The Papers of General Nathanael Greene


From General Daniel Morgan

Dear Sir

The Troops I had the Honor to command have been so fortunate as to obtain a compleat Victory over a Detachment from the British Army commanded by Lt Colonel Tarlton. The Action happened on the 17th Instant about Sunrise at the Cowpens.[1] It perhaps would be well to remark, for the Honour of the American Arms, that Altho the Progress of this Corps was marked with Burnings and Devastations & altho' they have waged the most cruel Warfare, not a man was killed[,] wounded or even insulted after he surrendered. Had not Britons during this Contest received so many Lessons of Humanity, I should flatter myself that this might teach them a little, but I fear they are incorrigible.[2]
To give you a just Idea of our Operations it will be necessary to inform you, that on the 14h Instant having recieved certain Intelligence that Lord Cornwallis and Lt Colonel Tarlton were both in Motion, and that their movements clearly indicated their Intentions of dislodging me, I abandoned my Encampment at Grindales Ford on Pacolet [River], and on the 16h in the Evening took Possession of a Post, about seven miles from the Cherokee Ford on Broad River. My original Position subjected me at once to the Operations of both Cornwallis and Tarlton, and in Case of a Defeat, my Retreat might easily have been cut off. My Situation at the Cowpens enabled me to improve any Advantages I might gain, and to provide better for my own Security, should I be unfortunate. These Reasons induced me to take this Post at the Risque of its wearing the face of a Retreat.[3]
I recieved regular Intelligence of the Enemy's Movements from the Time they were first in Motion. On the Evening of the 16h Ins they took Possession of the Ground I had removed from in the Morning, distant from the Scene of Action about 12 miles. An Hour before Day light one of my Scouts returned and informed me that Lt Colonel Tarlton had advanced within five miles of our Camp. On this Information I hastened to form as good a Disposition as Circumstances would admit, and from the alacrity of the Troops we were soon prepared to recieve them. The Light Infantry commanded by Lt Colonel Howard and the Virginia Militia, under the command of Majr Triplette were formed on a rising Ground, and extended a Line in Front.[4] The 3rd Regiment of Dragoons under Lt Colonel [William] Washington, were so posted at such a Distance in their Rear as not to be subjected to the Line of Fire directed at them, and to be so near as to be able to charge the Enemy, should they be broke.[5] The Volunteers of North Carolina, South Carolina & Georgia under the Command of the brave and valuable Colonel [Andrew] Pickens, were situated to guard the Flanks. Majr [Joseph] McDowell, of the N C Volunteers, was posted on the right Flank in Front of the Line 150 yards & Major [John] Cunningham with the Georgia Volunteers on the left at the same distance in Front. Colonels [Thomas] Brandon & [John] Thomas of the S Carolinians were posted on the right of Major McDowell and Colonels [Joseph] Hays and [James] McCall of the same Corps, on the left of Major Cunningham. Capts Tate & Buchannan with the Augusta Riflemen to support the right of the Line.[6]
The Enemy drew up in single Line of Battle 400 yds in Front of our advanced Corps. The first Battalion of the 71st Regt was opposed to our Right; the 7th Regt to our Left. The Infantry of the Legion to our Center. The Light Companies on their Flanks. In Front moved two Peices of Artillery. Lt Colonel Tarlton with his Cavalry was posted in the Rear of his Line.[7] The Disposition of Battle being thus formed, small Parties of Riflemen were detached to skirmish with the Enemy, upon which their whole Line moved on with the greatest Impetuosity shouting as they advanced. McDowell & Cunningham gave them a heavy & galling Fire & retreated to the Regiments intended for their Support.[8] The whole of Colonel Picken's Command then kept up a Fire by Regiments retreating agreable to their Orders.[9] When the Enemy advanced to our Line, they received a well-directed and incessant Fire, but their Numbers being superiour to ours, they gained our Flanks, which obliged us to change our Position. We retired in good Order about 50 Paces, formed, advanced on the Enemy & gave them a fortunate Volley which threw them into Disorder. Lt Colonel Howard observing this gave orders for the Line to charge Bayonets, which was done with such Address that they fled with the utmost Precipitation, leaving the Field Pieces in our Possession. We pushed our Advantage so effectually, that they never had an Opportunity of rallying, had their Intentions been ever so good.[10]
Lt Colonel Washington having been informed that Tarlton was Cutting [down] our Riflemen on the left Flank pushed froward & charged them with such Firmness that instead of attempting to recover the Fate of the Day, which one would have expected from an officer of his Splendid Character, broke and fled.[11]
