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Georgia militia under General Pickens, two light parties of which, under Majors McDowell and Cunningham, were somewhat advanced, with orders to meet the enemy's advance with a desultory fire and then fall back into line. The second line consisted of the regular infantry, and Captains Triplett's and Tait's companies of Virginia militia, under Lieutenant Colonel Howard. The cavalry and a small body of mounted militia under Colonel Washington were drawn up at a convenient distance in the rear.
Tarleton had no sooner come up with Morgan than he made a hasty arrangement of his fatigued troops, and even before his line of battle was complete led them to the attack. The advancing line was composed of his light and legion infantry and the 7th regiment, under Major Newmarsh, with a troop of dragoons on each flank. Major M'Arthur with a battalion of the 71st, and the remainder of the cavalry, formed his reserve. The line advanced with a ferocious shout, and a hot fire of musketry, which compelled our light advanced parties to fall back into line.General Pickens had given orders to his militia not to fire until the enemy had approached within the distance of forty or fifty yards, which they obeyed with great firmness; but the assault with the bayonet which Tarleton now ordered was too much for them, the whole line retired precipitately, a part of them fled to their horses, and a part was led by General Pickens to the right of Howard's line. Tarleton, supposing by the flight of the militia of the first line, that his victory was secured, pushed forward with impetuosity until he came upon Howard. The resistance which he met with here was somewhat unexpected, and he soon found himself compelled to bring up his reserve.
The contest now became obstinate and deadly, and the ground was covered with the killed and wounded. The continentals stood the fire with unshaken firmness, until the advance of M'Arthur, when it became necessary for Howard to change the front of his right company. His order for this purpose being mistaken, the company fell back, and the whole line retired to the cavalry. Tarleton pursued once more with the assurance of victory; but Howard having explained his order, and performed his manœuvre in defiance, turned upon his impetuous foe, and poured in so destructive a fire, that his pursuit was turned into instant rout. Howard perceiving the disorder into which his unexpected facing had thrown the enemy, pressed upon them with the bayonet, which decided the fate of the day. Colonel Washington at the same moment charged a part of the enemy's cavalry which had gained our rear, and put them also to flight. He pursued them for several miles with more zeal than prudence, and having in his eagerness advanced some distance beyond his regiment, narrowly escaped being cut off.
The British lost in this memorable battle, upwards of 100 killed, among whom were ten commissioned officers, and 200 wounded. More than 500 prisoners fell into the hands of the Americans, besides pieces of artillery, 2 standards, 800 muskets, 35 baggage wagons, and 100 dragoon horses. Our loss was no more than 12 killed, and about 60 wounded. Thus did Tarleton receive a lesson to which he had not been accustomed, and a check which produced a sensible effect upon all his subsequent operations. A part of his cavalry, which had fled without taking any part in the action, reached Cornwallis's camp in
the evening, where Tarleton himself arrived the next morning, no less mortified than fatigued.
The victory of the Cowpens must be reckoned one of the most splendid achieved during the revolutionary war. The force of Morgan hardly amounted to 500 men, while that of his adversary, from the acknowledgment of the British historians, exceeded 1000. The principal part of Morgan's brigade was militia, while Tarleton commanded the flower of the British army. He had, indeed, in every respect, the advantage; a ground favourable for the movements of his cavalry, of which he had 350; two pieces of artillery, the only pieces on the field; and the stimulus of recent and constant success to animate his troops. It is impossible under such circumstances, not to attribute Tarleton's defeat to his own ungovernable rashness. He came in sight of Morgan early in the morning, and had abundant time to rest his fatigued troops; but he had been accustomed to conquer by his rapid and impetuous movements, and without even examining the nature of Morgan's position, or explaining his views to his officers, he rushed into battle, careless of personal danger, and heedless of contingent consequences. It had not often been his fate, however, to meet with such an antagonist as Morgan, who though unwilling to seek an engagement under such disadvantages, was never unprepared for it. This brave and excellent officer evinced at the battle of the Cowpens the value of that experience which he had acquired at Quebec and Saratoga; and never was a General more bravely seconded than was Morgan on this day. The masterly movement of Lieutenant Colonel Howard, at the moment when Tarleton was grasping at victory, cannot
be too highly praised.-After securing the fruits of his victory, Morgan continued his march to the Catawba without delay, wisely apprehending that Cornwallis would seek to retrieve his losses by a rapid pursuit.
General Greene received intelligence of Morgan's victory, on the 19th of January, and of the advance of the British army at the same time. He immediately prepared to join Morgan, and despatched orders to Lee to bring in his legion. General Morgan had crossed the Catawba on the 29th, only a few minutes before the van of the British army appeared on its opposite banks. During the night, a heavy fall of rain so swelled the river, as to render its passage by the British troops impracticable; and the water contiuuing to descend from the mountains, the swell increased for two days. Morgan took advantage of this occurrence to send off his prisoners and baggage to Charlotteville in Virginia, whither General Stevens had been previously ordered by Greene to march with his brigade for their protection. General Greene had left the camp at Hicks's Creek under the command of General Huger and Colonel Otho Williams, Smallwood having obtained permission to return to Maryland; but hearing on his route to Morgan, that Cornwallis, having destroyed all the baggage of his army, was advancing with great rapidity, he sent off an express to those officers to march with all possible despatch to Salisbury; and on the 31st reached Morgan's position at Sherrard's Ford. The arrival of Greene made a considerable change in the disposition intended by Morgan, who, having assured the safety of his prisoners, was preparing to continue his retreat with the light troops over the mountains, which offering no
impediments to the rapid pursuit of Cornwallis, would have exposed his whole brigade to capture; whereas by pursuing the route pointed out by Greene they escaped by a second instance of providential interference, in the sudden rise of the Yadkin.
Lord Cornwallis crossed the Catawba at day-light, on the morning of the 1st of February. He attempted to deceive Greene by feints of crossing at several places, while he moved with the main body to M'Cowan's Ford, some distance up the river, which he expected to find undefended. General Greene, however, had on the evening before directed General Davidson to take post opposite that ford with 300 North Carolina militia, with orders to dispute the passage as long as he could. Davidson unfortunately encamped rather too far from the bank of the river to act with any great effect; a part of the British advance having gained the middle of the river before they were discovered. The firing of the centinels brought Davidson to the bank, but nearly the whole British army had by this time crossed. Davidson made a gallant and spirited opposition for a few minutes, but Lieutenant Colonel Hall who led the advance, pressed upon him so closely with his light infantry, that the militia soon yielded, Davidson himself being killed at the moment of their retreat. They dispersed in every direction through the woods and spread such terrour and dismay among their countrymen, that though this district was composed of inhabitants generally friendly to the American cause, none assembled to join their retreating General.
The short conflict of the militia was attended with some loss on both sides. Lieutenant Colonel Hall was killed, and 36 of his light infantry were wounded.