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April 20, 2010

A Devil of a Whipping

The Battle of Cowpens
Lawrence E. Babits - ISBN - 9780807849262

As the second most important battle in the Revolutionary War, Cowpens deserved another look and a better book. This is the definitive volume, unlikely to be improved upon; sometimes a little too detailed for my taste, but complete and well written. Babits spent considerable time reviewing other writings, but offers for the first time the study of reports from the many minor participants in the battle.

In the 1830's, federal pensions were granted for living survivors of the war, amongst them hundreds of men who had fought at Cowpens. They were caused to record specific details to corroborate their participation, and Babits reviewed their interviews, commenting that they were surprisingly consistent when compared with each other. This permitted him to recreate the battle in far more detail than anyone has before--or is likely to again (a 158 page narrative with 58 more pages of notes!)

You'll recall that the American commander was the brilliant and battle tested Daniel Morgan His adversary was the ruthless Banastre Tarleton who, at the (nearby) battle of Waxhaws, had annihilated the continentals even as they surrendered. This led to the expression: Tarleton's quarter. He offered none. Not a few of the participants at Cowpens were amongst the survivors at Waxhaws, and far more had friends or relatives slaughtered there. They were out for revenge . . . and got it. "Tarleton's Quarter!"

Morgan was a tactical genius who picked the battle site and laid out a plan which anticipated the arrogance of Tarleton and his troops. Babits reviews it all in detail. As well he describes and explains contemporary weaponry utilized in the battle; interesting, indeed. Amongst the myths he explodes is the popular belief that the musketman of the era could not deliver fire accurately, nor could he fire rapidly . . . not true. Properly trained men could "hit a man-sized target eighty yards away with five out of six shots in one minute." Most of the Americans were expert hunters with experience; many of them were using their own, often customized weapons with which they were intimately familiar.

The withering fire of the irregular militia, compounded by the accuracy of the skirmishers took a heavy toll. Early in the battle up to "two-thirds of the British infantry officers had fallen, along with a like number of privates." As the British charged into the maw, the militiamen, by prior agreement, retreated rapidly to an area behind the regulars. As anticipated by Morgan, the Kings men assumed they were in a cowardly retreat and plunged headlong into the bloody fire of the massed Continentals lying prone amongst the tree cover atop the leading edge of a swale. The American cavalry support was outstanding, as Tarleton had unwisely left a number of his troops in reserve, including some of his best cavalry. The changing tactics amidst the battle, attested to by the archived interview materials, helped the author to better understand the flow of the battle.

"Mounted operations are a major key to understanding Morgan's victory, even though they were the least orchestrated by his tactical planning." While American mounted strength was less than half that of the British, they performed brilliantly. They were lead by another tactical genius, Lt. Col. Wm Washington, who judiciously selected when and where to use his dragoons.

Babits goes on to discuss wounds, management, survival, etc. It is interesting to see his assessment of how specific wounds lend themselves to determining how they were wrought, and where the combatants were at the time they were inflicted. He comments that most of the American officers were wounded or killed because they led their troops "from the front," while British officers, generally, were picked off by snipers.

It was a horrific battle with many casualties on both sides. Those trapped by the Continentals were slaughtered. The British survivors broke and ran; survivors were gathered after the battle, having been wounded or trapped by exhaustion, and ready pickings for American cavalry. Altogether it is a stirring report of one of the most important battles in American history.

The Continentals eventually won the war by staying on the field. "The British lost the south, and ultimately the Revolutionary War, largely because [the American combatants] never gave up. Most of their battles were lost, but not this one, which passed into legend and history along with Ticonderoga, Saratoga and the final British loss at Yorktown where the French were in critical support. If you like Revolutionary history, you'll like this book.

Posted by Curmudgeon at April 20, 2010 2:08 PM