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The Great Republic by the Master Historians|
The Cowpens and Guilford Court-House
by Bancroft, Hubert H.
|[Late in 1780 America gained another European ally. Holland, which had long been
friendly, began the negotiation of a treaty, whereupon England at once declared
war. Thus the English government had three European nations to contend with, in
addition to America. Yet Parliament, with undiminished energy, voted a large sum
of money for the public service, and ordered the raising of extensive sea- and
Washington's army entered the year in a miserable condition as to pay, clothing,
and provisions. So great were its necessities that on the 1st of January the
whole Pennsylvania division deserted the camp and declared that they would force
Congress to redress their grievances. British agents sought to entice them into
service under Clinton, but they indignantly refused, and were eventually brought
back to duty by a committee from Congress. Yet this mutiny gave rise to earnest
efforts to relieve the troops. Robert Morris, a wealthy Philadelphia merchant,
undertook to collect the taxes, to supply flour to the army, and freely used his
own fortune and credit for the support of the suffering soldiers. The Bank of
North America was established under his care, and did excellent service, and it
is said that his exertions alone prevented the army from disbanding, and enabled
Congress to prosecute the war with energy.
The military operations of the year were mainly confined to the South. In
Virginia the traitor Arnold committed great ravages. Washington formed a plan to
capture him and his army, sending Lafayette with a force of twelve hundred men,
with whom the French fleet was to co-operate. But the British fleet attacked the
French, and forced it to return to Rhode Island, and Arnold, reinforced,
continued his destructive inroads.
In South Carolina a new and able general had been placed in command of the
American troops. Gates had been removed after his defeat at Camden, and General
Greene appointed to the command. Soon after he reached the army, though his
force was little over two thousand men, he despatched the brave and daring
General Morgan to western South Carolina, in order to check the devastations of
the invaders in that quarter. Cornwallis, then about to enter North Carolina,
sent Tarleton against Morgan, whom he did not wish to leave in his rear. Orders
were given to "push him to the utmost." Of the events which immediately
succeeded we select an account from the valuable "Life of Nathaniel Greene," by
George W. Greene.]
Tarleton, at this time, held the same place in the confidence of Cornwallis
which Lee [Light-Horse Harry] held in that of Greene. He was bold, active, and
enterprising, and had distinguished himself by an adventurous spirit which was
in perfect harmony with that of his commander. That he was cruel to a conquered
enemy, and merciless in laying waste the districts occupied by the Whigs, does
not seem to have been regarded as a taint upon his reputation. But, unlike Lee,
he was deficient in judgment, often rash, cautious only when his adversary stood
at bay, and boldest in the pursuit of a flying enemy. The order to push Morgan
to the utmost was very welcome to him, for he was stronger than the American
general by discipline, equipments, and numbers,- his whole force somewhat
exceeding eleven hundred men, inclusive of a detachment from the Royal
Artillery, with two pieces.
[Morgan, who had carefully watched the movements of his adversary, fell
cautiously back, and on the evening of January 16, 1781, halted at a place named
the Cowpens. Here he resolved to give battle. His choice of open ground for his
battle-field seemed advantageous to Tarleton, as it gave the latter free room
for the use of his dreaded cavalry.]
When Morgan was blamed for fighting in an open country, with a river in his
rear, he calmly answered, "I would not have had a swamp in view of my militia on
any consideration; they would have made for it, and nothing could have detained
them from it. . As to retreat, it was the very thing I wished to cut off all
hope of. I would have thanked Tarleton had he surrounded me with his cavalry. .
When men are forced to fight, they will sell their lives dearly. . Had I crossed
the river, one-half of the militia would immediately have abandoned me."
[The men were scarcely ranged in order of battle when Tarleton came up, and at
once prepared for assault. Without heed to the fact that his men were weary from
a long march, he thought to crush Morgan at a blow, and boldly charged upon
The American skirmishing line was the first to feel them as they came dashing
on, even before their line was completely formed. But all that Morgan asked of
his skirmishers was done, and, though compelled to give way before a charge of
cavalry, they fell slowly back, firing as they retreated, and had emptied
fifteen saddles before they took shelter with the first line.
The English artillery now opened, and the whole line advanced upon the first
line of the Americans, who, waiting calmly until the enemy was within one
hundred yards, poured in a deadly fire. The English wavered and slackened their
pace. Officers were falling at every discharge of the fatal rifle, and a visible
confusion began to creep into their ranks. It was but momentary. Trained by
severe discipline, and familiar with the sights and sounds of battle, they
nerved themselves for the deadly encounter, and still moved firmly forward. For
a while the militia held their ground, pouring in volley after volley, and every
volley told. But the weight of the whole British line was upon them, and,
reluctantly yielding to the pressure, they broke and took refuge behind the
Continentals. Thus far nothing had occurred which Morgan had not foreseen and
provided for; but the decisive moment was at hand. Would the Marylanders fight
as they had fought at Camden?
