The Cowpens Staff Ride: A Study In Leadership
by William J. Hourihan, Ph.D.
One of the more succinct definitions of the Army staff ride is to be found in the U.S. Army Center of Military History publication, The Staff Ride. "Staff rides," it states, "represent a unique and persuasive method of conveying the lessons of the past to the present-day Army leadership for current application. Properly conducted, these exercises bring to life, on the very terrain where historic encounters took place, examples, applicable today as in the past, of leadership, tactics and strategy, communications, use of terrain, and, above all, the psychology of men in battle."1 What the staff ride offers, in short, is a vicarious way to experience on an intellectual level the reality of combat.
The U.S. Army Chaplain Center and School has been conducting staff rides for the Officer Advanced Course as a part of its curriculum since 1986. The first staff ride was carried out at the Revolutionary War battlefield of Monmouth. Later, staff rides were conducted at the Civil War battlefields of Gettysburg and Antietam. The relocation of the school from Fort Monmouth, N.J., to Fort Jackson, S.C., in 1996, created an opportunity to develop a new staff ride. The South is an area rich in battlefields from both the Revolution and the Civil War. The engagement eventually chosen for the staff ride is the Revolutionary War battle of Cowpens. The Cowpens site gives the student an opportunity to study an engagement in which General Daniel Morgans almost flawless application of the Principles of War, and especially his leadership, gave the American military one of the most consummate victories of the Revolution.
The Cowpens battlefield is situated in the northwest corner of the state of South Carolina, and even after 217 years the topography of the site is still in an exceptionally pristine condition. R. Ernest and Trevor N. Dupuy hold that this battle, "was probably the closest approach to tactical perfection ever seen on the American continent a complete double envelopment, the dream of every professional soldier."2 A successful double envelopment, sometimes referred to as the "purse string," is the tactical holy grail for any battlefield commander. The classic historical example of a double envelopment occurred at the battle of Cannae during the Second Punic War. In this battle the Carthaginian forces under Hannibal, met and defeated a superior Roman army under the Consuls Paulus and Varro on 2 August 216 BC. The Romans had an 80,000 to 50,000 advantage in numbers. Hannibal arranged his force in a crescent shape with infantry in the center and cavalry on each wing. He counted on his infantry to bend but not break under the pressure of the advancing Roman infantry. This is precisely what happened. The crescent became a circle and the Roman force trapped within it was almost annihilated.3 The totality of Hannibals triumph has made the name Cannae a byword for military success over the ensuing years.
Daniel Morgans victory at the battle of Cowpens is often compared by historians to a small scale Cannae. Historians are remarkably consistent in their estimation of the battle. Geoffrey Perret, for example, refers to Cowpens as a "flawless gem." Russell F. Weigley sees Morgans victory as a battlefield performance, "unexcelled and perhaps unequaled by any other officer of the American cause." T. Harry Williams has judged it a "minor masterpiece." Robert Leckie is direct in his judgment. "Cowpens," he writes, "was the American Cannae." He goes on to state that "it was the glittering small gem of the Revolution, and it was brought off by an American backwoodsman who, like the great Hannibal himself, was merely adapting himself to men and terrain." 4
The Dupuys also make the connection between Cowpens and Cannae:
The man who was the author of this victory is as interesting as the battle itself, since the quality of leadership he exhibited at Cowpens had its roots in his background on the frontier and his prior military experience.
The early life of Daniel Morgan is somewhat obscure. Born in 1736, in either New Jersey or Pennsylvania, he made his way west at a young age after a quarrel with his ironmaster father. He settled in the Shenandoah Valley and worked as a farm laborer and a teamster. As an independent wagoner by the time of the French and Indian War, he was with General Braddocks ill-fated expedition in 1755, and then employed to haul supplies to frontier posts in Virginia. Prior to the Revolution he served as a militia lieutenant in Pontiacs War, and he also accompanied Lord Dunsmores expedition against the Indians in western Pennsylvania. With the coming of the Revolution he was commissioned as a captain of one of the two rifle companies raised by Virginia.
