"To obtain a compleat Victory": Daniel Morgan's Letter after the Battle of Cowpens
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. 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.
To give you a just Idea of our Operations it will be necessary to inform you, that on the 14h Instant having received 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, and on he 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.
I received 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 receive 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. The 3rd Regiment of Dragoons under Lt Colonel 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. The Volunteers of North Carolina, South Carolina & Georgia under the Command of the brave and valuable Colonel Pickens, were situated to guard the .Flanks. Majr McDowell, of the N C Volunteers, was posted on the right Flank in Front of the Line 150 yards & Major Cunningham with the Georgia Volunteers on the left at the same distance in Front. Colonels Brandon & Thomas of the S Carolinians were posted on the right of Major McDowell and Colonels Hays and 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.
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. 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. The whole of Colonel Picken’s Command then kept up a Fire by Regiments retreating agreable to their Orders. 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.
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.
The Enemy’s whole Force were now bent solely in providing for their Safety in Flight. 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 mg 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 and F wounded. We have in our Possession 502 non C. O. & P. Prisoners independent of the wounded, & the Militia are taking up straglers continually. 29 C Officers have fell into our Hands. Their Rank &c &c you will see by an enclosed List. 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. 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.
From our Force being composed of such a Variety of Corps, a wrong Judgment may be formed of our Numbers.
We fought only 80o 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. 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.
Major Giles my Aid & Capt Brookes my Brigade Majr, deserve & have my thanks for their Assistance & Behaviour on this Occasion.
The Baron Glaibeeck 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. I am Dr Sir Yr Ob Servt