The English, elated by the retreat of the militia, came forward with shouts and
huzzas, quickening their pace, and somewhat deranging their order. The Americans
received them with a well-directed fire, and for fifteen minutes the tide of
fight swayed to and fro, the British pressing upon the Americans with the whole
weight of their compact line, and the Americans holding their ground with
undaunted firmness. Then Tarleton, unable to break them, and seeing his own men
waver, ordered up his reserve. At this moment Washington [Colonel William] was
seen driving before him that part of the enemy's cavalry which had pursued the
broken militia, and the militia itself, reformed and still of good heart, came
resolutely up to the support of the second line.
The British reserve came promptly into action; and Howard, as he watched it, saw
that it outstretched his front and put his right flank in danger. To meet the
danger he ordered his right company to change front; but, mistaking the order,
it began to fall slowly back, communicating its movement to the rest of the
line. Howard saw at a glance that he could still count upon his men; for,
supposing that they had been directed to fall back to a new position, they moved
as calmly as they would have moved on parade. Instead, therefore, of correcting
the mistake, he accepted it, and was leading them to the second hill on which
the cavalry had been stationed, when Morgan came up.
"What is this retreat?" cried the stern old wagoner, in his sternest tones.
"A change of position to save my right flank," answered Howard.
"Are you beaten?"
"Do men who march as those men march, look as though they were beaten?"
"Right! I will ride forward and choose you a new position, and, when you reach
it, face about and give the enemy another fire."
But before they reached the spot, came a messenger from Washington, who had
charged and broken the English cavalry. "They are coming on like a mob," he
said. "Give them another fire, and I will charge them." In a moment the whole
line again stood with face to the enemy, who, confident of victory, were eagerly
pressing forward, filling the air with their shouts, and too confident and too
eager to keep their ranks. In another moment they were shrinking back, stunned
and bewildered by the fire of the Americans.
"Give them the bayonet," shouted Howard, and, pressing home his success, led his
men upon them in a final charge. The shock was irresistible. Some threw away
their arms and sought safety in flight; but far the greater part threw down
their arms and begged for quarter. Then an ominous cry began to be heard, and
"Tarleton's quarters!" passed with bitter emphasis from mouth to mouth. But
Morgan and his officers, throwing themselves among the men, and appealing to
their better nature, succeeded in arresting the impulse of revenge before a life
had been taken. When the moment for counting the immediate results of the battle
came, it was found that the English had lost eighty killed, ten of whom were
officers, one hundred and fifty wounded, and six hundred prisoners. . The
American loss was twelve killed and sixty-one wounded. Morgan's entire command
was about nine hundred and eighty strong. But, allowing for the numerous
detachments which his position had compelled him to make, he cannot have had
more than eight hundred with him in the battle.
[This signal victory was followed by rapid and skilful movements. Cornwallis was
but thirty miles distant, and was nearer than Morgan to the fords of the
Catawba, over which lay the direct road to a junction with Greene. Destroying
his heavy baggage, Cornwallis began a rapid march towards these fords. Morgan
retreated towards them with still greater rapidity, and succeeded in crossing
the river two hours before the vanguard of Cornwallis reached the other side. It
was evening, and Cornwallis halted, feeling sure of overtaking Morgan in the
morning. But that night a heavy rain swelled the river, and rendered it
impassable for two days.
Greene, who had left his main body on the Pedee, now arrived and took command,
with the idea of disputing the passage and awaiting reinforcements of militia.
But the river fell so rapidly that a continued retreat became necessary.
Cornwallis destroyed the remainder of his baggage, reduced his men to the
lightest marching order, forced the passage of the stream against a guard of
militia, and continued the pursuit. Both parties now made all haste to the
Yadkin, the Americans again being the first to reach the objective point. But
they were so sharply followed that their rear-guard was attacked, and was
obliged to abandon part of its baggage to effect a crossing. Here Cornwallis
encamped, and again a sudden rise in the river took place, and checked his
crossing. These two fortunate events were regarded by many as a direct
interposition of Providence in favor of the American cause.
The retreat and pursuit continued, and only ended after Greene had reached
Virginia and placed the Dan between himself and his foe. Mortified and
disappointed by the result of his energetic effort, Cornwallis abandoned the
pursuit, and slowly withdrew to North Carolina. Greene, receiving
reinforcements, soon followed, and, with an army increased to forty-four hundred
men, advanced to Guilford Court-House, where he took an advantageous position
and awaited the enemy. Here Cornwallis attacked him on the 15th of March.]
Shortly after one, the British van came in view, and Singleton opened upon them
with his two field-pieces. The English artillery was immediately brought
forward, and a sharp cannonade was kept up for about twenty minutes, while
Cornwallis was drawing up his men. He formed them in one line, with no reserve;
for, knowing their superiority in equipments and discipline, he was resolved to
come at once to the bayonet, and drive his adversary before him by one great
effort of combined and compact strength. .
