By Elaine Marie Cooper
For a long time, I was under the impression that the Revolutionary War was fought mainly in the northern colonies. How mistaken I was.
When I visited my niece in South Carolina several years ago, I discovered that many battles took place in the Carolinas as well as Georgia. In fact, historian Thomas Fleming writes, “In the South, a new kind of war was taking shape, far more savage and personal than anything fought in the North.”
Rather than discussing the brutality that occurred in these events of the early 1780’s, I will focus this blog on one bitter encounter—the battle of Cowpens that took place on January 17, 1781. Two of the key players in this conflict were American Brigadier General Daniel Morgan and the notorious British commander Banastre Tarleton. He was depicted as “Tavington” in the 2000 film, “The Patriot,” although artistic license changed many details of the story.
Morgan’s military experience reached back to the French and Indian War where his job as a wagon driver earned him the nickname, the Old Wagoner. He was a member of the Virginia militia and recruited a company of soldiers who fought with him at the Battle of Saratoga in 1777. Morgan’s abilities with a rifle brought him well-deserved acclaim. He and his men excelled as sharpshooters and experts at guerilla warfare, skills they learned from the Native Americans when they fought in the French and Indian War.
The success of the Continental Army at the battles of Saratoga became the turning point of the American Revolution. It was the American victory there that prompted the French to join in the cause against the British.
Despite Morgan’s success as a military leader at Saratoga, Congress did not promote him, which prompted the Old Wagoner to retire to his home in Virginia. But things in the southern campaign were not going well for the American Army. According to historian Fleming, “he emerged from his sulk when he saw the South sliding into British hands.”
American General Nathanael Greene made a bold and desperate move, placing Morgan in charge of more than half of his Continental soldiers. Together, Greene and Morgan recruited a band of back-country militiamen who knew how to fight in the rugged land.
Knowing Morgan’s reputation for successful warfare, British General Cornwallis decided to strategize a successful counter attack with the blood-thirsty Tarleton, described by one historian as “cold-hearted, vindictive, and utterly ruthless.”
Ignoring January rainfall and flooding, Tarleton gathered his troops and pushed his men day and night to meet Morgan’s men head on.
Morgan was forced to retreat and sent out desperate calls for help. Despite urging his 400 militia and 600 Continentals to keep moving, Tarleton’s troops gained on them. On January 16, Morgan called a halt to allow his exhausted men to rest at a lightly wooded area known as the Cowpens. While the soldiers rested, Morgan devised an ingenious plan, utilizing alternating lines of militia, horsemen, Continentals, and sharpshooters.
He sensed his troops were on edge, as they all knew Tarleton’s blood thirsty reputation. Morgan rallied them with words of encouragement: “ Just hold up your heads, boys, give them three fires, and you will be free. Then when you return to your homes, how the old folks will bless you and the girls will kiss you.”
The strategy worked as the self assured Tarleton ran his troops headlong into their demise. “With half their officers dead or wounded, Tarleton’s exhausted regulars disintegrated,” wrote Fleming. “Most of them threw down their guns and surrendered; others took to the woods….It was a stunning, all-but-total victory, and it lifted the people of the Carolinas from despair to new, miraculous hope.”
Another turning point for the Americans in the Revolutionary War, with Morgan, once again, a key military presence.
Daniel Morgan was unable to remain with the army as he suffered immensely from sciatica and rheumatism that he’d acquired in the subzero cold of the Canadian conflict in 1775. He retired and General Nathanael Greene took over the defense of the Carolinas. Within 2 months and with inspiration from the strategies he’d learned from Daniel Morgan, Greene met Cornwallis at Guilford Courthouse where the American army inflicted 532 casualties on the1,600-man British army.
Morgan ran for Congress, then retired from that office in 1799. He died in 1802.
Banastre Tarleton—the man referred to as “the butcher” by American Colonists—returned to England after the war. He ran for, and successfully obtained, a seat in Parliament. It should not be a surprise that he became an antagonist to the abolition movement in his native country, becoming a nemesis to the work of William Wilberforce. He was known for openly mocking abolitionists.
He married the illegitimate daughter of a duke in 1798, but had no children. He died in 1833.
Elaine Marie Cooper has two historical fiction books that released in 2019: War’s Respite (Prequel novella) and Love’s Kindling. Love’s Kindling is available in both e-book and paperback. They are the first two books in the Dawn of America Series set in Revolutionary War Connecticut. Cooper is the award-winning author of Fields of the Fatherless and Bethany’s Calendar. Her 2016 release (Saratoga Letters) was finalist in Historical Romance in both the Selah Awards and Next Generation Indie Book Awards. She has been published in Chicken Soup for the Soul and HomeLife magazine. She also penned the three-book historical series, Deer Run Saga. Her upcoming release, Scarred Vessels, is about the black soldiers in the American Revolution. Look for it in October 2020. You can visit her website/ blog at www.elainemariecooper.com