PART IV
COMMENTS AND CONCLUSIONS

 

It is difficult to understand General Morgan's reasons for accepting battle at the Cowpens, unless his personal characteristics for bravery and daring and his superior qualities as a leader of militia explain the matter. The instructions which he received before leaving Charlotte Town were that he was to act offensively or defensively, as his prudence and discretion might direct, but that he was to conduct operations with caution and avoid surprises. When he effected his withdrawal from the Pacolet in the face of Tarleton's approach he halted for the night of the 15th at Burrs Mills, on Thicketty Creek, and sent to Greene the last letter written prior to the battle. At this time he had no thought of an early encounter. He reported that Tarleton had crossed the Tiger at Musgroves Mill with a force of 1,100 or 1,200, and that his command was probably Tarleton's objective. He suggested to General Greene that his detachment be recalled and that General David, son and Colonel Pickens be left with the militia to check the disaffected in that region. He realized that, due to his distance from the main Army, Cornwallis might detach a force against him so superior as to render it essential to his safety to avoid an engagement. He wrote:

Upon a full and mature deliberation, I am confirmed in the opinion that nothing can be effected by my detachment in this country which will balance the risks I will be subjected to by remaining here. General Greene replied to this letter on the 19th of January, at which time he was unaware that an engagement had occurred, to the effect that it was of great importance to keep a force in that
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quarter, for which duty the militia alone would not answer. He realized that the movements of Cornwallis and Tarleton had the appearance of being directed against Morgan, and told him:

I do not wish you should come to action unless you have a manifest superiority, and a moral certainty of succeeding. Put nothing to the hazard. A retreat may be disagreeable, but not disgraceful. Regard not the opinions of the day. It is not our business to risk too much. Our affairs are in too critical a situation, and require time and nursing to give them a better tone. Upon his further withdrawal to the Cowpens, on the 16th, where additional militia joined, and with the knowledge that Tarleton was closely pursuing and was now but one short march away, Morgan decided that evening to stand and fight. The decision once made, however much its wisdom may be questioned, there can be no doubt about the enthusiasm and thoroughness with which he prepared for the coming day. A plan of action was determined upon, and his commanders informed. The rôle for the militia was such that under a slight baptism of fire, it was hoped much of their fear would be dissipated, and that they would remain on the battle field for later participation in the contest. Appeal was made to their loyalty, their manhood, and their prowess with the rifle. There was no question but what Washington's dragoons, Howard's Continentals, and Triplett's Virginians would do their full duty. The men were able to rest during the night, and after the morning meal leisurely took up their designated positions.

Not much praise can be given for the position selected, except that the slope in front of Pickens impeded, to some extent the advance of Tarleton's weary ranks, and the hill in rear offered cover for the cavalry reserve. In all directions the terrain was open to attack from both infantry and cavalry, and Morgan doubtless knew that the cavalry of Tarleton's legion far outnumbered Washington's dragoons.

What superiority he believed to be possessed by the troops under Howard over the infantry of Tarleton can not be explained other than on the grounds that he hoped his own courage great enough

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to cause his men to do the seemingly impossible. In planning for the militia under Pickens to hold their line for but a brief time, and then retire, it would be with the assumption that the British would not have loft heavily by the time they reached the main fine. On this line the fate of the day would be determined, and Howard's strength was less than 450 men. Tarleton's strength at this stage of the action would probably be 750 infantry, outnumbering Howard about 2 to 1.

It appeared to the British, when Howard's line fell back, that victory was at hand, and so it would have been, had the line been composed of men less inured to battle than were the Continentals of Maryland and Delaware. There was no delay or hesitation when the order to halt, face the enemy, and fire, was given, and there then occurred in a moment a scene of dumbfounded surprise, confusion, and panic seldom witnessed in battle. The outcome resulted in one of the most gloriously unexpected victories of the Revolutionary War. The heroes of the Cowpens, could worthily stand shoulder to shoulder with those of Kings Mountain.

Under a resolution of Congress passed March 9, 1781, the thanks of the United States were given to Brigadier General Morgan, and the officers and men under his command, "for their fortitude and good conduct, displayed in the action at the Cowpens." The resolution further provided that a gold medal be presented to General Morgan, silver medals to Lieutenant Colonels Washington and Howard, and a sword to Colonel Pickens.

In writing to the President of Congress on the 17th of February, General Washington said:

General Morgan's signal victory over Colonel Tarleton with the flower of the British Army reflects the highest honor upon our arms, and I hope at least be attended with this advantage, that it will check the offensive operations of the enemy until General Greene shall have collected a much more respectable force than he had under his command by the last accounts from him. I am apprehensive that the Southern States will look upon this victory as much more decisive in its consequences than it really is, and will relax in their exertions. It is to be wished that the gentlemen of Congress who have interests in those States would remove
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such ideas, if any such should be found to exist, and rather stimulate them to redouble their efforts to crush an enemy, pretty severely shaken by the two successful dtrokes upon Ferguson and Tarleton. Cornwallis employed the day following the battle in effecting a junction with Leslie's command and in collecting the remains of Tarleton's corps, and on the 19th hastened in pursuit of Morgan, hoping to be able to engage him and recover the prisoners before Morgan and Greene could effect a junction. A part of the army, without baggage, made great exertions to come up with Morgan, but the celerity of his movements and the swelling of numberless creeks rendered their efforts useless, and he reached the Catawba on the 23d of January.

Cornwallis therefore assembled his army on the 25th of January at Ramseur's mill, on the South Fork of the Catawba, and as the loss of his light troops could only be remedied by the activity of the whole corps, he employed two days in collecting flour, and in destroying superfluous baggage and wagons, and then resumed the pursuit.

In writing to Lord Germain on the 17th of March, Cornwallis said tható

The unfortunate affair of the 17th of January was a very unexpected and severe blow; for, besides reputation, our loss did not fall short of 600 men. However, being thoroughly sensible that defensive measures would be certain ruin to the affairs of Britain in the Southern Colonies, this event did not deter me from prosecuting the original plan. Tarleton in his narrative, commenting on the two disasters which the British suffered in South Carolina, said that the fall of Ferguson at Kings Mountain was a catastrophe which put an end to the first expedition into North Carolina, and that the Battle of the Cowpens overshadowed the commencement of the second expedition. This comment taken in conjunction with the above-mentioned apprehension of General Washington, "that the Southern States will look upon this victory as much more decisive in its consequences than it really is," briefly summarizes the result of the Battle
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of the Cowpens. The effect at the time was to hearten greatly the patriotic cause and to distress the British Army and their Tory sympathizers beyond measure. It was the second link in the chain of events, soon to be followed by others, which finally led to the surrender of Cornwallis's army at Yorktown.

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