- 1781: American soldier Colonel Wiliam Washington fighting in hand to hand combat with British dragoon Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton along the Green River Road during the Battle of Cowpens. Colonel Washington’s Bugler (left) is shooting one of Tarleton’s officers. (Photo by MPI/Getty Images)
Today, January 17, is the two hundred and thirty fourth anniversary of the Battle of the Cowpens. Don’t worry, ladies, I have no intention of describing the battle. To the gentlemen, I hope to make up for that with analytics. It’s not the battle which is a pivot point in my novel, currently a work in process, but why one of the most handsome and daring officers in the British Army got creamed. The result was a predictable downhill slide for General Cornwallis’ army from there to Yorktown. He only had slightly less than 3,000 fighting men to start with and lost over a third of them at the Cowpens. It narrowed his options considerably. Very briefly this is why it happened.
HUBRIS: (A dandy endowment for any main character.) If something works repeatedly, as Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton’s method of fast and vicious attack had in the past, you tend to overuse it. To a carpenter all solutions look like a hammer. To Tarleton all solutions looked like “catch them unaware and obliterate them.” He got very, very good at it. With instruction to leave the women and baggage at the camp, he set off to chase General Morgan. Winning constantly also leads to overconfidence and an inflated ego, and he had both in spades. After all he was General Cornwallis’ golden boy.
LACK OF COMMUNICATION: Contrary to popular belief Tarleton knew Morgan had over 2,200 men to his own 1,050 because he sent a letter to Cornwallis on January 4, 1781 outlining his proposed strategy for catching the American General. Cornwallis requested he be constantly informed about Tarleton’s whereabouts. The “why Cornwallis was so uninformed” is also the entire raison d’etre for my book. Of course Tarleton sent out couriers. Most of them never made it. Per one cryptic paragraph in the Greene papers, Morgan, Greene and General Sumter, a South Carolina partisan commander, had spies busily intercepting those couriers. Green’s notes don’t say how they knew when those couriers left or the route they took, so I just ran with it as my main story goal.
Cornwallis, having not heard from Tarleton, deviated from the battle plan and slowed his march toward Kings Mountain. Tarleton thought his General was close enough to cut the Cherokee Road and keep Morgan from retreating.
ACTS OF GOD: The weather in South Carolina was wretched that January. It rained constantly and every waterway was at spate. Streams became rivers and rivers torrents. It took twice as long as intended to get to the Pacolet River, and Tarleton’s forces ran out of food on the 15th. His requests to Cornwallis went into the ether, and absent knowledge of his exact whereabouts the Lord General couldn’t have resupplied him anyway.
By the time the British made it to the Cowpens they were bone tired from forced marches, sopping wet, desperately hungry and cold. They were in absolutely no condition to fight a battle. The troops had only four hours of rest when they began their final march at 3:00 AM. (See “hubris” above.)
Then the fog came down. Tarleton’s scouts missed the entire militia Morgan had parked at the base of a low rise with instructions to fire just two shots and retreat. Soldiers tend to fire high which is why most of the bullets go over the heads of an opposing force. The militia fired up at the British as they came over the rise, and the carnage was horrific. That was just the start of the battle. It got far worse.
Tarleton lost 110 killed, 229 wounded and 600 captured. Morgan had 24 killed and 104 wounded. That is pretty much my definition of “asymmetric.”
However, that beautiful man survived to surrender at Yorktown, bed the Prince’s former mistress (for fifteen years), be promoted to General, and find the love of his life (half his age) at forty four.
There have been many books written about the Cowpens, but my favorite is “A Devil of A Whipping”, by Lawrence E. Babbits (1998). For my statistics I relied on “Nothing but Blood and Slaughter, The Revolutionary War in the Carolinas”, Volume III, 1781, by Patrick O’Kelley. Nothing beats actually walking the battleground with an exceptionally knowledgeable park ranger who can point out where each and every bit of the fighting occurred.