The Enemy's whole Force were now bent solely in providing for their Safety in Flight.[12] The List of their killed, wounded and Prisoners, will inform you with what Effect. Tarlton, with the small Remains of his Cavalry & a few scattering Infantry he had mounted on his Waggon Horses made their Escape. He was Persued 24 miles, but owing to our having taken a wrong Trail at first, we never could overtake him
As I was obliged to move off of the Field of Action in the m[ornin]g to secure the Prisoners, I cannot be so accurate as to the killed & wounded of the Enemy as I could wish. From the Reports of an officer I sent to view the Ground, there was 100 [non]Commissioned officers & Privates & ten commissioned Officers killed and two hundred R[ank] and F[ile] wounded. We have in our Possession 502 non C[ommissioned]. O[fficers]. & P[rivates]. Prisoners independent of the wounded, & the Militia are taking up straglers continually. 29 C[ommissioned] Officers have fell into our Hands. Their Rank & c & c you will see by an enclosed List.[13] The Officers I have paroled. The Privates I am now conveying by the shortest Rout to Salisburrey. Two Standards, two Field Pieces, 35 Waggons, a travelling Forge, & all their Music are ours. Their Baggage, which was immense, they have in great measure destroyed.[14] Our Loss is inconsiderable, which the enclosed Returns will evince. I have not been able to ascertain Colonel Pickens Loss but know it to be very small.[15]
From our Force being composed of such a Variety of Corps, a wrong Judgment may be formed of our Numbers. We fought only 800 men, two thirds of which were Militia. The British with their Baggage Guard, were not less than 1150, & these Veteran Troops. Their own Officers confess, that they fought 1037.[16] Such was the Inferiority of our Numbers that our Success must be attributed to the Justice of our Cause & the Bravery of our Troops. My Wishes would induce me to mention the Name of every private Centinel in the Corps I have the honor to Command. In Justice to their Bravery & good Conduct, I have taken the Liberty to enclose you a List of their officers from a Conviction that you will be pleased to introduce such Characters to the World.[17]
Major Giles my Aid & Capt [Benjamin] Brookes my Brigade Majr, deserve & have my thanks for their Assistance & Behaviour on this Occasion.[18]
The Baron Glaibeeck [Glaubeck] who accompanies Major Giles with these Dispatches served with me in the Action as a Volunteer and behaved in such a manner as merits your Attention.[19] I am Dr Sir

Yr Ob Servt

Dan Morgan

Letter Signed (Greene Papers: DLC). The letter, which is in the hand of Morgan's volunteer aide, Edward Giles, is rife with crossouts and interlineations and includes a paragraph at the end in NG's hand. The editors believe that after NG received Morgan's account, he and Giles, who had brought the letter, edited it. This is supported by the fact that the interlineations are in both NG's and Giles's hands. Giles then carried the "edited" version of Morgan's original letter to Congress as the official report of the battle. (A copy of the "edited" version is in PCC, item 155, vol. 1: 541, DNA.)
    [1.] In the version that was sent to Congress, the phrase "at a Place called the Cowpens near Pacolet River" was used in place of "the Cowpens." The term "cowpens" was associated with an open-range stock-raising operation. The battlesite is sometimes referred to as Hannah's or Saunder's Cowpens, but researchers have been unable to find records connecting either name with the location. Cowpens is about eight miles north of the Pacolet River, but it is only six miles from the Broad River to the north, which makes an arc around it on the north and east, and thus was of greater strategic consideration as it would have blocked Morgan's escape toward the north had he been defeated. (For more on the battlesite, see Terry W. Lipscomb, "South Carolina Revolutionary Battles, Part Five," Place Names in South Carolina 24 [Winter 1977]: 15.)
    [2.] An anonymous account of the battle, which appeared in the Pennsylvania Packet on 17 February, claimed that when the Highlanders of the British Seventy-first Regiment surrendered, they:
plucked the feathers from their caps, and presenting them on their knees, cryed, "dear, good Americans, have mercy upon us! It has not been our fault, that we have SKIVERED [skewered] so many; we were obliged to obey our officers, and they commanded us to take no prisoners." Well, (said several American soldiers,) what were your orders this time? "We were ordered to take no prisoner, except a few continentals." We wish, it was replied, that this had been known a little sooner; but we do not destroy even our enemies in cold blood, especially when they are so much in our power.
