Eyewitnesses at the Cowpens

Battle of Cowpens by Don Troiani. Source: U.S. National Guard

Daniel Morgan’s victory over Banastre Tarleton at the Cowpens is one of the most celebrated battles of the revolutionary war.  Some historians consider it the greatest tactical victory of the contest and the only time Patriot forces completely routed an army of British regulars in the field.  Daniel Morgan’s synchronized use of militia, regulars, and cavalry burned out the British attack and caused the destruction or capture of all General Cornwallis’s light troops.

In almost every retelling of Morgan’s victory, the official accounts are reprinted and we cheer as Tarleton received a well-deserved “Devil of a whipping.”  However, sometimes a fresh look can be just as enjoyable as the more popular accounts.  Below are a couple of eyewitness accounts from lesser known participants.   First we have a page from the journal of Lt. Thomas Anderson from Delaware that provides an excellent telling from the perspective of a Continental infantry officer.

January 17, 1781: Before day reced information that col Tarlton was within five miles of us with a strong body of horse and infantry whereon we got up and put ourselves in order of battle by day light they have in sight halted and form’d the line in full view. as we had no artillery to annoy them and the Genl not thinking it prudent to advance from the ground we had form’d. We look’d at each other for a considerable time, about sunrise they began the attack by the discharge of two pieces of cannon and three huzzas advancing briskly on our riffelmen that was posted in front who fought well disputing the ground that was between them and us. flying from one tree to another at last being forst to give ground they fell back in our rear the enemy seeing us standing in such good order halted for some time to dress their line which outflanked ours considerably. They then advanced on boldly under a very heavy fire untill they got within a few yards of us but their line was so much longer than ours they turn’d our flanks which caused us to fall back some distance. The enemy thinking that we were broke set up a great shout charged us with their bayonets but in no order. We let them come within ten or fifteen yards of us then give them a full volley and at the same time charged them home. They not expecting any such thing put them in such confusion that we were in amongst them with the bayonets which caused them to give ground and at last to take to the flight. But we followed them up so close that they never could get in order again untill we killed and took the whole of the infantry prisoners. At the same time that we charged, Col Washington charged the horse which soon give way. We followed them ten miles but not being able to come up with them returned back to the field of battle that night and lay amongst the dead & wounded very well pleased with our days work. March this day[1]

Another eyewitness account comes from a militia soldier in James McCall’s regiment previously informally referred to as the South Carolina Refugees.  Large numbers of South Carolina soldiers had been granted paroles by the British after the fall of Charleston in 1780, on the condition that they no long take up arms. By the time of Cowpens most of the Long Cane militia had renounced their paroles and rejoined the fight.  This included their commander, Col. Andrew Pickens (soon to become Brig. Gen. Andrew Pickens), and the South Carolina force at Cowpens should probably be identified as the Ninety-Six militia brigade as it also included men from the Fair Forest, Sparta, and Little River regiments.  They are generally identified as having been in the second line of defense at Cowpens.  In any event, here is the account of James Potter Collins.

About sunrise on the 17th of January, 1781, the enemy came in full view.  The sight, to me at least, seemed somewhat imposing.  They halted for a short time, and then advanced rapidly as if certain of victory.  The militia under Pickens and Moffitt was posted on the right of the regulars some distance n advance, while Washington’s cavalry was stationed in the rear.  WE gave the enemy one fire; when they charged us with their bayonets, we gave way and retreated for our horses.  Tarleton’s cavalry pursued us.  “Now”, thought I, “my hide is in the loft.”

Just as we got to our horses, they overtook us and began to make a few hacks at some, however without doing much injury.  They, in their haste, had pretty much scattered, perhaps thinking they would have another Fishing Creek frolic, but in a few moments Col Washington’s cavalry was among them like a whirlwind, and the poor fellows began to keel from their horses without being able to remount.  The shock was so sudden and violent they could not stand it and immediately betook themselves to flight.  There was no time to really, and they appeared to be as hard to stop as a drove of wild Choctaw steers going to a Pennsylvania market.  In a few moments the clashing of swords was out of hearing and quickly out of sight.

By this time both lines of the infantry were warmly engaged and we, being relieved from the pursuit of the enemy, began to rally and prepare to redeem our credit, when Morgan rode up in front and, waving his sword, cried out, ‘Form, form, my brave fellows!  Give them one more fire and the day is ours.  Old Morgan was never beaten.’

