Daniel Morgan at Cowpens
"The profession of arms does not often attract innovative minds,....This untutored son of the frontier was the only general in the American revolution, on either side, to produce a significant original tactical thought."
John Buchanan ( The Road To Guilford Courthouse )
"It was upon this occasion I was more perfectly convinced of Gen.'s qualifications to command militia than I had ever before been. He went among the volunteers, helped them fix their swords, joked with them about their sweat-hearts, told them to keep in good spirits, and the day would be ours. And long after I laid down, he was going about among the soldiers encouraging them, and telling them that the old wagoner would crack his whip over Ben. (Tarleton) in the morning, as sure as they lived. 'Just hold your heads, boys, three fires,' he would say, 'and you are free, and then when you return to your homes, how the old folks will bless you, and the girls kiss you, for your gallant conduct!" I don't believe he slept a wink that night!"
Major Thomas Young ( The Memoir of Major Thomas Young )
"The defeat of his majesty's troops at the Cowpens formed a very principal link in the chain of circumstances which led to the independence of America. ......... The loss of the light troops, at all times necessary to an army, but on a march through a woody and thinly settled country, almost indispensable,was not to be repaired."
Charles Stedman ( History of the Origin, Progress & Termination of the American War )
The above quotations clearly demonstrate that, in the eyes of contemporaries and modern historians, Daniel Morgan's leadership at Cowpens was both brilliant and massively consequential. Indeed John Buchanan has stated that Daniel Morgan was the only general, on either side, in the American war , "to produce a significant original tactical thought."
For anyone who is unfamiliar with the course of the engagement we recommend watching the video - 'Cowpens: A Brilliant Victory', which you will find (top right) on this page. The main outline of the days events can also be pieced together from the battle map at the bottom of the page.
That Cowpens was a resounding victory for the Continental army is beyond doubt but how decisive were Daniel Morgan's military skills in securing this result and how significant was it to the outcome of the war?
Firstly it should be stressed that Morgan was at a distinct military disadvantage. There has been some controversy about the numbers engaged at Cowpens. Contemporary estimates put Morgan's strength at around 800 while the British forces numbered 11-1200. Modern scholarship has revised these calculations and Morgan is now thought to have had approximately 1050 men at his disposal. The raw figures, however, do not tell the whole story. The British were superior in training, experience and equipment. They had two cannon at their disposal (three-pounders) whereas Morgan had none, and their cavalry outnumbered the Continentals three to one.
It might also be assumed, following a brief perusal of the battle map below, that Morgan had positioned his forces poorly for the coming confrontation. Any possible avenue of retreat was cut off by the Broad River at his back. Indeed Henry Lee, in Memoirs of the War in the Southern Department of the United States , says the following concerning Morgan's dispositions:-
"His flanks had no resting-place, but were exposed to be readily turned; and Broad River ran parallel to his rear, forbidding the hope of a safe retreat in the event of disaster."
In his defence it should be noted that Morgan was concerned that if he retreated across the Broad River, his militia would desert him. He also knew that the Militia were prone to 'shoot and scoot' in battle and having the Broad River at his rear made it much easier to rally them should they panic and bolt. Additionally Morgan knew his opponent, Banastre Tarleton, well enough by reputation, and may have considered him sufficiently reckless and over confident to storm the Continentals position immediately upon arrival. This he did, without allowing his troops time to rest and refresh themselves after many days of arduous cross country marching. There is also evidence that in his haste to engage, Tarleton did not take the time necessary to draw up his battle line correctly. The 71st Highlanders were almost completely sidelined during the early stages of the fight.
But Morgan's true genius manifested itself in the disposition of his troops prior to the engagement. If the definition of genius is, "...taking the complex and making it simple." then Morgan's plan to increase the effectiveness of his available force by positioning his least reliable troops at the front of the line must surely qualify. The militia were superb marksmen and armed with the American Long Rifle they outranged the Redcoats Brown Bess muskets by up to 100 yards. Morgan knew exactly what he was doing when he toured the camp on the night before the battle exhorting his militiamen and sharpshooters to give him "three fires and retire.". He instructed them to aim at the officers and he knew that with their devastating accuracy they would substantially weaken the British ranks before they joined with the Continental regulars. Having discharged their weapons they were to retire behind the Continental line and await further orders.
By placing the Militia at the front of his line Morgan ensured that his least reliable troops would play a full part in the battle. He also ensured that the British line would be substantially depleted by the time they engaged his regular troops. This was a form of 'defence in depth' which the British did not expect and for which they were not prepared.
Morgan's victory at Cowpens deprived the British Army of the light troops which played such a vital role in the War of Independence. Their removal from the board also made it much less likely that the British could successfully recruit Militia from amongst the 'loyalist' population.
This was the first occasion on which Morgan had control of the entire Continental force on the battlefield. Consequently he was able to bring to bear the full weight of the experience and expertise which he had developed during the earlier Canadian expedition and, more particularly, at Saratoga. His tactical genius secured a major victory which put the American revolution on course for ultimate victory.
Morgan became ill (probably with rheumatism) after Cowpens and had to retire to recuperate. As he headed north he wrote to Nathaniel Greene (the overall commander of Continental troops in the southern theater) recommending the employment of a three line defence in depth strategy in future engagements with the British. Greene heeded Morgan's advise (albeit in such a way that the lines were too far apart to support each other ) and deployed three defensive lines at the battle of Guilford Courthouse . Although this resulted in a British victory of sorts, Cornwallis lost an estimated 27% of his force, in its achievement.
The cumulative losses in these two battles put Cornwallis on the road to Yorktown and ultimate surrender and defeat.