    [3.] Cornwallis had sent Col. Banastre Tarleton in pursuit of Morgan because he feared that Morgan might attack Ninety Six, the western anchor of the British line of forts in South Carolina. (Cornwallis to Tarleton, 2 January, Tarleton, Campaigns, pp. 244-45) Tarleton quickly learned that Ninety Six was not threatened, but when he found that Morgan was south of the Pacolet River, he proposed advancing northward toward Morgan, up the west side of the Broad River. Tarleton's objective was to either overtake and destroy Morgan's force or push it across the Broad River, where Cornwallis, with the rest of the army, could intercept the Americans. (Tarleton, Campaigns, pp. 211, 245-46) Tarleton began to pursue Morgan in earnest on 12 January, when the rain-swollen streams in the area had subsided enough for his troops to cross. (Ibid., p. 212) Cornwallis had also begun to move northward by then, proceeding slowly so that reinforcements under Gen. Alexander Leslie could overtake him. (Cornwallis to Tarleton, 11 January, and Cornwallis to Balfour, 12 January, PRO 30/11/84) Tarleton crossed the Enoree and Tyger rivers on 14 January. On the same day, the Americans abandoned their camp at Grindall's Ford on the Pacolet River and moved to Burr's Mill on Thicketty Creek, about twelve miles to the north. (See Morgan to NG, 15 January, PGNG, 7: 127-129.) On the 15th, Tarleton approached the Pacolet. After a diversionary march, he crossed the river at a ford some six miles south of Burr's Mill. From there, British cavalry rode quickly to Morgan's campsite, only to discover that Morgan had abandoned it precipitously, his men leaving half-cooked breakfasts around their fires. (Tarleton, Campaigns, pp. 213-14) As Morgan wrote to a friend several days after the battle, the British then followed him "like Blood Hounds, Tarlton was foremost in the Chase." (Morgan to Will[iam Snicker], 26 January, NHi) Tarleton maintained the pressure, rousing his troops at 3 A.M. on the 17th to overtake Morgan, who had stopped at the Cowpens the night before. (Tarleton, Campaigns, p. 214) As Morgan indicated in this letter to NG, Cowpens was not his choice for a battlefield; it was forced on him by Tarleton's aggressiveness. He told his friend: "I did not Intend to fight that day, but Intended to Cross Pacolet [Broad River] early that Morning to a Strong piece of Ground, & there decide the matter, but as Matters were Circumstanced, no time was to be Lost, I prepared for Battle." (Morgan to [Snicker], 26 January, NHi)
    [4.] Morgan's main battle line, commanded by Col. John Eager Howard and totaling 350 men, consisted of three companies of light infantry and the Virginia militia under Maj. Francis Triplett. (The number of men is taken from Howard's discussion of the battle in an undated letter to [Bayard?], MdHi.) Triplett had many ex-Continentals in his command, leading Morgan to use them as part of Howard's detachment. (Johnson, Greene, 1: 374-75) Morgan, in saying that these troops "extended a Line in Front," meant that they were arranged in two lines.
    [5.] Col. William Washington's regiment had eighty dragoons, who were then joined by forty-five mounted militia volunteers commanded by Col. James McCall. (Johnson, Greene, I, p. 375)
    [6.] The militia under Andrew Pickens is estimated to have numbered 400 men, with an additional 100 riflemen supporting the right of the line. (A reasoned estimate of the number of militia in the battle is to be found in an unpublished study by Anthony Walker.) The militia line was approximately 150 yards in front of the Continentals, stretching some 300 yards from right to left and extending beyond the main battle line of Continentals. Some 150 yards in front of the militia, Morgan placed a line of skirmishers, who were taken from various militia units and are said to have been under the command of Majors Joseph McDowell and John Cunningham. (Lee, Memoirs, 1: 254) Morgan erred in including James McCall in the line of militia; as seen in note 5 (PGNG, 7: 157), McCall was serving with the cavalry. Capt. Samuel Hammond commanded McCall's South Carolina militiamen during the battle. (Draper Microfilm, DD, 1: 8-9)
    [7.] Tarleton's description of the arrangement of his force differed from Morgan's. According to Tarleton:
The light infantry were then ordered to file to the right till they became equal to the flank of the American front line: The legion infantry were added to their left; and, under the fire of a three-pounder, this part of the British troops was instructed to advance within three hundred yards of the enemy. This situation being acquired, the 7th regiment was commanded to form upon the left of the legion infantry, and the other three-pounder was given to the right division of the 7th: A captain, with fifty dragoons, was placed on each flank of the corps, who formed the British front line, to protect their own, and threaten the flanks of the enemy: The 1st battalion of the 71st was desired to extend a little to the left of the 7th regiment, and to remain one hundred and fifty yards in the rear. This body of infantry, and near two hundred cavalry, composed the reserve. (Tarleton, Campaigns, p. 216)
