Two Shots and You're Free
Historians and theorists, both professional and amateur, like to speculate on the true causes for the outcome of a battle. In the case of a great victory, such as the Battle of Cowpens, January 17, 1781, where about 800 Americans under the command of Gen. Daniel Morgan, defeated over 1200 of the best of the British army in about 45 minutes, the outcome may seem inevitable once the smoke has cleared away, the bodies are buried, and the reports written up. But the more events leading up to that crucial morning in the American Revolution are studied, the clearer it is that the tide might have easily gone the other way. To many students of the battle it appears that the decisive victory was the result of three or four quick decisions Daniel Morgan made as he prepared to fight the night before and as he rode among his men as the fight began to daybreak.
The victory may have hinged on one sentence Morgan shouted to his men the night before as they huddled around campfires, preparing to meet Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton and his feared Green Dragoons and infantry at dawn. Morgan, a former teamster from the Virginia frontier and commander of the Virginia Rifles at the two battles of Saratoga, said “Boys, give me two shots and you are free to fall back.”
With those words he relieved the militiamen’s worst fears: standing up to a cavalry charge where they would be chopped up with sabers and trampled by horses, or confronting the dreaded rows of British bayonets. With little military training or equipment, the militiamen were only confident of their marksmanship, and hoped to fire at the enemy from a distance, out of range of British Brown Bess muskets. In almost every engagement where a militia had confronted regular British troops, the militia had broken ranks and run for the thickets and swamps.
Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton was the most feared officer under Lord Cornwallis’s command in the Carolinas. Though only 26 years old, he had never lost a battle. His specialty was charging with his dragoons directly into American forces and scattering them, then riding down the fleeing patriots and running them through with razor-sharp sabers. At the Waxhaws the previous May, and at other battles, he had refused to take prisoners and killed surrendering men. “Tarleton’s Quarter,” meaning no quarter, had become an outcry in the Carolinas. While Cornwallis moved his huge army up the east side of the Broad River toward North Carolina and Virginia, Tarleton swept across the back country of South Carolina, burning and raping, looting and hanging. His campaign of terror to end the rebellion helped convince the South Carolineans such as Andrew Pickens that they must fight Tarleton or be killed.
With that one sentence spoken around the campfires in the hours before dawn on January 17, Daniel Morgan began to inspire his army of farmboys and drovers, carpenters and laborers and school teachers, that they could defeat the feared Tarleton. Morgan was so confident and knowing that he made them believe, as they shivered in the January cold, that not only could they win, but that they were going to wind. They had to win.
Morgan was a thick powerful figure of a man. A bullet in the mouth had left his cheek scarred, but he spoke the language of the frontier. In his youth he had been a champion wrestler in taverns and on village greens. He had always won his matches, and in those hours before the battle he kept repeating the slogan, “Old Morgan was never beaten.” As a young teamster during the French and Indian War he had slapped a British officer and been sentenced to 500 lashes, a death sentence. But Morgan was so robust he survived the whipping and liked to brag that the British had miscounted and given him only 499 lashes. By the campfires that night of January 16-17, as he spirited up his men, he would jerk up his shirt and show them the scars on his back. “Look what these sons of bitches did to me,” he said.
Morgan outlined to his soldiers around the campfires his scheme of battle. He had not planned to fight Tarleton’s larger force, but had no choice because the Broad River was in flood and he couldn’t move his army across. Quickly he improvised a plan. He would form his forces into three lines, with North Carolina and Georgia militias in the front skirmish line ready to fire two shots and fall back quickly to the second line held by Col. Pickens and the South Carolina militia. From there they would all fire two more shots and then move back to the third line on the higher ground, held by 290 Delaware and Marylander Regulars under Lt. Col. John Howard and a complement of the seasoned Virginia militia. The Continental Regulars had uniforms and bayonets much like the British infantry. They would be ready for the final bayonet charge, and all the militiamen would be firing from the third line in their support.
On the British side Tarleton had the excellent 7th Infantry, the Royal Fusiliers, a battalion of Fraser’s 71st Highlanders, undefeated in North America, a company of foot soldiers known as Tarleton’s Legion, and the deadly Green Dragoons with their reputation for brutality and victory.
The second inspired sentence Morgan uttered by the campfires that night was “Aim only at the epaulettes and stripes; don’t waste your ammunition on private soldiers.” Morgan knew that British soldiers were much better trained and disciplined than American forces. If the chain of command was picked off, the officers and sergeants killed, as had been done by mountain sharpshooters at King Mountain near Charlotte the October before, the British soldiers were apt to be confused and lose their confidence.
“Two shots and you are free,” he shouted again. “And hit only epaulettes and stripes, officers and sergeants.” It would later appear that the battle was essentially won with those two sentences.