Morgan was present at the siege of Boston, and then wounded and captured at the assault on Quebec on 31 December 1775. Released from captivity in the autumn of 1776, he was appointed colonel of a regiment of Virginia riflemen and played an important part in the battle of Saratoga in 1777. Dissatisfied because of his failure to receive promotion, and also because of his precarious health, Morgan resigned his commission in 1779 and retired to his home in Virginia. It would be the failure of the Revolutionary forces in the Southern states during 1780 that brought him back into the Continental Army. 6
The Southern campaign of 1779-1781, was an attempt by the British to salvage at least a partial victory in the rebellious colonies. The main British force in North America under General Sir Henry Clinton had been concentrated around New York City during 1778, since by that year Great Britain was engaged in a much larger conflict than just the suppression of a rebellion in the colonies. France, and then Spain, both seeking revenge for past defeats, had joined the conflict. The British were now fighting a world war, not only in Europe, but as far afield as the Caribbean and in India.
With military resources stretched thin, the conflict in North America took on a secondary role. General Clinton decided upon a limited strategy, focusing on those Southern colonies: Georgia, the Carolinas, and Virginia, which seemed to offer the possibility of detaching them from the Revolutionary cause. Counting on Tory support to assist and consolidate these colonies for the Crown, a British expeditionary force under Clinton, with Charles, Earl Cornwallis as second in command, moved by sea from New York City, and in May 1780, the Continental army in the south under General Benjamin Lincoln, trapped in the port of Charleston, South Carolina, was forced to surrender. 7 This surrender would be the largest mass capitulation of an American military force to a foreign power until 1942, when Bataan fell to the Japanese.
Faced with this catastrophic end to the army in the South, General George Washington and the Continental Congress moved to create a second army to halt the movement of the British into the Carolinas. The British were now led by Cornwallis (General Clinton having returned to New York). Washington wanted General Nathaniel Greene to head the new Continental force, however Congress decided to appoint General Horatio Gates, the victor at the battle of Saratoga. Moving into the Carolinas in July and August 1780, Gates was soundly defeated at the battle of Camden on 15 August 1780. A third force was now put together to contest Cornwallis, albeit much smaller than the two previous armies. This time Greene was placed at its head, and Brigadier General Daniel Morgan chosen as his second in command. 8
General Greene took command of the American Army at Charlotte, North Carolina, on 3 December 1780. Across the border at Winnsborough, South Carolina, General Lord Cornwallis and the main British force was waiting for reinforcements in order to begin an offensive into North Carolina. South Carolina was not totally pacified as yet (guerrilla bands under Sumter and Francis Marion, for example, were still quite active), but the British controlled Charleston on the coast, Camden in the midlands, and Ninety-Six in the west. These strong points were the basis of British power in the state.
Greene commanded a much inferior force, both in size and training. Adopting a risky strategy, he divided his small army by detaching Morgan to the west with about 600 men (including most of Greenes regular troops); the rest he moved east to Cheraw, South Carolina. This strategy presented Cornwallis with a dilemma. If he went after Greene with his army, Morgan could move on Ninety-Six; if he went after Morgan, Greene could move toward Charleston. Cornwallis countered Greenes strategy by detaching a fast moving light force across the Broad River under Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton to check Morgan, while pushing his remaining force north on the east side of the river, and keeping an eye on Greene at Cheraw. He hoped to pin and destroy Morgan between his and Tarletons troops. Cornwallis felt confident in doing this since a third strong British force under Major General Leslie had just moved out of Charleston and was headed north to reinforce him, thus blocking any move by Greene to the south. 9
The commander Cornwallis sent after Morgan was one of the most aggressive and colorful in the British Army, and a particular favorite of Lord Cornwallis. Tarletons background was in many ways the exact opposite of Daniel Morgan. Twenty-seven at the time of Cowpens, he attended Oxford University, but had gambled and drunk away a substantial fortune left to him by his father, a former Lord Mayor of Liverpool. As a last resort he managed to buy himself a commission as an ensign with a dragoon regiment that was being sent to America in the early days of the Revolution. The combination of his personal bravery, social position, and good luck saw him rise quickly in rank, and by the end of 1777 he was a lieutenant colonel and in command of the British Legion, a combined arms force of infantry and cavalry. The 550 men of the British Legion had been raised in Pennsylvania, New York and New Jersey, and were committed to the Southern campaign in 1779. In the South the Legion achieved a reputation for both aggressiveness and brutish behavior. Its spotted record of harsh abuse of prisoners made the term "Tarletons quarter," a byword for cruelty in the Carolinas. 10
Tarletons force moved west in early January across the Broad River, his Legion now strengthened by the addition of two battalions of British regulars, three companies of loyalist light infantry, and two small artillery pieces. Tarleton quickly pushed north, while Morgan, fully aware of Tarletons superior strength and movements through scouting reports, fell back. By the time Morgan reached the area known as the Cowpens, Tarleton was closing in on him. 11
If one quality stands out in Morgans victory at Cowpens it is his superb ability to inspire and lead his men in a desperate encounter which would change the focus of the British campaign in the South. It was Morgans leadership more than any other factor that led to the American victory. This quality of leadership was first seen in his choice of whether to give battle or retreat. In part, the decision to stand and fight at the Cowpens was dictated by events beyond his control. The option of continuing to fall back before Tarleton was seriously considered by Morgan, but was precluded by the swiftness of Tarletons approach.