Watching the intervals of the enemy's fire, Cornwallis pushed his columns across
the brook, under cover of the smoke from his own artillery; and the different
corps, deploying to the right and left in quick step, were soon ranged in line
For a moment Greene hoped they would not be permitted to cross the open field
unbroken, and every ear was listening eagerly for the sound of the North
Carolina guns. But it was a moment's hope; for as the ill-nerved militia saw the
enemy advance with firm countenance, and regular tread, and arms that flashed
and gleamed in the slanting sun, they began to hesitate, and then to shrink; and
when, coming still nearer, he paused, poured in one deadly volley, threw forward
his dreaded bayonet, and charged with a shout of anticipated triumph, they broke
and fled, throwing away, in the madness of fear, their guns, most of them still
loaded, their cartouch-boxes, and everything that could impede their movements.
In vain their officers tried to stem the torrent of flight. Eaton and Butler and
Davie threw themselves before them, seized them by the arms, exhorted,
entreated, commanded, in vain. Lee, spurring in among them, threatened to charge
them with his cavalry unless they turned again upon the enemy. All was useless;
terror had overmastered them; and, dashing madly forward, they were quickly
beyond the sound of remonstrance or threat.
[The British eagerly pressed onward. And now came the turn of the Virginians.]
Undismayed by the dastardly flight of the North Carolinians, they saw the enemy
advance, and, as he came within aiming-distance, opened upon him with the
coolness of veterans and the precision of practised marksmen. Symptoms of
disorder began to appear in the British ranks, and soon their line became
seriously deranged. But still discipline held them together; and, pressing
resolutely forward with the bayonet, they compelled the American right to give
ground. The left still held firm.
By this time all of the British army except the cavalry had been brought into
action; all had suffered from the deadly fire of the Americans; the line was
broken and disunited; the corps scattered, from the necessity of facing the
different corps of the Americans; and everything seemed to promise Greene a sure
victory. Cheered with the prospect, he passed along the line of the
Continentals, exhorting them to be firm and give the finishing blow.
And soon, following the retreating right wing of the Virginians, Webster came
out on the open space around the court-house, and directly in front of Gunby's
Marylanders. Here for the first time discipline was opposed to discipline. The
Americans poured in a well-directed fire, and before the British, stunned and
confused, could recover from the shock, followed it up with the bayonet. The
rout was complete; and had the cavalry been at hand to follow up the blow, or
had Greene dared to bring forward another regiment and occupy an eminence which
commanded the field, the fate of the day would have been decided. But these were
his only veterans, and the occurrences of the next quarter of an hour showed the
wisdom of his determination not to risk any movement that might endanger his
[The left of the Virginians had now given way, and the Second Maryland Regiment
broke and fled. But Gunby and Washington fell upon the advancing guards, and
drove them back in rout. Cornwallis pressed forward to observe the field, and
came near riding into the ranks of the enemy.]
A sergeant of the Royal Welsh Fusileers saw his danger, and, seizing the bridle,
guided him to the skirt of the wood. Here the whole scene broke upon him. He saw
the rout of his best troops; saw them mixed with their pursuers in irretrievable
disorder. The headlong flight must be stayed, or the day was lost, and, with the
day, the British army. From a small eminence on the skirt of the wood his
artillery commanded the ground of the deadly conflict.
"Open upon them, at once!" he cried.
"It is destroying our own men," exclaimed O'Hara, who was bleeding fast from a
"I see it," replied Cornwallis; "but it is a necessary evil, which we must
endure to avert impending destruction."
O'Hara turned away with a groan. The fire was opened, striking down equally
friends and foes. It checked the pursuit; but half the gallant battalion was
destroyed. Still discipline retained its controlling and organizing power. The
shattered and disheartened troops were collected and formed anew; formed amid
the dead and dying, for a third of their number lay dead or wounded on the
Meanwhile Greene also had pressed eagerly forward to get a nearer view of the
field, without observing that there was nothing between him and the enemy but
the saplings that grew by the roadside. But Major Burnet saw it, and warned him
of his danger, as he was in the act of riding "full tilt" into them. Turning his
horse's head, but without quickening his pace, he rode slowly back to his own
It was a trying moment. He had heard nothing from Lee, and naturally feared the
worst. The enemy were gaining ground on his right, and had already turned his
left flank. The failure of the 2d Maryland regiment had confirmed his distrust
of raw troops. It was evident also that the enemy had suffered severely. If he
had not conquered, he had crippled them. The chief object for which he had given
battle was won; and, faithful to the resolve not to expose his regulars
needlessly, he ordered a retreat. The enemy attempted to pursue, but were soon
driven back. At the Reedy Fork, three miles from the field of battle, he halted,
drew up his men, and waited several hours for the stragglers to come in. Then,
setting forward again, he returned to his old encampment at the ironworks of
[The American loss in killed and wounded was about four hundred while the
fugitives who returned to their homes increased the total loss to thirteen
hundred. The British lost about five hundred. The result of the battle was
little less than a defeat to Cornwallis, who gained no profit from Greene's
retreat. In a very short time the latter was ready for battle again, which
Cornwallis failed to offer. He soon after retired to Wilmington, while Greene
advanced into South Carolina.]
George Washington Greene