Exclusive--O'Donnell: The Battle of Cowpens, Leadership and Innovation that Changed the Course of the Revolutionary War

Exclusive--O'Donnell: The Battle of Cowpens, Leadership and Innovation that Changed the Course of the Revolutionary War

Casting an imposing shadow, General Daniel Morgan strode with confidence and determination beside the rows of blazing campfires at Cowpens — a cow pasture, near present-day Spartanburg, South Carolina.  239 years ago, that freezing night in January was the eve of one of the most decisive battles of the Revolution, one that was won through a combination of leadership and adaptability. 

A fearless veteran of numerous military campaigns, Morgan inspired his men through example. Standing a full six feet, which was unusually tall for the time, Morgan didn’t wear many of the trappings of a typical eighteenth-century military officer, and he carried only a simple sword. As a result, the men felt an affinity with Morgan: he was one of them. His personal battle history was etched deeply across his body. On his left cheek, he bore an angry scar from a ball that entered his neck, passed through his mouth, took out most of his rear teeth, and exited his upper lip. 

According to legend, on this night—January 16, 1781—one of Morgan’s aides lifted the general’s shirt, exposing the leather-like scars on his back. Morgan told the Continentals that at one point during the French and Indian War, he had knocked down a British officer who assaulted him with the flat portion of a sword. For the offense, Morgan’s superiors condemned him to four hundred lashes, “of which only three hundred and ninety-nine were inflicted. I counted them myself,” the general continued, laughing, “and am sure that I am right, nay, I convinced the drum-major of his mistake . . . so I am still their creditor to the amount of one lash.” 

The incident demonstrated Morgan’s unwavering commitment to the Revolution. His resolve would be put to the test in the upcoming battle, which afforded little opportunity for retreat. Tactically, his army was backed up against a river. With the British poised to pounce should he make himself vulnerable by attempting a crossing, he had little choice other than to fight. Recognizing the do-or-die nature of the undertaking, the general told his aides, “Here is Morgan’s grave or victory.” 

The unforgettable scene is recounted in a bestselling book Washington’s Immortals, which chronicles the actions of the elite troops of the Maryland Line, one group of Americans that took part in the battle at Cowpens. The seeds of America’s origin story and the Revolutionary War unfolds in The Indispensables. 

On this night, the Marylanders were part of the “Flying Army,” a light force led by General Morgan. They were Continentals, or regular troops, in an army largely made up of militia, which were considered unreliable. The militia often melted away when facing British bayonets and would come and go as the army marched. Many of the men were veterans of the disastrous defeat at Camden, South Carolina, and were eager for a chance to avenge their losses. They would face Banastre Tarleton, a notorious British cavalry officer with a reputation for ruthlessness. John Eager Howard, the senior Maryland officer in the Flying Army, recalled that the Americans “were all in good spirits, related circumstances of Tarleton’s cruelty, and expressed the strongest desire to check his progress.”

Morgan faced numerous challenges, most notably how to fight Tarleton’s experienced, drilled British troops with an American force made of fickle militia. A quintessential innovative American, Morgan came up with a novel battle plan. The general’s first line consisted of skirmishers, handpicked men who were crack shots. They would position themselves about 150 yards in front of the militia. He told the riflemen to aim for the officers to soften up the British as they came forward. The second line consisted of militiamen, who, Morgan knew, were capable of only limited fighting. He asked them to fire a few shots and withdraw through holes in the Continental line, where they would re-form and prepare for a counterattack. The third line consisted of the Maryland, Delaware, and Virginia Continentals. They would remain concealed behind a small rise until their time to face the oncoming British. At that point, the militia, along with cavalry led by Lieutenant Colonel William Washington (a cousin of George Washington) led a counterattack that would envelop the British. Morgan proposed a defense in depth, considered unique during the Revolution. He would seek to delay the advance of the attacker and buy time by having his men fall back to prepared positions as the enemy advanced. This allowed them to inflict additional casualties, exact a high price from the advancing British, and set up a crushing counterattack.