Morgan also had to consider that his avenue of retreat across the Broad River, about six miles from the Cowpens, would be critically hampered because the river was in flood. If Tarleton caught Morgan while he was in retreat, attempting to make a difficult river crossing, the result would be calamitous. 12 Morgans natural aggressiveness, I feel, was also a factor. He was tired of retreating and he also felt that the force that he had brought together at the Cowpens stood a good chance of checking Tarleton, for the militia units which had now joined him brought his commands strength to almost a thousand soldiers.
The Cowpens, sometimes referred to as Hannahs Cowpens, was a grassy clearing in the midst of the scrub pine forest of the South Carolina frontier, not far from the North Carolina border. It was well known on the frontier as a gathering place (American militia forces assembled there three months before, just prior to moving on to the battle of Kings Mountain), and a pasturing ground where upcountry stock raisers would graze their herds of cattle before driving them to market on the coast. The ground was relatively flat and open, with scattered red oak and pine. 13
Having decided to give battle and then chosen the ground upon which to fight, Morgan now displayed another facet of his leadership by his ability and willingness to understand the mind of the enemy commander. He had never met Tarleton in battle (although they both were at the battle of Monmouth in 1778), but Morgan had gained an understanding of the tactics that the Englishman would undoubtedly employ. His senior officers, Lieutenant Colonel John Eager Howard, the commander of his regular Continental Line forces, and Colonel Andrew Pickens, who led his militia units, were familiar with Tarleton. Especially important as a source of intelligence on Tarleton was Morgans cavalry commander, Lieutenant Colonel William Washington, commanding the 3rd Continental Light Dragoons, since Washington had met Tarleton on the field of battle on a couple of occasions.
Tarletons weakness lay in his arrogance, what the ancient Greeks referred to as hubris. His social background and personal bravery facilitated a spectacular rise from ensign to lieutenant colonel in just a short time, yet this twenty-seven year old commander was also predictable. When facing militia his basic tactic was to move quickly and straight at the enemy. There was little room for subtlety in his exercise of the operational art. Morgan reasoned that Tarleton would attack him head on and he made his tactical preparations accordingly. As Morgan would write later: "I knew my adversary ...." 15
Morgan had gathered together at the Cowpens a mixed force of regular and militia units. The quality of his leadership can be in seen in how he made use of these diverse assets. In the formal context of eighteenth-century warfare, the deployment of both sides in battle was linear. Arranged in from one to three lines, each force would march toward each other using volley fire from smoothbore muzzleloading muskets to stagger or break the opposing lines, then sweep the field by a bayonet charge.
