Chapter 51: Cowpens-A Devil of a Licking
“We were formed in order of battle and…clapping…hands together to keep warm…The British line advanced at sort of a trot, with a loud hallo. It was the most beautiful line I ever saw. When they shouted I heard Morgan say, ‘They give us the British halloo, boys. Give them the Indian halloo, by God!’ and he galloped along the lines, cheering the men and telling them not to fire until we could see the whites of their eyes.”-Major Thomas Young, South Carolina Militia
Cowpens was a relatively wide open area. In better times, Colonists brought their herds here to fatten on the grass that grew here in the open spaces among the spares trees. A road came from the southeast, then swept north and finally veered northeast leading to the ford over the river about five miles away. This road was called either the Green River Road or the Mill Gap Road. Four branches of Thicketty Creek framed the left flank of General Morgan’s position. These branches were separated by three ridgelines that generally ran west to east. The ridges were not high, maybe fifteen or twenty feet tall. The ridges tended to have more trees as they met the Creek. The ridges were progressively higher as one went north. The right flank of General Morgan’s line had no such natural end to it, although the trees became denser the further west one went, such that the battlefield to be seemed to be framed by trees.
Early on the winter morning of January 17, 1781, the staccato long roll was beaten by American drummers calling the infantry to their places on the meadow of Cowpens.
On the first ridgeline, Morgan had placed his skirmishers. They could see from the top of this ridgeline about 150 yards or so of relatively clear land before the trees became too dense. Benny would be coming up the Green River Road. As soon as he got to the open space of the Cowpens, he would be seen by the skirmishers, who would start to unleash their shots. They lay in waiting. The dark gloom of a winter night was just starting to change to the inky grey of a winter morning. The field before them was cast in a thin mist. The breeze was cold. My son and I were in the skirmisher line, that is the first line, with our Pennsylvania rifles.
“Father, are you scared?”
I couldn’t see Daniel’s face in the inky gloom of night as we took our positions on the skirmish line. “Yes, son, I am.” I paused a moment. “Any man who might meet his Maker today has plenty of reason to be afraid.”
“I am not afraid of Judgement. I believe in God’s promise to man. But still I am afraid. Am I less of a Christian?” Daniel spoke each word slowly, thoughtfully, and carefully.
“Son, I am afraid, too. I’m not a philosophical man, nor am I man who knows theology. I believe that I am saved by God’s grace alone, for surely I am not saved by what I’ve done. I know that I am a man who has a job to perform. I have to do all I can to help my friends, neighbors, and you, to win this battle. I hate the British. I hate all they have done to me and my family. I’ve lost two wives to their barbarity and cruelty. Two good, fine, God-fearing women who did not deserve the fate that befell them. If I can kill the man who did that to them, I would willingly go to meet Jesus.” I snarled the last words. Talking to Daniel had gotten me mad. I was angry now; I would kill every British man I could see.
I think he noticed the change of the tone of my voice for he stopped talking for a short while. “Father, I’ll kill them, too,” he finally whispered. We both loaded our long rifles. We situated ourselves behind two trees about 10 yards apart.
“Two well-aimed shots,” I said in reply.
British Lt. Colonel David Campbell was in the van of the Legion. The horses were barley lifting their hooves as they shuffled onwards. The sloughing through the mud had worn them out completely. The Legion infantry could hardly step in time, they were so tired. The cold night made him rub his hands together. “Sir,” he said to Colonel Tarleton, “should we stop and rest the men? We’ve been marching for five hours. The men could use some rest and some food.”
“What? Stop? Rest? No, Morgan is just in front of us. I must prevent them from getting across the ford. Here, we will defeat the rebels in detail, before they can rejoin Greene and the rest of the rebel army. We must move on.” Tarleton dismissed Campbell’s recommendation without giving it a thought.
The two continued to move on in silence. The ranks were also silent-no one had the energy to talk or sing and march. The march resumed its weary cadence. Time passed in a slow motion orgy of pain, hunger, and exhaustion.
Major Hanger joined Tarleton and Campbell. The second in command asked Tarleton to halt the men.
“No, Major! We are almost upon them. No time to waste! We must rush upon them as soon as is possible!”
“Yes, sir!” Hanger replied with as snappy a salute as he could muster.
The forest started to thin. “Where are we?” Colonel Tarleton asked.
The little group of officers stopped and the column behind them halted. An orderly ran up with a torch.
“I think we are at the Cowpens.” Campbell mechanically replied while looking at his map under the light of a torch an orderly held.
Just then, rifle shots rang out, accompanied by battle yells of the rebels. British soldiers started dropping.
“Send ahead some dragoons.” Tarleton barked.
Within a minute, twenty-five green jacketed horsemen clattered by and broke through the remaining few tress into the open. As they did, some shots rang out and one man tumbled from his horse. The dragoons continued to trot forward which trot soon became a run. Some rebels dropped back, while about 30 more leveled their rifles. More shots rang out and about ten or so of the cavalry were felled. The rest of the horsemen reared their horses, spun around, and retreated into the cover of the woods. A great huzzah rang from the rebel line.
“Deploy in battle line!” Tarleton was angry that his beloved cavalry had failed. “Campbell, place dragoons on both flanks. Grasshoppers to the middle of the line, to either side of the road. The Highlanders will be our reserve.”
The fifers and the drummers began their call to the troops to deploy.
The Legion infantry filed out of the woods, breaking column and deploying in battle line. Soon, the red coated Fusiliers and the Light Infantry were ready to go. The drummers beat the long roll on their drums. The fifes shrilled.
“Forward men!” Campbell cried, as Tarleton waved his sabre forward.
The red line surged forward. The British huzzahed. They held their bayonets before them for no rebel line would withstand the steel of the British bayonet.
General Morgan hearing the British huzzah quipped to his men, “They give us the British halloo, boys give them the Indian whoop!” He rode along the skirmish line. “Two aimed shots, men!” Then he galloped back to repeat the order for the Militia line.