Battle of Cowpens (17 January 1781)

When Morgan was apprised of Tarleton's approach he fell back a day's march from his position on the Pacolet.  He perhaps doubted the propriety of giving battle at all.  His force was considerably inferior to that arrayed against him.  The officers and men composing the entire body of his militia were almost wholly unknown to him except by report.  He could not know what confidence to place in their skill and courage.  A retrograde movement was necessary to enable him to call in scattered detachments.  On the night of Jan. 16 the last of these joined him some time after dark.  He now had his entire force and the question must be decided, "Shall we fight or fly?"  The South Carolina militia demanded a fight.  Their general could, from past experience and common fame, commend their courage in their present position, but let them cross Broad River and he would not answer for their conduct.  Here the final decision is to risk a battle.  The Cols. Brandon and Roebuck, with some others, had the special charge of watching Tarleton's movements from the time he reached the valley of the Pacolet.  They sat on their horses as he approached and passed that stream and counted his men and sent their report to headquarters.  They watched his camp on the night of the 16th until he began his march to give battle.  Morgan appears to have had the most exact information of everything necessary.

Morgan Addresses His Army

On the morning of the 17th he had his men called up.  He addressed them in a strain well adapted to inflame their courage.  Major Jackson of Georgia also spoke to the militia.  The lines formed and the plan of battle disclosed.  Three lines of infantry were drawn across the plain.  First the regulars and some companies of Virginia militia are posted where the final issue is expected.  In front of these the main body of militia under Gen. Pickens are drawn up at the distance of 150 yards.  Still in front of these at the distance of 150 yards a corps of picked riflemen is scattered in loose order along the whole front.

The Battle

The guns of the videttes, led by Capt. Inman announce the approach of the foe, and soon the red coats stream before the eyes of the militia.  A column marches up in front of Brandon's men led by a gayly dressed officer on horseback.   The word passes along the line, "Who can bring him down?" John Savage looked Col. Farr full in the face and read yes in his eye.  He darted a few paces in front, laid his rifle against a sapling, a blue gas streamed above his head, the sharp crack of a rifle broke the solemn stillness of the occasion and a horse without a rider wheeled from the front of the advancing column.  In a few moments the fire is general.  The sharpshooters fall behind Pickens and presently his line yields.  Then there is a charge of the dragoons even past the line of regulars after the retreating militia. Numbers are cut down.

Two dragoons assault a large rifleman, Joseph Hughes by name.  His gun was empty, but with it he parries their blows and dodges round a tree, but they still persist.  At the moment the assault on Hughes began John Savage was priming his rifle.  Just as they pass the tree to strike Hughes he levels his gun and one of the dragoons tumbles from his horse pierced with a bullet.  The next moment the rifle carried by Hughes, now literally hacked over, slips out of his hands and inflicts such a blow upon the other dragoon that he quits the contest and retires hanging by the mane of his horse.

Soon, however, the militia are relieved from the British dragoons by a charge of the American light horse.  The British cavalry are borne from the field.  Meanwhile the British infantry and the regulars under Col. Howard are hotly engaged; the fight becomes desperate.  Howard orders a charge, the militia come back and fall in right and left.  The British line is broken, some begin to call for quarters, the voice of Howard is heard amidst the rush of men and clangor of steel: "Throw down your arms and you shall have good quarters."

The Surrender of the British

One battalion throws down their arms and the men fall to the earth.  Another commences flight, but Washington darts before them with his cavalry and they too ground their arms.  ln the conclusion of this last foray you might have seen Major Jackson of Georgia rush among the broken ranks of the 71st Regiment and attempting to seize their standard, while they are vainly trying to form by it; you might have seen Col. Howard interposing for the relief of his friend when entangled among his foes.

At the end of the strife you might have seen the same young man introducing Major McArthur, the commandant of the British infantry, to Gen. Morgan and receiving the General's thanks for the gallantry displayed on the occasion.  You might have seen some five or six hundred tall, brawny, well clad soldiers, the flower of the British Army, guarded by a set of militia clad in hunting shirts, "blacked, smoked and greasy."

The plain was strewn with the dead and dying.  The scattered fragments of the British Army were hurrying from the scene of carnage.  Washington hastily collected his cavalry and dashed off in pursuit of Tarleton.  He was preceded, however, by a party that started with a view of taking possession of the baggage wagons of the enemy.  The victory was complete.

American Units in the Engagement

The militia engaged in this battle belonged to three States, the two Carolinas and Georgia.  Two companies from Virginia were present, but were in line with the Maryland regiment under Howard. The North Carolina militia were led by Major McDowell.  The Georgia militia were under the immediate command of Majors Cunningham and Jackson; the Captains were Samuel Hammond, George Walton and Joshua Inman.  Major Jackson also acted as Brigade Major to all the militia present.  The South Carolina militia were directed by Gen. Pickens.  The Colonels were John Thomas, Thomas Brandon, Glenn Anderson and McCall; the Lieutenant Colonels, William Farr and Benjamin Roebuck; the Majors, Henry White and Joseph McJunkin; Captains, John Alexander, Collins, Elder, Crawford, with Lieuts. Thomas Moore and Hugh Means.

On the night before the battle forty‑five militia soldiers were enrolled as dragoons and placed under the command of Col. McCall and annexed to Washington's Cavalry.   These officers and men, in the respective commands, were far from being tyros in the art of war.  They were marksmen and had generally been in the war from its commencement.  In regard to the conduct of Major McJunkin on this occasion the testimony of those who acted under him and with him is to this effect: That he exhibited undaunted courage in action and contributed largely in bringing the militia in order to the final onset by which the battle so honorably terminated.

Morgan Evades Cornwallis

Soon after the conflict was ended Morgan put his army in motion to evade the operations of Cornwallis and secure the fruits of his victory.  He passed over the Broad River that day at Island Ford, whither he had sent his baggage wagons that morning.  Thence he directed his march toward Beatty's Ford on the Catawba.  Here commenced the famous race between him and Cornwallis.  The latter, as soon as he heard of the affair at the Cowpens,  put his army in motion to retake the prisoners and chastise the hero of the Cowpens.  Morgan fully appreciated his danger and put forth all his energies to avert it, and hence the flight and pursuit to the Dan River in Virginia.  When Morgan's army was safely across the Yadkin he advised a portion of the South Carolina militia to return and defend their homes in the best manner they could.  The regiments of Brandon and Thomas accordingly did return.

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