Another element in this type of warfare can be seen in Gates defeat at the battle of Camden five months before. Here both the American and British forces lined up in the accepted manner. Both commanders, Lord Cornwallis and General Gates (a former major in the British Army), also accepted the tradition that their best unit would take the place of honor on the right of each line. Cornwallis positioned his best regiment, the 33rd Regiment of Foot (this was Cornwallis old regiment, and which would be later commanded by the Duke of Wellington), on his right. In the battle, it swept over the untried North Carolina militia units which Gage placed on his left, allowing the British to envelop the best American unit (DeKalbs Legion), which Gage in the best tradition of eighteenth-century warfare, placed on the American right. 16 It was a lesson which Morgan took to heart. The genius of his leadership is evident in his ability to think outside the box. As the historian John Buchanan writes:
Morgans revolutionary tactical plan was to establish three distinct lines of opposition to the expected British frontal attack. He would use these lines as a series of buffers that would slow down and then finally stop and throw back the British. The first line was made up of some 150 picked marksmen armed with muzzleloading rifled muskets. The rifled musket (sometimes referred to as the Pennsylvania rifle) had a longer range and was more accurate than the smoothbore. The job of these militia riflemen in this skirmish line was to disrupt the formation of the British as they came into the Cowpens and began to assume their linear formation. Morgan also directed them to especially target the officers: "Shoot for the epaulets," he ordered. As the British attacked this first line would retreat to the second line, which was composed of the rest of the militia under the command of Colonel Pickins. Here Morgan directed the militia, mainly armed with rifled muskets to give him two or three fires (volleys) and then move off in an orderly manner around to the left of the third American line, Howards Continentals.
Morgan knew that the militia would not be able to stand up to a determined bayonet charge by British regulars. They were farmers, untrained, who perhaps two or three days before had been with their families. The movement of the militia in the second line would unmask the third line to the British. Howards men would not be unnerved by the militias expected move, and unlike the militia they would be able to stand and hold, especially since the first and second lines, Morgan felt, would have inflicted both physical and psychological attrition on the advancing British before the third line came into action. To protect the flanks was the job of Washingtons dragoons, its 80-man contingent supplemented by about 40 mounted militia men. Their position was behind the American infantry where they would act as a mobile force. 18
The night before the battle, Morgan rested his men. His soldiers were fed, and those who could manage it slept around the campfires that dotted the Cowpens. It was cold and damp that January night, but Morgans little army would be ready in the morning. The unique quality of Morgans leadership was much in evidence during those dark morning hours. He apparently did not sleep himself, but moved from campfire to campfire talking with and encouraging his soldiers. He also informed them in precise detail what he expected of them. 19 Very much as in the play Henry V, where Shakespeare has the young king move among his soldiers in the early morning hours before the battle of Agincourt, what Shakespeare called, "a gentle touch of Harry in the night," so Morgan did with his men.
Baron von Steuben, the former Prussian army officer who came to this country during the Revolution and became the drillmaster of the Continental Army, at one point wrote back to a former colleague in the Prussian army, Baron von Gaudy, about these Americans whom he now found himself training. "[T]he genius of this nation," von Steuben held, "is not in the least to be compared with that of the Prussians, Austrians or French. You say to your soldier, Do this, and he doeth it; but I am obliged to say, This is the reason why you ought to do that; and then he does it." 20 What was true in 1778, is still true today; it was something that Morgan understood instinctively. When his small army lined up to face Tarleton that morning of 17 January 1781, every American soldier on the Cowpens, from the lowest private to senior colonel, knew in detail his commanders intent. They knew what had to done, and they would do it.
Cowpens was a classic eighteenth-century battle, which would take place in a small meadow in the midst of far reaches of the American frontier. It involved approximately 1,000 men on the American side, and about 1,100 British soldiers. It would commence at about seven oclock in the morning, and from the initial contact to the end of the battle about one hour would pass.
