Cowpens Anniversary: The perfect tactical battle
January 28, 2011
''We study the past to awaken the future" - President John F. Kennedy
This week marks the 220th anniversary of the Battle of Cowpens, S.C., during the Revolutionary War. It is considered to be a perfect tactical battle which exemplifies Szu Tzu's adage: ''Know yourself, know your enemy. A hundred battles, a hundred victories."
The year 1780 had not gone well for the American forces in the South. Only their victory at the battle of King's Mountain in far western South Carolina had broken a series of serious defeats inflicted upon them by the British forces under Lord Cornwallis and Col. Banastre Tarleton.
Late that year Gen. George Washington selected Gen. Nathanael Greene to be the new commander of American forces in the South. Then on Dec. 3 Greene was joined by Col. Dan Morgan, whose Virginia riflemen had turned the tide at the battle of Saratoga and brought in the French as allies. Now Morgan's frontier fighting knowledge and his insights into human psychology were to play major dividends for Greene and the American cause.
Now Cornwallis received an erroneous intelligence report that Morgan was going to attack the British force at Fort Ninety-Six, so he sent his mobile column under Tarleton to destroy Morgan.
Tarleton was an aggressive commander of light cavalry whose series of relatively easy victories had led him to over confidence. He had won his last victory by defeating the Americans at the Battle of Waxhaws and then killing his American prisoners. He was both hated and feared by the local American forces and population in the Carolinas.
For two days before the battle, Tarleton's command had gone without food and had had only four hours sleep. The groundwork was being laid for a disaster of the worst magnitude for Tarleton due to his arrogance and lack of understanding of his Soldiers.
Morgan, whose frontier service went back to Braddock's defeat in 1755, had made a study of human psychology and battlefield tactics. Knowing of Tarleton's overly aggressive personality, Morgan combined that with his knowledge of the psychology of local militia forces and set up his brilliant tactical plan accordingly.
The night before the battle, the battle experienced frontier fighter and master of human psychology, Dan Morgan, walked around and visited each of his encampments of troops. To his skirmishers he gave orders to pick off the British officers and then retire by one flank, giving the impression of always retreating American infantry in the face of British regulars. To his second line of militia, who feared the British bayonet, he told them to fire just two volleys and then retire by the other flank before reforming in the rear.
These tactical movements had as their first goal to weaken and disorganize the attacking British forces by the shooting of as many British officers as possible and by having the British attacking column constantly facing fresh lines of American firepower.
Secondly, by explaining to each group of his Soldiers what he wanted them to do, each man felt that the commanding general both understood him and cared for him.
The first two lines of Americans had fired and retired according to plan. Tarleton, in his arrogance, mistook this for yet another easy victory. However as the British cleared the second American position they came across the third American battle line of hardened American Continentals. The shatteringly American volume of musketry at only 30 yards crushed the British advance.
Then Morgan had his first and second lines magically reappear on the British flanks and double envelop both of them. This brilliant victory by Dan Morgan was a tactical masterpiece, which has since been compared on a small scale level to that won by Hannibal at the battle of Canne.
Tarleton lost 86 percent of his command which had been considered the cream of Lord Cornwallis's army in the South. This disaster eventually led Cornwallis to retreat to Yorktown, Va., to resupply and gather much needed reinforcements which never arrived. He surrendered to Washington in October, 1781.
Sun Tsu, author of 'The Art of War," would be proud of Dan Morgan.