British General Cornwallis was not a commander with much faith in the static warfare of “posts.” He had one goal: to find and destroy the patriot army. As he moved out northeast from Camden toward North Carolina, he would have to pacify the patriot bands that could threaten his left flank. So he sent Major Patrick Ferguson, a firebrand Scot and British army regular, with his Loyalist American Volunteers (around 70 men, plus another 900 or so Tory militia), to do the business. As Ferguson (the only British soldier in the whole detachment) moved up toward the northwestern frontier bordering on the Appalachians, he triggered a response from the tough Scotch-Irish Over Mountain Men (mere “banditti,” in Ferguson’s estimation). Ferguson’s threat to “hang their leaders, and lay their country to waste” did not cow a bunch of hard-fighting frontiersmen. They came after him and tracked him down to Kings Mountain (actually a ridge shaped like a footprint, about 60 feet high, 600 yards long, 200 feet wide at the ball of the foot, and 60 feet wide at the heel).
Ferguson was only thirty miles away from Cornwallis and had urged his chief to come to his support. Rather than risk being caught in the open attempting to get back to the main British army, Ferguson thought his ridgetop defense would be strong enough to hold out; as he declared to Cornwallis, “I arrived today [6 October 1780] at Kings Mountain & have taken a post where I do not think I can be forced by a stronger enemy than that against us.” This confidence might explain why he made no attempt to strengthen his position with breastworks or abatis.
The patriot strategy at Kings Mountain was starkly simple, as Colonel William Hill explained: “All that was required or expected was that every Officer & man should ascend the mountain so as to surround the enemy on all quarters which was promptly executed.” Like a cornered animal, Ferguson’s force parried and counterattacked with the bayonet. The patriot Robert Henry, in the act of cocking his rifle, was charged by a Tory musketeer: “His bayonet was running along the barrel of my gun, and gave me a thrust through my hand and into my thigh…Wm Caldwell saw my condition and pulled the bayonet out of my thigh, but it hung to my hand.” The bayonet was ineffective in the fragmented encounters on the hillside. It was primarily a weapon dependent for its success on mass, and not only were the Loyalists unable to form in sufficient concentrations, but their enemy would not provide them with a consolidated target. As a result the defenders were run ragged and picked off.
The cover provided by the wooded slopes favored the patriot riflemen, while firing downhill tended to cause the Loyalists to fire high, as James Collins, a patriot, recorded: “Their great elevation above us proved their ruin: they overshot us altogether, scarce touching a man, except those on horseback, while every rifle from below seemed to have the desired effect.” As the Over Mountain Men closed in, Ferguson led one last rally but was shot out of his saddle, riddled by rifle bullets—an ironic end to an advocate of rifle warfare who on Kings Mountain had put his trust in the bayonet. Given that Ferguson’s force was completely surrounded and his defeat overwhelming, it is surprising that the Tories suffered only 157 killed and 163 wounded out of a total force of about 900. (Patriot losses were light: 28 killed, 62 wounded.) There were incidents of killings after surrender, but given the opportunity for a full-scale massacre, the rough-hewn frontiersmen acted with great restraint.
On 14 October George Washington finally managed to have Nathanael Greene replace Gates as commander in chief in the southern theater, and on 2 December Gates handed over command at Charlotte, North Carolina, just east of the Catawba River. The army Greene inherited was dispirited by defeat and desertion. He could probably muster 1,100 or so Continentals, of whom approximately 800 were fit for service. Contrary to received military wisdom, Greene split his force—as he said, “partly from choice, partly from necessity” (the parents of most military decisions)—and sent Daniel Morgan with “the cream” of the army off west of the Catawba.
Morgan, as Greene intended, was a threat to Cornwallis’s left flank, and the important posts of Ninety-Six and Augusta, that could not be ignored if an expedition against Greene (and indeed into North Carolina) was to be undertaken. Tarleton was dispatched to neutralize Morgan and set off with his usual hard-driving determination on the first day of 1781. His force consisted of 550 dragoons and light infantry of the British Legion, the 1st Battalion of the 71st Foot (200), a similar number of the 7th Foot (Royal Fusiliers), 50 horsemen of the 17th Light Dragoons, and a 50-man contingent of the Royal Artillery with two three-pound “grasshoppers”: in all, just over 1,000 men.