The British army had already mastered its style of combat when the war began. It had established rules for its soldiers to follow in battle—a European style of fighting. As the war progressed, it began to see the need to revise those rules, and the British army adapted. Both the American army and the British army were readjusting their forces, tactics, and strategy to fight the Revolution. A race ensued. The winner would be the army that could reshape itself faster. Morgan and the Marylanders were in the forefront of pioneering a highly adaptable American style of combat. 

About two hours before daybreak on the day of the battle, a scout galloped up to Morgan with news that Tarleton was about five miles away and bearing down fast on the Flying Army. Morgan rode through the men, who were huddled in blankets for protection against the frost that lightly coated the South Carolina countryside. Morgan’s stentorian voice pierced the silence of the morning: “Boys, get up, Benny’s coming!”

The battle began with the bayonet-wielding British infantry charging the first line of Americans in the meadow. “[Morgan] galloped along the lines, cheering the men and telling us not to fire until we could see the whites of their eyes,” recalled one of the American militiamen. When the enemy approached within fifty yards, the Americans began to fire. After taking a couple shots, the American militia retreated. Thinking it was a rout, the Redcoats surged ahead faster.

But another line of Patriots lay ahead of them. Howard’s Marylanders waited behind a rise, ready to spring the trap Morgan had laid. As the Redcoats approached, fierce fighting ensued with both sides exchanging musket fire. Tarleton then sent in his cavalry, turning the tide toward the British.

At that point, a misunderstood order nearly resulted in disaster for the Americans. An American officer mistakenly thought Howard had ordered him to withdraw. His men turned their backs to the British and began marching to the rear. Thinking the Americans were fleeing the battle, the British surged forward to deliver a knockout blow. Howard corrected the mistake, ordering the troops to halt and turn around. The men did an about face and unleashed devastating fire on the British. Stunned by the unexpected fire, the Redcoats beat a hasty retreat, now pursued by the Americans.

A tide of screaming Continentals soon reached the vulnerable British artillery, which had been left nearly undefended. Only a few yards from an artillery piece, which was leveled at them, one of the Maryland officers saw that the artillerist was “about to put a match to it. At this critical moment, [he] ran up, and, with the assistance of his spontoon, made a spring, and lit immediately upon the gun.” In one of the more bizarre and colorful exploits of the Revolution, the Marylander had pole-vaulted onto the artillery piece. He then disabled the match-wielding artillerist and captured the valuable prize.

Tarleton attempted to rally his men to no avail, as most of his surviving troops attempted to flee the field. At this point, the militia re-formed and combined with cavalry led by William Washington, and they enveloped the British, capturing or killing many of them. Tarleton responded by charging Washington’s force with a small group of dragoons, and the two officers were soon embroiled in a horseback sword duel. Tarleton made a thrust, which Washington parried, but the action snapped the American’s sword in two. One of the other British officers moved in to strike Washington, but Washington’s African-American orderly drew his pistol and shot the man, saving Washington’s life. Another British officer fired his pistol at Washington, but the bullet missed its mark, hitting Washington’s horse. 

Thwarted in his attempt to take out the charismatic American officer, Tarleton and a small group of his men fled Cowpens while the bulk of his task force was killed or captured. It was a decisive American victory that set the stage for a momentum shift in the war in the South. 

America has a unique way of fighting that has become part of our national DNA. In today’s world, decisive victories such as Cowpens have become increasingly scarce. Paradoxically, with a greater reliance on technology, adaptability and leadership are inhibited, and the American way of war is dramatically changing. 

Patrick K. O’Donnell is a bestselling, critically acclaimed military historian and an expert on elite units. He is the author of twelve books, including The Indispensables, which is featured nationally at Barnes & Noble, Washington’s Immortals, and The Unknowns. He is the featured speaker at Washington’s Crossing on December 12 and will participate in the annual reenactment and crossing of the Delaware River. O’Donnell served as a combat historian in a Marine rifle platoon during the Battle of Fallujah and often speaks on espionage, special operations, and counterinsurgency. He has provided historical consulting for DreamWorks’ award-winning miniseries Band of Brothers and documentaries produced by the BBC, the History Channel, and Discovery. PatrickODonnell.com @combathistorian

Patrick K. O'Donnell