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Hannah. It was in an open wood, favorable to the action of cavalry. There were two eminences of unequal height, and separated from each other by an interval about eighty yards wide. To the first eminence, which was the highest, there was an easy ascent of about three hundred yards. On these heights Morgan had posted himself. His flanks were unprotected, and the Broad River, running parallel on his rear, about six miles distant, and winding round on the left, would cut off retreat, should the day prove unfortunate.
The ground, in the opinion of tacticians, was not well chosen; Morgan, a veteran bush-fighter, vindicated it in after times in his own characteristic way. "Had I crossed the river, one half of the militia would have abandoned me. Had a swamp been in view, they would have made for it. As to covering my wings, I knew the foe I had to deal with, and that there would be nothing but downright fighting. As to a retreat, I wished to cut off all hope of one. Should Tarleton surround me with his cavalry, it would keep my troops from breaking away, and make them depend upon their bayonets. When men are forced to fight, they will sell their lives dearly."
In arranging his troops for action, he drew out his infantry in two lines. The first was composed of the North and South Carolina militia, under Colonel Pickens, having an advanced corps of North Carolina and Georgia volunteer riflemen. This line, on which he had the least dependence, was charged to wait until the enemy were within dead shot; then to take good aim, fire two volleys and fall back.
The second line, drawn up a moderate distance in
BATTLE OF THE COWPENS.
the rear of the first, and near the brow of the main eminence, was composed of Colonel Howard's light infantry and the Virginia riflemen; all Continental troops. They were informed of the orders which had been given to the first line, lest they should mistake their falling back for a retreat. Colonel Howard had the command of this line, on which the greatest reliance was placed.
About a hundred and fifty yards in the rear of the second line, and on the slope of the lesser eminence, was Colonel Washington's troop of cavalry, about eighty strong; with about fifty mounted Carolinian volunteers, under Major McCall, armed with sabres and pistols.
British writers of the day gave Morgan credit for uncommon ability and judgment in the disposition of his force; placing the militia, in whom he had no great confidence, in full view on the edge of the wood, and keeping his best troops out of sight, but drawn up in excellent order and prepared for all events.*
It was about eight o'clock in the morning, (Jan. 17th,) when Tarleton came up. The position of the Americans seemed to him to give great advantage to his cavalry, and he made hasty preparation for immediate attack, anticipating an easy victory. Part of his infantry he formed into a line, with dragoons on each flank. The rest of the infantry and cavalry were to be a reserve and to wait for orders.
There was a physical difference in the condition of the adverse troops. The British were haggard from
* Annual Register, 1781, p. 56.
want of sleep and a rough night-tramp; the Americans, on the contrary, were fresh from a night's rest, invigorated by a morning's meal, and deliberately drawn up. Tarleton took no notice of these circumstances, or disregarded them. Impetuous at all times, and now confident of victory, he did not even wait until the reserve could be placed, but led on his first line, which rushed shouting to the attack. The North Carolina and Georgia riflemen in the advance, delivered their fire with effect, and fell back to the flanks of Pickens' militia. These, as they had been instructed, waited until the enemy were within fifty yards and then made a destructive volley, but soon gave way before the push of the bayonet. The British infantry pressed up to the second line, while forty of their cavalry attacked it on the right, seeking to turn its flank. Colonel Howard made a brave stand, and for some time there was a bloody conflict; seeing himself, however, in danger of being outflanked, he endeavored to change his front to the right. His orders were misunderstood, and his troops were falling into confusion, when Morgan rode up and ordered them to retreat over the hill, where Colonel Washington's cavalry were hurried forward for their protection.
The British, seeing the troops retiring over the hill, rushed forward irregularly in pursuit of what they deemed a routed foe. To their astonishment, they were met by Colonel Washington's dragoons, who spurred on them impetuously, while Howard's infantry facing about, gave them an effective volley of musketry and then charged with the bayonet.
The enemy now fell into complete confusion. Some
BATTLE OF THE COWPENS.
few artillery-men attempted to defend their guns, but were cut down or taken prisoners, and the cannon and colors were captured. A panic seized upon the British troops, aided no doubt by fatigue and exhaustion. A general flight took place. Tarleton endeavored to bring his legion cavalry into action to retrieve the day. They had stood aloof as a reserve, and now, infected by the panic, turned their backs upon their commander, and galloped off through the woods, riding over the flying infantry.
Fourteen of his officers, however, and forty of his dragoons remained true to him; with these he attempted to withstand the attack of Washington's cavalry and a fierce melee took place, but on the approach of Howard's infantry Tarleton gave up all for lost, and spurred off with his few but faithful adherents, trusting to the speed of their horses for safety. They made for Hamilton's ford on Broad River, thence to seek the main army under Cornwallis.
The loss of the British in this action was ten officers and above one hundred men killed, two hundred wounded, and between five and six hundred rank and file made prisoners; while the Americans had but twelve men killed and sixty wounded. The disparity of loss shows how complete had been the confusion and defeat of the enemy. "During the whole period of the war," says one of their own writers, "no other action reflected so much dishonor on the British
The spoils taken by Morgan, according to his own
*Stedman, ii. p. 324.
account, were two field-pieces, two standards, eight hundred muskets, one travelling forge, thirty-five waggons, seventy negroes, upwards of one hundred dragoonhorses, and all the music. The enemy, however, had destroyed most of their baggage, which was immense.
Morgan did not linger on the field of battle. Leaving Colonel Pickens with a body of militia under the protection of a flag, to bury the dead and provide for the wounded of both armies, he set out the same day about noon, with his prisoners and spoils. Lord Cornwallis, with his main force, was at Turkey Creek, only twenty-five miles distant, and must soon hear of the late battle. His object was to get to the Catawba before he could be intercepted by his lordship, who lay nearer than he did to the fords of that river. Before nightfall he crossed Broad River at the Cherokee ford and halted for a few hours on its northern bank. Before daylight of the 18th he was again on the march. Colonel Washington, who had been in pursuit of the enemy, rejoined him in the course of the day, as also did Colonel Pickens, who had left such of the wounded as could not be moved, under the protection of the flag of truce.
Still fearing that he might be intercepted before he could reach the Catawba, he put his prisoners in charge of Colonel Washington and the cavalry, with orders to move higher up into the country and cross the main Catawba at the Island ford; while he himself pushed forward for that river by the direct route; thus to distract the attention of the enemy should they be in pursuit, and to secure his prisoners from being recaptured.