After eluding Morgan’s shadowing force (by employing the old fake bivouac fires trick, used both by Washington after Trenton and Howe after Brandywine), Tarleton doubled back and crossed the Pacolet River. He was now closing in on his quarry with alarming speed. Scrambling, Morgan had two choices. He could try to cross the Broad River, which ran east to west across his line of retreat, and find good ground in the Thicketty Mountains. His other option would be to make his stand south of the river. In any event, to be caught by Tarleton in the act of crossing the Broad invited disaster, and Morgan would have been mindful of Greene’s mission directive: “Employ [your force]…either offensively or defensively as your own prudence and discretion may direct, acting with caution and avoiding surprises.”
Morgan’s own rationale for choosing the Cowpens to make his stand offers an insight into how decisions made under the duress of circumstances are often revisited years later to appear to be acts of pure (and of course, brilliant) volition. Morgan wrote to his friend Captain William Snickers only nine days after the battle that he intended to cross the river and find “a Strong piece of Ground & there decide the Matter but, as matters were Circumstanced, no time was to be lost, I prepared for battle.” Years later Morgan would present a very different, and much more heroic, account. He had deliberately chosen to fight with the river to his back to prevent desertion: it would be a glorious do-or-die stand: “As to retreat, it was the very thing I wished to cut off all hope of…Had I crossed the river, one half of the militia would immediately have abandoned me.” It was a complete contradiction of his after-battle report, which had emphasized a terrain with an escape route in case of defeat: “My situation at the Cowpens enabled me to improve any advantages I might gain, and to provide better for my own security should I be unfortunate.” On the evening of 15 January Andrew Pickens and a sizable militia force joined Morgan. It may have influenced his decision to stand and fight, but the truth, despite his later embroidering, was that he had little choice.
Tarleton fancied his chances when he surveyed the Cowpens battlefield: an open meadow (for cattle grazing) about 500 yards deep and the same wide, gently undulating, not much by way of trees and undergrowth; good terrain to maneuver infantry; good space to use cavalry once the enemy was broken. The Mill Gap Road bisected the field north to south. It suited, said Tarleton, “the nature of the troops under…[my] command. The situation of the enemy was desperate in case of misfortune.” But Morgan was about to prove his mastery of deployment: that science and art of fitting troops to terrain, of understanding the men in his command, their strengths and weaknesses and how best to use them. Morgan, by some osmosis that is difficult to describe (he had no extensive experience of major field command and certainly no formal training in the military craft), was about to demonstrate a genius for battlefield command unmatched on either side at any point during the war.
In the bright but “bitterly cold” early hours of 17 January Morgan laid out a defense in depth that, by drawing Tarleton (who he knew would favor a frontal attack—“down right fighting,” as Morgan called it) into a series of linear firefights, would soak up his attacker’s resources and energy. It was an instinctive understanding of the dynamics of battle of which Clausewitz would have been proud. First, he made sure his men were fed. (Tarleton’s, by comparison, had nothing to eat that day and had been on the march since three that morning.) The main line (sometimes referred to as the light infantry line) was posted on the reverse slope of a slight ridge that traversed the battlefield; the flanks were close to the marshy ground of two creeks that bracketed the Cowpens. The main line had three elements: 120 North Carolina State Troops, Virginia Continentals, Virginia State Troops, and Virginia riflemen all under the command of Captain Edmund Tate on the right wing; in the center were 280 Maryland and Delaware Continentals under the command of Lieutenant Colonel John Eager Howard; and 200 Virginia militia were on the American left under Major Francis Triplett. Howard also had control of the whole line, which totaled 600 men and was tightly aligned along a 200-yard front. Behind the main line, in a shallow gully, Morgan parked William Washington’s 3rd Continental Light Dragoons (82 men), together with 45 volunteer horsemen drawn from the militia.
One hundred and fifty yards in front of Howard were 300 of Pickens’s North and South Carolina and Georgia militia. (About 20 percent of them had seen previous service as Continentals, and in fact about three-quarters of Morgan’s force had combat experience.) The battalions of Colonel Joseph Hayes and Colonel Thomas Brandon were to the left of the road; those of Lieutenant Colonel Benjamin Roebuck and Colonel John Thomas Jr. to the right. A skirmish screen of 120 picked militia riflemen under Joseph McDowell, Samuel Hammond, and Charles Cunningham went forward and stood about 150 yards in front of the militia.
Tarleton’s column debouched onto the southern fringe of the Cowpens close to 6:45 A.M. Fifty or so dragoons drew sabers and moved quickly against the patriot skirmishers, but accurate rifle fire took out almost a third of them. Tarleton hurriedly began to display his infantry into line. From right to left, he posted 50 dragoons of the 17th; next to them were about 150 light infantry made up of the 16th Foot, the light companies of the 71st Highlanders, and the Prince of Wales American Regiment (largely Connecticut Loyalists). Then came about 250 of the infantry component of Tarleton’s own British Legion, and to their left were 177 men of the 7th Foot, with another 50 or so dragoons anchoring the far left of the line. The two 3-pounders were placed between the light infantry and the Legion and between the Legion and the 7th. (Morgan had no artillery.) To his rear Tarleton had the remaining companies of the 1st Battalion of the 71st (approximately 263 of all ranks) and about 200 British Legion cavalrymen.
