The Tracy Family History
In December 1780, the American command
of the South was given to Nathanael Greene. Greene is little known in history,
but in case of George Washington's death, he was the named successor.
"Greene is as dangerous as Washington. I never feel secure when encamped in his neighborhood." -- Cornwallis
In the South, Greene inherited a mess; a little over 1,000 troops, some of them newly recruited Continentals. There was nothing left for the carrying on of the war: men, no materials, horses, wagons, weapons, artillery, food, clothing, few men had shoes…nothing.
Not only did Greene have nothing, but the British were sending an additional 2,500 soldiers from the North to reinforce Cornwallis. Greene immediately started to put things straight.
I told you before that the Carolinas had an incredible number of rivers. There were few bridges in the South, none in the Back Country. Whoever controlled the rivers controlled the war. Greene had the rivers scouted in advance.
Permission of the University of North Carolina Press, Papers of Nathaniel Greene
The purpose of the map is not to show you the location of the battle sites in the South, which are there, but to show you the incredible number of rivers that run through the region.
Cornwallis turned his attention again to invading North Carolina.
Nathanael Greene now broke one of the main rules of war. He took his smaller, weaker army and divided it in the face of a superior enemy. But Greene knew exactly what he was doing. Cornwallis was confused. If he took his army and attacked one of Greene's units, then the other would wipe out his chain of forts. He decided to keep his army in place and send Tarleton after one of the units commanded by Daniel Morgan. This is exactly what Greene and Morgan wanted.
Both sides maneuvered as Daniel Morgan, now back in the South, picked the worst possible site to do battle, Cowpens. This is the place where the settlers brought their cattle to be gathered before being driven to market.
The battlefield was on a rise of ground, lightly wooded, which would not stop the British cavalry that outnumbered the mounted Americans 3 to 1. Both of Morgan's flanks were open to attack with no swamps to protect his men. At his back was a river. (You never fight with your back to a river. This was even a swollen river.)
Nathanael Green had given Morgan full command for this battle. His men and officers, who loved him dearly, thought he was crazy to pick such an impossible place as Cowpens to fight. The date was 17 January 1781, three months after Kings Mountain. It was not the custom of the armies of that day to fight in the winter. They usually went into winter quarters. The rain was unbelievable. I seemed all was mud and rising rivers. One time a river rose 25 feet in 30 hours!
For those of us who have never lived in the Carolinas, pay attention to the TV news when they give reports of the storms in this area. They are really vicious.
Tarleton knew the ground that Morgan had chosen to make his stand.
Wrote Tarleton, "The situation for the enemy was desperate in case of misfortune."
Morgan knew what he was doing. Most of his men were militia. When attacked they would head immediately for the swamps. Cowpens had no swamps to run too. If he moved to the other side of the river half his men would desert. With the river to their back, they would have to fight.
He knew Tarleton was after him and how Tarleton would attack. Tarleton would not scout, maneuver, flank, or do anything fancy. He would charge straight ahead. (Tarleton was a lousy military tactician!)
There were other reasons for picking Cowpens. It was the only place where there was good forage for the horses and other animals. This place was a well-known and accessible rallying point. The word went out for the local Presbyterians to come join the fight.
The assembling Patriots told of the latest British atrocities: burning homes, looting, mass destruction.
Like Kings Mountain, the two sides were evenly matched with about 1,100 men each. (Another 1,500 British soldiers were on the march.) Morgan formed three lines. The first two were militia. The last line were Continentals with the 3rd Virginia Regiment on the far right. This regiment of 200 men was designated as a militia, which has confused many historians. These men had served a three years enlistment in the Continental Line, were discharged, returned home to Rockbridge County. Once home they re-enlisted as militia. They were commanded by Capt. Andrew Wallace.
There were four Continental units in the last line: Maryland and Delaware were in the middle. To the left were "The Augusta Riflemen," our people. Holding the right flank were more of our people.
The North Carolina militia was under Major Charles McDowell. Major Joseph McDowell was there also.
Tarleton drove his men to Cowpens. They were cold, hungry, exhausted. The experienced Legion arrived in the morning. Tarleton did not reconnoiter the field and did not discover that the enemy flanks were unprotected. There was no pause to rest or feed his troops. Tarleton charged straight ahead.
The first two lines of militia faded away. However, the third line of Continentals held firm. By this time in the war, the Continentals could hold up to the best that the British could throw at them. As one his historian put it, the British ran into a "hornets nest."
The Virginians kneeled to have a more accurate fire. Both sides had sharpshooters whose job it was to fire for the epaulettes (officers). The British were held for half an hour. Then something happened; something that happens in all battles. At the end of the American Civil War, a Union colonel wrote in his diary, "The outcome of a battle is usually determined by dumb luck."
Battlefields are always a place of mass confusion. In the Revolutionary War there was thick smoke from the gunpowder, and screaming and yelling. A perfect breeding place for confusion.