But Daniel Morgan had other factors working in his favor in those hours before dawn. Unknown to Tarleton, Morgan had with him the South Carolina cavalry under the command of Lt. Col. William Washington. Washington’s dragoons had proven themselves only weeks before in a battle at Hammond’s Store, killing more than a dozen of Tarleton’s Green Dragoons. Washington also had about 40 mounted militiamen riding with him. They were known to be excellent horsemen. To keep the cavalry hidden from Tarleton until the most effective moment, Morgan placed them behind a pine grove at the left rear of the wooded pasture known as Hannah’s Cowpens.
The unexpected attack of Washington’s cavalry at a crucial moment in the battle was almost certainly the second most important surprise delivered to Tarleton that day. Since the British had forces superior in number, training, and equipment, the element of surprise must be an essential factor in explaining the overwhelming American victory.
The third major surprise to the British occurred near the end of the battle. Things had gone at first exactly as Morgan had planned. The front line fired their two shots at the beginning and killed several cavalry officers and sergeants, then ran back to join the South Carolineans in the second line. Again they all fired two shots as the British infantry began marching toward them. But as they began pulling back toward the third line a panic seized the young militiamen. Perhaps they were surprised by a thunderous volley of musket fire, or by blasts from the two British field guns. In any case they began fleeing toward the rear, and Tarleton and his Green Dragoons charged after them. Only Washington and his cavalry, springing out from behind the pine grove, saved them.
After Lt. Hughes of the South Carolina militia persuaded the panicked men to return to fight on the third line, all assembled there, facing the advancing fusiliers. But when the 71st Highlanders entered the battle on the Americans’ right flank, an order was given to refuse (i.e. face) the flank. The militiamen misunderstood the order, and thought they had been told to retreat. The whole American line began withdrawing. Gen. Morgan rode up in a fury and asked Lt. Col. Howard if he was beaten. Howard pointed out they were not defeated but retreating in good order.
“Then reload and when I give the order turn and fire,” Morgan shouted. The British assumed they had won, seeing the whole American army in retreat. They rushed forward through the smoke with bayonets raised for the final kill. But when Morgan gave the order the patriots spun around and fired point blank into the faces of the British soldiers. Scores were killed and many of the British began to flee or surrender. They threw down weapons and raised their arms. Washington’s cavalry hemmed them in from behind in a double envelopment. All the artillerymen refused to surrender and were killed, and soon the 71st Highlanders surrendered.
As it turned out, Tarleton himself and several of his men got away and made it back to Cornwallis’s camp on the other side of the Broad River. But all the rest of the British forces were either killed or captured. It is hard to think of a more decisive victory in the Revolution, where relatively untrained soldiers defeated so completely a larger, better equipped force. The road to Yorktown had been opened, the route to victory.
In the aftermath of the Battle of Cowpens Morgan had to retire from command because of illness. His superior officer, Nathanael Greene, tried to repeat Morgan’s battle plan and victory at Guilford Courthouse in March of 1781, and was only partly successful. But Cornwallis’s once daunting army was crippled and never recovered as it reeled toward Wilmington and then up into Virginia. With his one inspired sentence Daniel Morgan had set into motion a sequence of events that would end the Revolution and pave the way for the Republic.
I first heard about the Battle of Cowpens from my dad, Clyde Morgan, who was a wonderful storyteller and self-taught historian. He described Morgan’s victory and later took me to visit the hallowed ground of the battlefield just east of Spartanburg. He showed me the statue of Gen. Morgan on the square in Spartanburg, and conceded that we were not related to the hero, though at least one of my ancestors, William Capps, had fought at Cowpens as a private in the Virginia militia.
Later I read several histories of the Revolutionary campaign in South Carolina, and returned to visit the battlefield park at Cowpens. It was while reading Tarleton’s memoirs of his service in the South that I decided to write a novel set at the Battle of Cowpens. Explaining why he pitched directly into battle at dawn, after marching his men most of the night through swamps and thickets, Tarleton noted that he had reports that a company of ‘the Green River Rifles’ were on their way to join Morgan’s forces. They were among the mountain sharpshooters who had picked off Ferguson and his officers from a distance at Kings Mountain. Tarleton hoped to engage Morgan before they arrived.
I had grown up on the Green River in Western North Carolina. What Tarleton didn’t know in that cold dawn was that the Green River Rifles had already joined the North Carolina militia and were lying in the grass or hiding behind trees in the front line waiting for him. In the first few minutes of the battle they emptied as many as 15 cavalry saddles, and began a chain of events that would unnerve and defeat the unbeaten Tarleton. Among those marksmen was one of my ancestors, William Capps, drawing a bead on a bright green and red uniform as the sun rose over Thicketty Mountain.