    [8.] In his description of the skirmish line's retreat, Morgan made it appear that an advance by the British infantry drove in the skirmishers. Other sources, including Tarleton, indicate that it was a charge by British dragoons that caused them to retire to the militia line. (Tarleton, Campaigns, p. 215; Graham, Morgan, p. 299) According to one of Morgan's biographers, James Graham, the skirmishers retired in good order, having "unhorsed" fifteen of the dragoons. (Ibid., pp. 299-300)
    [9.] Morgan had asked the militia to fire two well-directed volleys when the British advanced to within fifty yards and to aim at enemy officers and noncommissioned officers. (Higginbotham, Morgan, pp. 133-34) Several secondary sources say that the militia did fire two effective volleys, but two participants, James Collins and John Eager Howard, remembered that the rapid advance of the British infantry allowed the militia to fire only once before retreating. (See, for example, Treacy, Yorktown, pp. 102-3; Collins, "Autobiography," p. 264; Howard to [Bayard]?, undated letter, MdHi.) The militia, however, were more successful in carrying out the instruction to "Mark the epaulette men." An unnamed Maryland officer said that the British lost so many officers in the assault on the militia line that their ranks fell into disorder, from which they never recovered. One British officer estimated that two-thirds of the officers of the Seventy-first Regiment were felled by militia marksmen. (Quoted in Ferguson, "Pickens," pp. 131, 134 and n) Once the militia began to retreat, they did not maintain the order that Morgan seemed to imply. Tarleton sent dragoons after the militia when he saw them begin to retire, and only a timely counterattack by Washington's men on the British horsemen and quick work by Pickens and Morgan prevented total panic among the militia. (Tarleton, Campaigns, p. 216; Higginbotham, Morgan, pp. 137-39)
    [10.] As Morgan wrote, the British advance against the main American line was met with stubborn resistance. Tarleton then ordered up the Seventy-first Regiment to threaten the American right flank. (Tarleton, Campaigns, p. 217) Howard, observing that the British line now "extended much farther" than his own, ordered the company on the "right to change its front so as to oppose the enemy on that flank." That was the critical point in the battle, and as Howard related it:
Whether my orders were not well understood or whether it proceeded from any other cause, in attempting this movement some disorder ensued in this company which rather fell back than faced as I wished them. The rest of the line expecting that a retreat was ordered, faced about and retreated but in perfect order. At this moment Gen l Morgan rode to me and ordered me to retreat to Washingtons horse, about 100 yards, and there form. This retreat was accidental but was very fortunate as we thereby were extricated from the enemy. As soon as the word was given to halt and face about the line was perfectly formed in a moment. The enemy pressed upon us in rather disorder, expecting the fate of the day was decided. They were by this time within 30 yards of us with two field pieces; my men with uncommon coolness gave them an unexpected and deadly fire. Observing that this fire occasioned some disorder in them I ordered a charge which was executed so promptly that they never recovered. ( Howard to [Bayard?], undated letter, MdHi)
The British Seventh Regiment, composed mostly of new recruits, broke immediately, as did the British light infantry and the Legion infantry. (Higginbotham, Morgan, p. 140; Fleming, Cowpens, pp. 70-71) The re-formed American militia, which now overlapped the British left, attacked the flank of the Seventy-first Regiment, the only British infantry unit that remained organized, while militia riflemen prevented the British dragoons from moving to support the Highlanders. (Ibid., p. 71) While hotly engaged with the militia, the Seventy-first was attacked on the other flank by some of Howard's troops. Isolated and facing overpowering numbers, the commander of the Seventy-first surrendered. (Ferguson, "Pickens," pp. 138-39) The British artillery men also put up a stubborn resistance until they were overcome. (Fleming, Cowpens, p. 71)
    [11.] Accounts differ concerning the actions of Washington's dragoons at Cowpens. All sources agree with Morgan that Washington's command, as noted above, made a charge to protect the militia. Tarleton, observing that the militia were retreating, sent the Seventeenth Light Dragoons to scatter them. (Tarleton, Campaigns, p. 216) This panicked the militiamen. James Collins recalled that upon seeing the dragoons approach, he thought, "my hide is in the loft." As the dragoons scattered among the militiamen and, in Collins's words, "began to make a few hacks at some," Washington's cavalry attacked "like a whirlwind." Unable to withstand the shock and the superior numbers of Washington's troops, the British dragoons "betook themselves to flight . . . they appeared to be as hard to stop as a drove of wild Choctaw steers, going to a Pennsylvania market." (Collins, "Autobiography," p. 