Uncle Andrew Wallace would make a mistake. His mistake would win the battle and the victory at Cowpens would have a dramatic effect on the outcome of the war. Wallace thought he had been given the command to retreat. He turned his Virginia Regiment about and started marching off the field. The other Continental regiments on their side, seeing the 3rd Virginians retreat, turned about and they too commenced to retreat.
I have told you previously how two different peoples can look at the same event and come away with two opposite opinions. All of the Continentals in the last line thought they had been given the command to retreat. However, their commander thought they were running away... as did the British.
The Tories were jubilant. They saw victory at hand and charged wildly. The British officers had lost control over their men.
Prelude to British disaster: The British line kept extending until it started to wrap around the American flank.
Colonel Howard: "Seeing my right flank was exposed to the enemy, I attempted to change the front of Wallaces company; in doing it, some confusion ensued, and first a part and then the whole of the company commenced to retreat. The officers along the line seeing this, and supposing that orders had been given for retreat, faced their men about and moved off."
Morgan…quickly rode up.
Morgan: "Have they whipped you?"
Howard: "Do men marching like this look as if they're beaten?"
(Morgan now realized that the men were under control of their officers.)
Morgan: "Have them follow me. When they get to where I"ll be standing (50 yards in advance) have them face about and fire."
When that point was reached the Continentals turned and fired, totally shattering the British line. Then the Americans did what they rarely did in battle. They charged with bayonets. (Not all historians agree that the Americans were averse to using the bayonet.)
It was all over in a few minutes. When the Tories called for quarter, the Americans replied, "Tarleton's Quarter." The American offices ordered their men to give quarter. Tarleton's command was wiped out, all were either killed, wounded, captured, or escaped.
(After Waxhaws, the Patriot recruiters would march into a town crying “Tarleton’s Quarter!” For the rest of the war, whenever the enemy begged for quarter, the American response was “Tarleton’s Quarter or Buford’s Quarter!” “Tarleton’s Quarter” became the rallying cry for the Patriots in the South. For coming generations he was referred to as “Bloody Tarleton,” or “Butcher Tarleton.”
When Tarleton tried to save the day by rallying his 200 reserve dragoons, his men rode off. Then something happened that you only see in movies. The British cavalry commander, Tarleton, would come face to face with the American cavalry commander, Colonel William Washington. They would duel. Washington's sword broke.
Tarleton drew his pistol, fired at Washington and missed. With this, the battle was over.
The battle lasted a little more than one hour. Starting at seven in the morning and ending at eight. The Americans had again annihilated an enemy of equal size. However, in this battle most of the enemy were professional British soldiers. There were 250 Loyalists, but with them, the 16th Foot and Highlanders. For the first time, the militiamen saw the brilliance of the enemy in full uniform. (Some of the Southern Tories were willing to break parole, but there were not enough to win the war.)
Tarleton then road off to tell Cornwallis that he had lost his right wing!
The English had been fighting this war for five years. The Americans were still able to put an army in the field, and not just defeat a rag tag militia, but totally annihilate the 16th Foot, the Highlanders, and the famed Tarleton's Legion. Would this war never end!
That is the story of how our people won the Revolutionary war …for the second time. At Cowpens, our Woods and Wallaces had their revenge for all of our cousins massacred at Waxhaws.
Until the day he died, Tarleton could never understand what went wrong at Cowpens.
Americans had 12 killed and 60 wounded. The British: 110 killed, of which 10 were officers; 200 wounded, and 500 prisoners (29 officers taken prisoner). Tarleton was forced to destroy his supply train to keep it from being captured.
Many prisoners would escape in the next few days. Those that remained were taken to Charlottesville to be encamped. It would appear that Charlottesville would be the ideal place for the enemy prisoners of war. The Convention Troops, Barracks Prisoners, had previously been sent North. I assumed that the prison facilities, an entire town in fact, was still in place. It could hold large numbers of prisoners from throughout the war in the South.
(Footnote: 70 freed Negros were taken prisoners. These were kept by the officers as servants. The British officer's always campaigned in style, with their servants and mistresses. Ferguson, at Kings Mountain, had with him two mistresses.)
The original records and communications of these battles in the Southern Provinces are still kept in England. Researchers are amazed at the communiqués to England -- The battles were not really battles at all. They were not defeats, but actually victories: So wrote the British field commanders to the leaders back in England.
What was the significance of Cowpens to the British people? They had to have a victory to renew their enthusiasm for the war; not a disastrous defeat.
So far, in the War in the South, Cornwallis had lost 2,000 irreplaceable men.
Cornwallis’ opinion of Colonel Tartleton, that of the most brilliant cavalry commander he ever knew, was beginning to wane.
There are books written specifically on the Battle of Cowpens. Also, this major turning point in the war is told in chapters of other books.
Cowpens National Battlefield
4001 Chesnee Hwy.
Chesnee, SC 29323
Self guided tour by foot or auto
The battlefield is preserved much as the day of battle.
My family history web site has 79 chapters. If you would like to know more about the other chapters then go to my Home Page www.thetracyfamilyhistory.net