Tarleton advanced his line without waiting for it to be completed. Officers of the 7th were still trying to get their men into formation, and it seems rash that the bulk of the 71st—the finest assault troops in the army—were not involved in the initial attack. Morgan described to Nathanael Greene how the British “formed into one Line Raisd a prodjious Yell, and came Running at us as if they intended to eat us up.” The militia officers were trying desperately to impose some sort of fire discipline on troops who must have been as tightly wound as men can be. Sixteen-year-old Thomas Young, a mounted volunteer with Washington’s force, reported: “Every officer was crying, ‘Don’t fire!’ for it was a hard matter to keep us from it…The militia fired first. It was for a time, pop-pop-pop, and then a whole volley; but when the regulars fired, it seemed like one sheet of flame from right to left. Oh! It was beautiful.” In fact it was “the most beautiful line I saw.”
Morgan intimately knew the capabilities of his militia, and his prebattle directive was designed to minimize their exposure and maximize their impact. They were to give two solid volleys and then retire. Many modern historians have the militia filing off en masse, left to right, across the face of the main line, but Morgan had in fact prepared his Continentals for the militia’s retreat by ordering them to open ranks to let the militia pass to the rear. A British account confirms Morgan’s innovative tactic: the main line, “observing confusion and retrograding in their front, suddenly faced to the right, and inclined backwards; a manoeuvre by which a space was left in the front line to retreat, without interfering with the ranks of those who were now to oppose the advance.” (That Greene would use the same technique, along with others copied from Morgan, at Guilford Courthouse two months later, also suggests this was indeed the method by which the militia extracted themselves.)
Tarleton launched the dragoons of his right, who crashed through the patriot left wing in pursuit of the retreating militia before they in their turn were attacked by Washington’s dragoons (who outnumbered them by three to one) and routed. The advancing British line had been badly mauled by skirmishers and the militia, and Tarleton had to dress it before it could again advance. With the length of his line now foreshortened by casualties, Tarleton ordered up his reserves—the 71st Foot and a fifty-man detachment of the Legion dragoons under Captain David Ogilvie—to come into the left wing and attempt to outflank the American right. The battle was being fought in the classic European manner, and both armies exchanged volleys. The British continued to advance.
First the Legion dragoons and then the 71st relentlessly worked their way through McDowell’s militia on the American right and began to enfilade the right flank of the Continentals. In response, John Eager Howard ordered a “refusal” of that flank (a maneuver that involved turning the companies on the far right of the line back at right angles so that they were facing the 71st). In the noise and confusion the order was misheard, and to Howard’s horror, Andrew Wallace’s Virginia Continentals about-faced and fell back, albeit in good order. Along the main line, the retreat spread. It was the critical moment of the battle, and, understandably agitated, Morgan demanded to know from Howard what on earth he was playing at. Howard coolly pointed out that there was no panic and that, fortuitously, the retreat had removed his men from the danger of being outflanked.
For the Highlanders of the 71st, Howard’s retreat was simply too inviting, and sensing a rout they charged. Their wild enthusiasm spread farther down the British line, and the 7th joined in “thinking,” remembered a Delaware Continental, “that We Were broke [they] set up a great Shout [and] Charged us With their bayonets but in no Order. The Continentals, calmly reloading as they marched back about eighty yards, turned, and delivered a shattering volley at about fifteen yards. Some historians have claimed they “fired from the hip,” but this seems highly unlikely. It would have been physically very difficult (especially swinging around with bayonets attached), unnecessary, inefficient, and contrary to all their training. In any event, it was followed by a bayonet attack as well as the reentrance to the battle of Washington’s dragoons and Pickens’s militia. Exhausted and surrounded, the 71st surrendered, along with most of the rest of the infantry. Tarleton tried unsuccessfully to persuade the Legion cavalry to rescue the guns, but the battle was over, and with it went 310 British and Loyalist casualties (of whom 110 were killed, over one-third of them officers) and a further 527 captured. (American casualties, according to Morgan, were 12 killed, 60 wounded, but he probably suffered twice that.) Tarleton had lost 86 percent of his force, and it would cripple all of Cornwallis’s later efforts. (“The late affair has almost broke my heart,” he confided to Lord Rawdon.) In effect, it paved the way to Yorktown.