You’ve no doubt heard the adage “When life hands you a lemon, make lemonade.” One Patriot general did just that during the American War for Independence 236 years ago today, on January 17, 1781.
The Patriot militia had earned a bad reputation for its propensity to run in battle when faced by organized British forces, especially if that enemy was trained professional soldiers. Many of the men in Brigadier General Daniel Morgan’s Patriot force were militiamen. As he faced the British force commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton, one of the fiercest and most abusive British commanders in the Southern states, Morgan wondered if he could rely on his militiamen. Would they stand, or would they cut and run as soon as the British fired on them?
American forces had already been weakened when the overall commander of the Patriot forces in the South, Nathanael Greene, had violated a proven maxim of war: he had divided his already outnumbered army in the face of a superior force. The British commander was Lieutenant General Charles Cornwallis. Greene gave one half of the Patriot army to Morgan, and Cornwallis ordered Tarleton to deal with that part of Greene’s army.
As Tarleton’s force approached Morgan’s army, Morgan chose the field of battle, a cow pasture in the Upstate of South Carolina, a place called Cowpens. And he hatched a plan. If it worked, it would provide the Americans with a decisive victory. Such a victory would boost the morale of Patriots throughout the backcountry and weaken the British hold on the South.
Ahead of his army, Morgan positioned skirmishers in a line facing the oncoming British force. When the British came within range, he ordered, the skirmishers were to fire a few shots and then fade back toward the American lines. Behind the skirmishers, Morgan positioned the ill-reputed militia on the crest of a rise in the pasture. As the skirmishers fell back to the line of militiamen, the Americans were to fire two volleys at the British. Only two. Then they were to turn and run, feigning a retreat. Whereas in earlier incidents, the militiamen had fired once or twice and then fled in real terror of the British regulars, this time, their “retreat” was part of the overall plan. If Morgan was right, the sight of fleeing militiamen would convince Tarleton into pursuing them in a frontal attack. It was a plan right out of the Old Testament, a plan similar to that used by Joshua at Ai.
As the British approached, the Americans did as ordered. The skirmishers fired a few shots and then fell back to join the line of militiamen behind them. The militiamen fired two volleys and then “fled.” Tarleton, as Morgan suspected, ordered a full frontal assault, driving the “retreating” rebels before him. What he did not realize was that on the other side of that rise in the pasture Morgan had positioned the rest of his army, and they were regular Continental soldiers. Those men were proven combat veterans who would stand and fight even Britain’s best professional soldiers.
Simultaneously, Morgan’s cavalry flanked the British right while the reorganized skirmishers and militiamen flanked the British left. That day, the Americans won a decisive victory. Combined with the later victory at the Battle of King’s Mountain and Cornwallis’s pyrrhic victory over the Patriots at Guilford Courthouse (where British forces were so weakened and demoralized that they withdrew to Yorktown), British power in the South was ended forever.
Last Saturday and Sunday, the Patriot victory at Cowpens was celebrated at Cowpens National Military Park with an encampment that included period costumes, crafts, camp life, reenactors demonstrating the firing of period weapons, and a wreath-laying ceremony. The event was well attended by young and old alike.
Too often, the battles in the Northeast during the War for Independence get prominent attention to the omission of battles in the South that were just as critical to the outcome of the war. It’s time to correct that oversight. If you ever get a chance to visit Cowpens National Military Park, do so. It will increase your appreciation for the liberty that our forebears fought and died to give us.