Battle of Cowpens, 1781

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Daniel Morgan versus Banastre Tarleton: A ragtag American army under Morgan stands its ground against a regular British army under Tarleton. Will Tarleton’s disciplined ranks simply overrun and outfight Morgan’s largely militia force?

cowpens preview 1

Significance

This is known as the “American Cannae”, a nearly flawless double envelopment maneuver which led to the annihilation of the opposing force. It is widely regarded as the most impressive tactical victory on American soil.

Analysis

While Tarleton was clearly mistaken to launch a frontal attack based on the battle’s result, Morgan defeated him at a much lower tactical level. Morgan noticed that his less experienced infantrymen naturally aimed too high and so he accommodated this by placing his infantry on a reverse slope, ensuring his troops hit their target while enemy troops missed more often. The reverse slope also hid his main force, a tactic used by the Duke of Wellington so often during the Napoleonic Wars. Morgan also utilized his least-trained militia effectively in a role suited to them, namely as a screen firing and running away in the face of a British attack, thus making “a military virtue out of what could have been a calamity” (Lumpkin, 1981: 127).

cowpens preview 2

Notes

This is another one of those battles where as soon as I read the first account, I was fixed on animating the battle at some point. The battle is also one of the first of a new wave of coverage for American battles; I feel I short-changed the American demographic in the first three seasons (only Mexico City represented American exploits) and have set about reversing this. A note on American casualties: sources are consistent in stating that Morgan claimed 72 dead and wounded of his force. By estimating the casualties as over 100 dead and wounded, I am not doubting Morgan’s honesty but taking into account that the militia were not technically under his command and he therefore had no reason to report them.

– Jonathan Webb

Works Consulted

Carrington, Henry B. Battles of the American Revolution 1775-1783. New York: Arno, 1968.

Cummins, Joseph. Turn Around and Run Like Hell: Amazing Stories of Unconventional Military Strategies that Worked. London: Murdoch, 2007.

Lumpkin, Henry. From Savannah to Yorktown: The American Revolution in the South. Columbia: University of South Carolina, 1981.

United States Military Academy History Department. “The American Revolution.” United States Military Academy. http://www.dean.usma.edu/history/web03/atlases/american%20revolution/index.htm (accessed May 19, 2009).

Images

American cavalry: http://www.revolutionarywararchives.org/cavalry.html

American militia: http://www.nps.gov/history/museum/exhibits/revwar/image_gal/gucoimg/gucomilitia.html

American regulars: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Infantry,_Continental_Army,_1779-1783.jpg

Banastre Tarleton: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Cowpens

British cavalry: http://www.britishbattles.com/battle-cowpens.htm

British guns: http://www.toysoldiers.com/products-soldiers/williambritains-americanrevolution.htm

British regulars: http://www3.towerhobbies.com/cgi-bin/WTI0001P?I=LXYE41&P=8

Daniel Morgan: http://www.history.army.mil/books/RevWar/ss/ch2.htm

Map of North America: http://teachnet.eu/tobrien/about/revolutions/the-american-revolution/

Map of the world: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_map_projections

 

If you enjoyed the Battle of Cowpens 1781 battle animation, you may also enjoy these other battle animations:

Battle of Saratoga 1777, another battle fought during the War of the American Revolution:

saratoga preview 1

Battle of the Plains of Abraham 1759, another battle fought in North America during the 1700s:

plains of abraham preview 1

Battle of the Wilderness 1864, another battle fought in the modern day United States:

wilderness preview 1

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Readers Comments (10)

  1. great stuff but I would animate with the Americans being blue and English being red. It would make it a little easier to follow since that was their colors. Militia could be an off-color shade similar to their army’s colors. Also, keep “left and right” consistent throughout presentation to coincide with orientation of the animated battle, e.g., your tables of information will be a little easier to follow if they’re the same as the sides of the animated battle. Hope this helps!

  2. Thanks for the work you put into these. Fun and very helpful.

    I agree with Jason’s recommendations above. An additional suggestion: In the set-up, you refer to Greene’s force at Charlestown. I think you mean Charlotte (or Charlottee Town).

  3. Yes, Jason had some solid suggestions. I’m going to experiment with the off-shades in the future.

    Sigh, I’ll have to add this animation for an additional edit during my next wave of edits.

  4. When I download these I get a few paragraphs of text all compressed into the little box at the top of the battle slide, I have office 2007 and am running windows vista, any idea why this is happening? And by compressed I mean that the text is in different text boxes and is overlapping each other. Otherwise very good stuff!

  5. Hmm, yes I’ve seen that before Eric. Download Microsoft PowerPoint Viewer from the official Microsoft site and view the animations through that program. It has fixed the problem for a great many people although I’m not yet sure exactly why it does that.

  6. I am curious why Bunker Hill, Saratoga, etc. receive so much historical comment but Cowpens the hinge of the war in the South which was the campaign that won the war, not the numerous retreats in NY,NJ and Penn is not known outside military historians and those from upstate SC. Maybe because the South (Washington, Greene, Morgan, etc.) won the war but the Ivy league writes the history.

  7. Note – Greene was from Rhode Island; Morgan was born in NJ, lived in PA and moved to Virginia as a young adult. Washington was VA born and bred.

    Battles of Trenton, Princeton, Monmouth (NJ), and Saratoga (NY) were key victories. The battle of Trenton in fact kept the French involved in supplying us, and eventually providing ships and troops, without which we would not have won.

    Facts are cool, Richard.

  8. Preston McClanahan November 23, 2013 @ 12:29 am

    According to family oral history, John McClanahan was one of the Morgan sharpshooters. He was killed in the Battle of Cowpens. He is our 6th great grandfather. He immigrated from North Ireland ca. 1773. His sons lived in the South Carolina mountains.

  9. nononono i wiil not do that

  10. A couple of suggestions: In the first slide of the animation, the text says that “Morgan’s main line is made up entirely of cavalry.” I think you mean continentals. It would be captivating if you showed the capture of the two grasshopper cannons. The sharpshooters claimed to have killed 15 of the attacking dragoon in the first wave of British attack. That would be a neat detail to include. There has been analysis suggesting Morgan had more like 1800 troops, but he only counted those under his direct command.

    All-in-all a wonderful presentation which I greatly enjoyed. You get a much better feel for the battle than you do from vast swaths of words no matter how well written.

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