We then advanced briskly and gained the right flank of the enemy, and they, being hard pressed in front by Howard and falling very fast, could not stand it long.  They began to throw down their arms and surrender themselves prisoners of war.  The whole army, except Tarleton and his horsemen, fell into the hands of Morgan, together with all the baggage.[2]

 

[1] Thomas Anderson, “Journal of Thomas Anderson,” Historical Magazine (April 1867),14.

[2] James P Collins, Autobiography of a Revolutionary Soldier, reprinted in Commager & Morris, The Spirit of Seventy-Six, (Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 1958), 1156.

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10 Comments

  • Anyone have a guess what the idiomatic expression, “my hide is in the loft” might mean? I assume it’s referencing danger somehow, but a web search seems to only point to this one Cowpen’s reference, leading me to believe it was not a common phrase.

    • Kevin: Here is my guess. If your hide (skin) is in the loft (in storage), that would mean it has been soaked, salted, stretched and dried; and the body it was attached to is long since gone. Modern idiom uses words like “goner” and “done for” to describe the state, but they aren’t nearly as evocative.

    • Ron… according to my 103 year old “Sweet Mama” (GGM) ~who doesn’t look, or act a day over 75 … you’re very close!!
      “my hide is in the loft”= In really bad trouble. Feeling like one is going to be killed–either literally–or merely ‘figuratively dramatic’. (Like, a man being ‘caught’ by a jealous husband/wife.)
      The “Loft” being ‘heaven’. Hide = Skin, Self, Life.

  • Wayne, when will your book come out. Great article. Cowpens is my favorite battle and Morgan my favorite leader.
    Thank you

  • John, thanks for stopping in. Not sure when I will actually finish a book. The discipline is difficult for me. About the time it really starts to feel like work I get interested in some other character or perspective and drift away. New research is so more fun. 🙂

    Kevin, I have been thinking about it all day and I can only admit that I do not know the answer. It might only mean that an irreversible process has begun. Or, on the other hand, probably something like what you are thinking, like being in danger, or the heat is coming.

  • The expression “my hide is in the loft” is referring to a cow hide being tanned in a tanning loft. It basically means “I’m dead and skinned already”, or in a more modern parlance “they’ve got me dead to rights”.

  • Mr. Lynch;
    When I discovered that your primary interest was the Southern Back Country, I have been following your articles closely. My Revolutionary Chavous ancestors were from the South Carolina side of the Savannah River across from Augusta, Georgia. Since they were partisans/militia any records are difficult to locate.
    I eagerly await your book publication. Thanks for the article

    • Thank you very much Giles. I have a couple of items upcoming that happen to sketch a couple of partisans who operated in your area. In addition to that, I have been working on some oral history and video techniques to tell the story from Tarleton Brown’s Memoirs. Being from the area, you may have run across them.

  • I am interested in Anderson’s comment, “We look’d at each other for a considerable time…..” I was given to understand there was a heavy fog which was why Tarleton’s scouts did not see the militia at the bottom of the slope. Or had the fog begun to dissipate and was just hanging around in the bottom lands?

    • I am not an expert but have spent considerable amount of time strolling around the battlefield. It’s been a couple of years but the last time I walked around w/ a 99 year old docent. Yup, a veteran. WW I.

      Never heard about the fog. The land itself is gently rolling, scattered trees. No underbrush. I always seemed to end up there on a midwinter day w/ a slate gray sky so that is how I always picture the battle.

      As I understand the plan, Morgan created three “lines”. Skirmishers scattered among the trees at the very front. Their job was to pick off the officers. One shot then scatter. Behind them was a line of militia (if you could imagine a ragtag bunch of Scotch-Irish hog farmers forming a line.) They were to get off 2 shots. Morgan told them “2 shots and you’re home, boys!” But not quite. They then had to exit stage right (or left–can’t quite remember) During the battle, they did try but most just turned around &, in fairly good order (for them), hastily retreated to the rear.

      And that’s what the British saw. Militia running away. There was just enough of a slope so that Reds couldn’t see the third line. The regular Continental Army.

      It almost didn’t work. The regulars & militia weren’t took the edge off the ambush & the Brits, ever disciplined, almost broke through–but Morgan (the rock!) had something in reserve. He had a calvary. When the Continental line wavered, they moved in & provided enough cover for the wavering Continental line to hold, surge forward & wrap each flank around the enemy. Classic double envelopment.

      Except, Tarleton had a calvary as well.

      They ran away. Tarleton, who was nothing if not calvary, tried to turn them back & came w/in a hairbreadth of being captured. Ultimately, it was no use so he fled w/ the rest. The Continental calvary chased them for 3-4 miles but they were never able to give Tarleton “Tarleton’s Quarter.”

      Got his baggage though.

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