Monday, May 25, 2009

Memorial Day, Part Six - Cowpens National Battlefield, South Carolina

We conclude our special Memorial Day series in South Carolina, where on January 17, 1781, the tide of the American Revolution was turned when General Daniel Morgan achieved a brilliant victory over the British at a place called the Cowpens.

Daniel Morgan was the epitome of an American hero of the 18th century. A rough and ready frontiersman who enjoyed fist fighting, he had served as a wagoner for the British army during the French and Indian War. While in the service he somehow upset a British officer who struck him with the flat of his sword. Morgan responded by knocking the man out. As a result he was sentenced to 500 lashes, a severe and bloody beating.

According to Morgan, though, the drummer counting out the lashes miscounted and he received only 499. He delighted in telling his men during the American Revolution that the British still owed him one. The British may have owed him a lash, but he gave them one back at Cowpens.

Cowpens took place as Morgan and his commanding officer, General Nathaniel Greene, arrived in the South to try to salvage what was left of the situation there. Charleston had fallen to the British and then General Horatio Gates had been smashed at Camden, South Carolina. As Greene struggled to assemble an army that could hope to even contest the advance of Lord Cornwallis, he sent Morgan into South Carolina in an effort to delay the inevitable British campaign.

Cornwallis sent Banastre Tarleton, notorious as "Bloody Tarleton" for his massacre of surrendering American troops at the Waxhaws in 1780, to deal with Morgan. The "Old Wagoner," as he liked to call himself, proved a formidable opponent. He would appear just long enough to tantalize Tarleton into following, but then would fall back without giving the British commander the opportunity for a pitched battle. In doing so, he drew Tarleton greater and greater distances from his sources of supplies and reinforcements, while at the same time allowing more time for reinforcements to reach his own army.

Finally, on January 17, 1780, Morgan turned to fight. Knowing the British disdain for American militia troops, who often fled when attacked, General Morgan devised an exceptional strategy that proved the undoing of "Bloody Tarleton." He formed his army into three lines. The front line consisted of a skirmish line of well-trained American riflemen who were instructed to pick off as many officers as they could from long range when they saw the British approaching. This tactic was designed to damage Tarleton's control and command capabilities. The second line consisted of American militiamen, who were told that all they had to do was fire a couple of times and then retreat before the British reached them. This, he correctly believed, would both inflict casualties on the British but also trick them into believing that the Americans were retreating. They would pursue only to find Morgan's third line - seasoned American soldiers - waiting for them.

The battle developed exactly as Morgan had planned. By the time the British collided with his third line, they had been severely mauled. The critical moment came when a section of the American third line misunderstood orders and began to withdraw. The British surged forward after them but Morgan suddenly turned them around and ordered a volley fired directly into the faces of the British attack. Tarleton's force crumbled and the entire American army, militia and all, surged forward after them.

By the time the smoke cleared, Tarleton had lost 110 killed, 200 wounded and 600 captured. The dreaded "Tarleton's Legion" had been destroyed and Morgan had smashed the most feared British force in the Carolina's. The tide of the American Revolution began to turn and the road to final victory at Yorktown had begun.

The site of the battle is now preserved at Cowpens National Battlefield. Located on Highway 11 in Gaffney, South Carolina, the park is open daily and features a visitor center, driving tour and walking trail leading to key points on the battlefield. To learn more, please visit

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