General Nathaniel Greene

Late in 1780, durin the Revolutionary War, 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 land-forces.

In South Carolina a new and able general had been placed in command of the American troops. General 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."

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 him.

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 of battle.

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 last line.

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 dangerous wound.

"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 field.

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 line.

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 Troublesome Creek.

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.

Return to The Great Republic by the Master Historians (Vol 2)