Tarleton was informed by scouting reports in the early morning hours of 17 January that Morgans force was at the Cowpens. At two he roused his men, and at three they were advancing down the Mill Gap Road. After four hours of hard marching they reached the Cowpens. Tired, cold, wet and hungry, Tarletons force would find Morgans men rested and waiting. Although possessing a 3 to 1 superiority in cavalry, and two light artillery pieces (the Americans had none), Tarleton gave no thought to using these assets, either to flank Morgan with the cavalry, or to use artillery to rake the American position prior to the assault. Instead he did exactly what Morgan expected him to do. 21
Tarletons plan was simple and direct. Most of his infantry (including that of the Legion) would be assembled in linear formation and move directly upon Morgan. The right and left flanks of this line would be protected by dragoon units. In reserve he would hold his 250-man battalion of Scottish Highlanders (71st Regiment of Foot), commanded by Major Arthur MacArthur, a professional soldier of long experience who had served in the Dutch Scotch Brigade. They would be used, if needed, to provide the "coup de grace." Finally, Tarleton kept the 250-man cavalry contingent of his Legion ready to be unleashed when the Americans broke and ran. This was how they had been used at the battle of Camden. 22
As the British pushed into the Cowpens, they came under fire from the American marksmen in the skirmish line. Tarleton sent out a force of 50 dragoons to disperse them, however they were quickly driven back, losing 15 killed and wounded. After the British line formed up, it immediately began to march up the slope toward the militia, the American marksmen retreating before them. The British infantry, a line of red and green uniforms, "advanced at a sort of a trot, with a loud haloo," one American soldier remembered later. "It was the most beautiful line I ever saw ...." 23
They came forward to the sound of their music (fifes and drums), and the loud cracks from their two three-pounder "grasshopper" field guns that moved with them. As the British neared Pickins line, they were staggered by the volley fire of the militia, after which Pickins, according to plan, ordered his men off the field, moving them in good order around the left of Howards Continentals. The British believing the enemy had broken and were now fleeing moved forward with renewed vigor. Tarleton also ordered his dragoons to charge into the "fleeing" militia, however they were met and pushed back by Washingtons cavalry before they could do any damage.
Now facing a disciplined line of American regulars, the British were staggered again by volley fire. Tarleton, realizing for the first time the seriousness of the situation, ordered up his reserve and to the "skirl" of their pipers, the Highlanders began to move on the American right. At this point Howard ordered his regulars to protect the line from being enfiladed by having those units on the right, "refuse the right." This movement would allow that part of the American line to swing around as if on a hinge and face the oncoming 71st.
In the din of battle, this order was misunderstood and the units on the American right turned their backs on the British and began an orderly march to the rear. The rest of the American line observing this followed suit. The British, believing the Americans were retreating, vigorously pushed after them, unknowingly being drawn up into the pocket that would be their undoing. 24
While this was occurring, Morgan had moved to the rear in order to rally Pickins militia as they came off the field. His initial charge to the militia had been to stand and give him two or three volleys, then move off the field to their waiting horses that were being held for them in the rear. Now Morgan appeared among them and asked them to come back onto the field of battle. As they had successfully fulfilled their initial mission and were still confident, most of the militiamen responded to Morgans leadership and began to move back around to the American right. When Morgan returned to the main action, he found the regulars moving back, pursued by the British.
Encouraged by Morgan, Howards men now turned, unleashed a devastating volley, and charged with the bayonet. The British having been drawn up into the pocket by the American withdrawal now found themselves unable to retreat. On their left the militia, which had completed their swing around the American right, were attacking, while the British right was being closed off by Washingtons cavalry. The "purse string" was being drawn tight. The main British force was completely enveloped.
Tarleton, realizing the desperate seriousness of what was occurring, rode back to his one remaining unit, the Legion cavalry. What he needed was a headlong charge from them in order to break open the American envelopment. He was unable to rally them, and most of the Legion horsemen turned and disappeared back down the Mill River Road in retreat. Tarleton with a few remaining horsemen rode back into the fight, but after clashing with Washingtons men, he too retreated from the field. Trapped in the pocket, the British began to surrender. 25
Morgans leadership became evident again in the wake of the British surrender. With cries of "Tarletons quarter," some of the militia seemed prepared to attack the British soldiers in revenge for many of the depredations of which they and their commander had been accused. Morgan, along with Pickins and Howard, prevented any attempt to retaliate against the prisoners, and nothing occurred which would have stained this impressive American victory. 26 And it was, indeed, a victory of stunning proportions.