264) It is at this point that accounts differ. Based on the testimony of Thomas Young, a volunteer who rode with Washington, most recent accounts say that Washington then regrouped his forces and sent word to Morgan that if the retreating Continentals would turn about and deliver a fire, he would charge the British infantry. (See, for example, Higginbotham, Morgan, p. 140.) "The bugle sounded," Young recalled, and Washington's command "made a half circuit at full speed and came upon the rear of the British line shouting and charging like madmen." This unnerved the British infantrymen and caused them to surrender. (Quoted in Fleming, Cowpens, p. 70) Howard's recollection, however, was that Washington's previously noted charge against the dragoons occurred at the same time that the American main line charged the British infantry. According to Howard, Washington's charge had "no connexcion" with that of the Continental infantry and "was in a quite different direction." (Howard to [Bayard?], undated, MdHi) Whatever else Washington's troops may have done in the battle, there is no doubt that their charge unnerved Tarleton's dragoons. When Tarleton ordered his men to charge and "retrieve the day," more than 200 of them "forsook their leader, and left the field of battle." (Tarleton, Campaigns, p. 217; Morgan to Will[iam Snicker], 26 January, NHi) One small group from the Seventeenth Regiment did remain with Tarleton and was able to halt Washington's pursuing cavalry. (Tarleton, Campaigns, p. 218)
    [12.] In his letter to William Snicker of 26 January, Morgan wrote that upon the capture of the British artillery, "every man [in Tarleton's command] took to His heels for security— helter Skelter," but the Americans "were too swift for them." (NHi)
    [13.] The list has not been found. Tarleton claimed to have lost 150 killed and wounded and 400 prisoners while inflicting 150 casualties on the Americans. (Tarleton, Campaigns, p. 218) Cornwallis, in a letter to Lord George Germain of 17 March, said that British losses at Cowpens "did not fall short of 600 men." (PRO 30/11/76)
    [14.] In addition to what Morgan listed in this letter, the Americans reportedly captured 100 "valuable" horses, 800 stand of arms, and seventy slaves. ("Extract of a letter, dated Pedee, in South Carolina, January 24, 1781," Pennsylvania Journal and Weekly Advertiser, 14 February 1781) Morgan's troops reportedly also captured "several changes of clothes and plenty of hard money, as the British officers themselves say that column was designed to penetrate into North Carolina, and therefore they carried every thing with them they were worth." ("Captain Samuel Shaw's Revolutionary Letters to Captain Winthrop Sargent," PMHB 70 [1946]: 321)
    [15.] The return has not been found, but Morgan's losses were given elsewhere as ten killed and fifty-five wounded. ("Extract of a letter, dated Pedee, in South Carolina, January 24, 1781," Pennsylvania Journal and Weekly Advertiser , 14 February) In his second letter to NG of 24 January (PGNG, 7: 190-191), Morgan wrote that his detachment was "much weakened" by the battle, with "near fifty men disabled."
    [16.] A well-reasoned estimate by Anthony Walker in his unpublished study of Cowpens puts Morgan's force at 985 and Tarleton's at 1,025.
    [17.] The list is in PCC, item 172, vol. 1: 46, DNA.
    [18.] Edward Giles, Morgan's volunteer aide-de-camp, was given the honor of carrying the dispatches announcing the victory to Congress. He was brevetted a major in the Continental army in recognition of his services during the battle. (JCC, 19: 158, 247)
    [19.] NG wrote delegate James Varnum of Rhode Island on 24 January (PGNG, 7: 187-188), on Baron Glaubeck's behalf; Congress rewarded Glaubeck by brevetting him a captain. (Contemporaries spelled Glaubeck's name in various ways. For more on Glaubeck, who turned out to be an impostor, see note at NG to Washington, 11 January, PGNG, 7: 94-95.) When Morgan's letter arrived in NG's camp, it set off a wild celebration. Otho Williams wrote the victorious general on 26 January : "We have had a feu de joie, drunk all your healths, swore you were the finest fellows on earth, and love you, if possible, more than ever. The General [NG] has, I think, made his compliments in very handsome terms. Enclosed is a copy of his orders [not found]. It was written immediately after we received the news, and during the operation of some cherry bounce." (Printed in Graham, Morgan , p. 323) The French at Newport, R.I. , received the news of Cowpens with as much shock as joy. Claude Blanchard reported that the officers there could not "conceive how regular troops, and they superior in numbers allowed themselves to be beaten by peasants." (Blanchard, Journal, p. 90) An American prisoner later claimed that he had witnessed Lord Cornwallis receiving the news. He remembered that Cornwallis was leaning forward on a sword as he listened to the report of the defeat. "Angered by what he heard, he pressed so hard that the sword snapped in two, and he swore loudly that he would recapture Morgan's prisoners no matter what the cost." (Quoted in Wickwire, Cornwallis, p. 269)