Book Review: American Hannibal: The Extraordinary Account of Revolutionary War Hero Daniel Morgan at the Battle of Cowpens by Jim Stempel (Tucson, AZ: Penmore Press, 2017).
Although it seems like common sense to regard the country’s founding as something of enduring importance, according to statistics Jim Stempel cites from the American Revolution Center of Philadelphia’s recent survey, the average citizen cannot back that claim up with knowledge of the Revolution’s most basic history. One need look no further than a favored social networking site to grasp the extent of historical misinformation circulating among the masses. According to the survey, 83% of Americans lack basic knowledge of the Revolution and, astonishingly, nearly half of those surveyed believe the Civil War occurred before the Revolution.However, as Stempel notes, while the respondents demonstrated this lack of historical knowledge, the overwhelming majority felt that the Revolutionary history is important and essential for maintaining a healthy country.
The stark reality of widespread misconceptions and ignorance when it comes to our own history perhaps suggests a lack of accessible yet accurate historical information designed for the popular audience. It is this sentiment that inspired Stempel to write American Hannibal: The Extraordinary Account of Revolutionary War Hero Daniel Morgan at the Battle of Cowpens. In the book Stempel seeks to present an accurate historical account in a narrative format to appeal to the average American audience, such as those who responded to the American Revolution Center’s survey. The narrative begins in June of 1780, when recent reversals in the South—including Charleston’s capitulation and subsequent occupation by the British and General Horatio Gates’ defeat at Camden shortly thereafter—placed South Carolina largely under British control. Daniel Morgan’s reputation as an able commander of light infantry landed him an appointment in the South, and he seized the opportunity to devise and execute a plan that eventually set the stage for the British defeat at Yorktown.
As Morgan took his troops west of the Catawba River to forage for supplies and increase his ranks, he learned of the British pursuit led by Banastre Tarleton. Morgan selected favorable ground near the Broad River and oversaw the advance of the British attack, retaining enough strength to subsequently overpower Tarleton’s exhausted forces, which had lost all semblance of organization in a harried pursuit of the Americans.Stempel compares Morgan’s overwhelming victory at Cowpens and the successful double envelopment of the British to that of Hannibal’s victory over the Romans at Cannae in 216 BC and even suggests that Morgan’s victory at Cowpens essentially ended the war. Although health problems forced Morgan to retire from battlefield command shortly following Cowpens, the victory so greatly disturbed Lord Cornwallis that his own strategic thinking succumbed to, as Stempel frames it, an unreasonable obsession with pursuing the Continental forces to his own strategic detriment.
Beyond the detailed and readable account of the battle, its personalities, and the strategies employed, Stempel conveys well the partisan nature of the war in the South and the dynamics of revenge and hatred which fueled it. While most of the book recounts the overarching narrative and focuses on the major players, Stempel works in vignettes that address the motives and feelings of the lower ranks and how the fighting impacted Southern society. Stempel uses the accounts of two privates in the partisan militia, Thomas Young and James Potter Collins, to illustrate the fact that their motives to fight were very personal and in fact had little to do with higher politics. For example, Thomas Young recalled the divide between families and friends who supported opposing sides, conveying a real sense of civil war in the South and reminding readers of the complex network of motivations that pulled and pushed ordinary people in different directions.
It is a commendable task to write history with an eye toward a general audience. Furthermore, it is a difficult task to balance a detailed and accurate account with an accessible narrative structure. Given the inherent difficulties in this balancing act, American Hannibalcertainly provides an accessible narrative, albeit with the occasional awkward sentence or typo. In terms of content, Stempel fulfills his mission to deliver an accurate account. Although nonfiction, the book reads like a novel and relates information to the reader in a casual manner. The story of the battle is presented in language that suggests a sense of immediacy, which thrusts the reader into the action. The chapters are told from a specific point of view which rotates principally between Morgan and Tarleton, with other characters occasionally popping up as the focal point. The book surprisingly contains no maps, which might be a stumbling block for readers who grasp battles and strategies more efficiently with visual aids and those who are unfamiliar with South Carolina’s geography.
American Hannibal is a great introduction for readers seeking basic knowledge of the war and its personalities. Readable and engaging, this book will appeal primarily to those with an interest in military history and would be an excellent transition for those who enjoy historical fiction but wish to venture into reading nonfiction accounts. Stempel’s defense of the battle’s importance is certainly on point, and new students of the Revolution will likely learn a great deal from this book. Readers with more background knowledge will likely find the style too simplified and may feel that Stempel exaggerates the extent to which the battle and its personalities are unknown, but for the general population this book will be informative and hopefully open the door to further study of our nation’s founding.