Tarleton had left on the field of Cowpens an astounding "eighty-six percent of his force dead, wounded, or captured: 110 killed in action, including ten officers; 712 prisoners, of whom 200 were wounded. Tarleton also left on the field the two grasshoppers, two regimental standards, thirty-five wagons, 100 horses, 800 muskets, a traveling forge, the officers black servants, and," as Morgan reported to Greene, "all their music." 27 The American losses were 12 killed and 62 wounded. 28
Morgan knew that Cornwallis was about 25 miles away from him at Turkey Creek on the Broad River. He also knew that Cornwallis would soon be after him. By noon on the same day of the battle Morgan left the Cowpens, and that night he and his army were across the Broad River. Indeed, Cornwallis was almost devastated by this defeat. It was reported that when the news of Cowpens was being related to him, Cornwallis had placed the tip of his sword on the ground in front of him and leaned on the hilt harder and harder until the blade snapped. 29 Four days after the battle he wrote to a fellow officer that "[t]he late affair has almost broke my heart." 30
Morgan was correct in believing that Cornwallis would quickly be after him. It was in the wake of Cowpens that Cornwallis would begin his well-known pursuit of Greenes army through North Carolina and Virginia. It was a chase that would end in failure, and lead a weakened Cornwallis to seek reinforcements and supplies on the coast, and finally to be trapped and surrender his army at Yorktown in October 1781. In a very real sense, it could be argued that the road that ended at Yorktown (and eventually led to American independence) had begun on that cold January morning at the Cowpens.
1. William G. Robertson, The Staff Ride, U.S. Army Center of Military History, Washington, D.C., 1987, IV.
2. R. Ernest and Trevor N. Dupuy, The Complete History of the Revolutionary War, Hawthorne Books, Inc., 3rd ed., New York, 1963, p. 388.
3. Victor Davis Hanson, "Cannae," in Experience of War, An Anthology of Articles from MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1992, pp. 42-49; General Fieldmarshal Count Alfred von Schlieffen, Cannae, The Command and General Staff School Press, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, 1936; Archer Jones, The Art of War in the Western World, Barnes & Noble, Inc., New York, 1997, pp. 29-30.
4. Geoffrey Perret, A Century Made by War; From Revolution to Vietnam: The Story of Americas Rise to Power, Random House, New York, 1989, p. 57; Russell F. Weigley, The American Way of War: A History of United States Military Strategy and Policy, Macmillan, New York, 1973, p. 30; T. Harry Williams, The History of American Wars, Knopf, New York, 1981, p. 78; Robert Leckie, The Wars of America, Harper & Row, New York, 1968 , p. 209.
5. R. Ernest and Trevor N. Dupuy, Complete History, pp. 381-82.
6. Don Higginbotham, Daniel Morgan: Revolutionary Rifleman, University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 1961.
7. Weigley, American Way of War, p. 25; Allan Millett and Peter Maslowski, For The Common Defense: A Military History of the United States of America, The Free Press, New York, 1984, pp. 68-69; Williams, History of American Wars, pp. 75-76.
8. Weigley, American Way of War, pp. 26-27; Millett and Maslowski, Military History, pp. 70-71; Williams, History of American Wars, p. 77.
9. LTC John Moncure, The Cowpens Staff Ride and Battlefield Tour, Combat Studies Institute, U.S. Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, KS, pp. 23-24.
10. Thomas J. Fleming, Downright Fighting: The Story of Cowpens, U.S. Department of the Interior, Washington, D.C., 1988, pp. 23-26; Moncure, Cowpens, pp. 28-29.
11. Ibid., p. 31; John Buchanan, The Road to Guilford Courthouse: The American Revolution in the Carolinas, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., New York, 1997, pp. 309-11.
12. Ibid., pp. 311-13.
13. Fleming, op. cit., pp. 6, 45.
14. Moncure, op. cit., p. 45.
15. Buchanan, op. cit., p. 316.
16. Franklin and Mary Wickwire, Cornwallis: The American Adventure, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1970), pp. 149-165.
17. Buchanan, op. cit., p. 316.
18. Ibid., pp. 317-18.
19. Ibid., p. 318.
20. As quoted in, John McAuley Palmer, General von Steuben, Yale University Press, New Haven, CT, 1937, p. 157.
21. Buchanan, op. cit.,pp. 319-21.
22. Ibid., p. 321.
23. As quoted in, Wickwire, op. cit., p. 260.
24. Buchanan, op. cit., pp. 321-23; Wickwire, op. cit., pp. 262-63.
25. Buchanan, op. cit., pp. 324-25; Wickwire, op. cit., pp. 263-64.
26. Buchanan, op. cit.,pp. 325-26.
27. Ibid., p. 326.
28. Fleming, op. cit., p. 80.
29. Buchanan, op. cit., p. 332.
30. Ibid., p. 333.
William J. Hourihan, Ph.D. serves as the Chaplain Branch Historian.