to Cornwallis’ surrender at Yorktown. Reportedly Cornwallis was so dismayed upon hearing news of the Cowpens debacle that he put the tip of his sword on the ground and leaned on it so hard it broke.
A few lessons here for students of war. This was certainly a classic case of underestimating one’s opponent and recklessly pressing ahead with an attack without properly ascertaining the state of affairs on the battlefield. It was also a great example of both thinking outside the lines and understanding your opponent, Morgan played Tarleton like a violin. It’s also interesting to note that historians have determined that Morgan both under reported the number of troops he had under his command and under reported the casualties he had taken, which made the news of the victory all the more astounding. In literally an hour the course of history was changed, in a muddy cow pasture in rural South Carolina. These things happen.
(The above image is Public Domain under US copyright law, being a low resolution reproduction of a painting made in 1845, whose copyright has clearly expired. William Ranney (1813 – 1857) was the painter. It depicts a historical scene at the end of the battle where a Colonel Washington (yes, a 2nd cousin of the Washington) attempted to capture Lt. Colonel Tarleton. Washington’s life was saved by a black soldier who shot an aide of Tarleton who was about to strike Washington with a sabre. Tarleton himself then shot Washington’s horse out from under him and made his escape.)