“Boys Get up. Benny’s Coming!”
The Battle of Cowpens. January 17, 1781. I think of this as the battle of the peavine because the field was full of the creeping peavines from old plowed gardens. But that chore had long since passed and the field was now a glorious pasture where cows roamed freely. Technically, it is referred to as the Battle of Cowpens.
The battle is remembered as a victory of the patriots because it was fought in a cow pasture between the infamous Colonel Banastre Tarleton and General Daniel Morgan.
Young Tarleton, only twenty six years of age, was both feared and hated by the rebels for his victory at the Waxhaws when it is said that he cut down the rebels while they were raising the white flag of surrender. The South Carolina militia companies were especially anxious for revenge and were assembling in the back country. Morgan had been positioned southwest of the Catawba River to cut supply lines and to hamper British operations.
The stage for the Battle of Cowpens was set when Tarleton’s scouts discovered the army of Morgan at Grindal Shoals on the Pacolet River. Despite heavy rains and flooded rivers, Tarleton gained ground as he drove his forces towards the flood-swollen Pacolet. And as the aggressive Tarleton grew nearer, Morgan retreated north to Burr’s Mill on Thicketty Creek.
On January 16, whenTarleton was reported to have crossed the Pacolet and was closer than expected, Morgan and his army made a hasty retreat, leaving their breakfast behind. Traveling west on the Green River Road , the flood-swollen Broad River was six miles to his back. Morgan decided to make a stand at the Cowpens, a well-known crossroads and pasturing ground where cattle and horses forage in spring time, eating the undergrowth of grass and peavines. The field itself was ideal for a European-style battle, being some 500 yards long and just as wide. Morgan spread the word to the militia to rendevous at Cowpens.
It was bitterly cold as the dawn arose over the field on January 17th. When word came that Tarleton was approaching, Morgan moved among his men, shouting “Boys, get up! Benny’s coming! “
Morgan instinctively knew that Tarleon would employ his favorite type of fighting by attacking head on and so he prepared his troops into three lines. Hiding behind trees were the sharpshooters. At the onset of battle they picked off numbers of Tarleton’s Dragoons, traditionally listed as fifteen, shooting especially at officers, and warding off an attempt to gain initial supremacy. With the Dragoons in retreat, and their initial part completed, the sharpshooters retreated 150 yards or more back to join the second line, the militia commanded by Andrew Pickens.
Morgan used the militia well, asking them to get off two volleys and promised their retreat to the third line made up of John Eager Howard’s Continentals, again close to 150 yards back. Some of the militia indeed got off two volleys as the British neared, but, as they retreated and reached the supposed safe ground behind the Continental line, Tarleton sent his Dragoons after them. However, as the militia dodged behind trees and parried saber slashes with their rifles, William Washington’s Patriot cavalry thundered onto the field of battle, seemingly, out of nowhere. The surprised British Dragoons were already scattered and sensing a rout, were overwhelmed. They fled the field where the infantry on both sides was firing volley after volley.
Meanwhile, the British advanced in a trot while beating drums, the shrill sounds of fifes and shouts of halloo. Morgan caused his men to give them the Indian halloo back and while leading the front, rallied the militia, crying out, “form, form, my brave fellows! Old Morgan was never beaten!”
Tarleton’s reserve unit of highlanders proceeded to charge the Continental line, but the wild wail of bagpipes added to the noise and confusion and the noise was misunderstood as a call to retreat. As other companies along the line followed the retreat, Morgan rode up to ask the commanding british officer if he were beaten. But the officer assured Morgan that they were instead retreating in an orderly fashion. Morgan then proceeded to order a firing in unison which took a heavy toll on the retreating british. Thus, the tide of battle was changed, and as the patriots reformed the miitia and cavalry and enveloped the British, the british infantry began surrendering.
Tarleton and some of his army continued fighting, but most of their soldiers broke rank and ran. Finally, Tarleton, himself, saw the futility of continued battle, and with a handful of his men, fled down the Green River Road.