Luck is a fickle creature. At the blink of an eye, it can apply itself to a battle by choosing sides and tipping the scales. A general’s ability to recognize this critical moment reflects his competency. Knowing what to do when luck takes a side during a battle is the trait of a master.
Daniel Morgan faced this critical situation as he surveyed the confusion and imminent collapse of his right flank during the battle of Cowpens.
Luck seemingly turned to favor to the British as Banastre Tarleton’s elite unit of 71st (Highland) Regiment of Foot moved to envelope the American right flank.
Attempting to counter the British maneuver, the American Captain Andrew Wallace ordered his Virginian Company to wheel about and face the enveloping enemy. As the order was given, a volley of musket fire from the 71st cast a net of noise and confusion over the American line. In the turmoil, Wallace’s Virginia company misunderstood the order and began to fall back. The adjoining American unit commanded by Captain Lawson witnessed the withdraw and followed suit.
Fortunately for the Americans, training and leadership can create a strong buffer against adversity.
Witnessing the confusion, Daniel Morgan rode up to Colonel Howard, who was in command of the troops stationed to the American right.
Morgan: “Have they whipped you?”
Howard: “Do men marching like this look as if they’re beaten?”
Morgan analyzed his situation. His ‘retreating’ men were withdrawing in good order without signs of panic (this can be attributed to Von Steuben’s training). Realizing his men were not broken, Morgan commanded Howard to select a spot on the field for the withdrawing Virginians to hold their ground.
Meanwhile, the 71st did not intend to let their apparent advantage slip away. As they watched the American right seemingly dissolve, they came to believe the decisive blow had been struck. The Highlanders broke formation and charged with bayonets and broad swords at the ready.
But the Highlanders suffered from two unfortunate conditions–exhaustion and overconfidence.
Banastre Tarelton’s troops had marched almost non stop for three days. Exhaustion, combined with an inflated sense of their own potency, tainted the Highlanders perception of the battlefield. They had become accustomed to seeing Americans withdraw over and over again and they had no reason to expect any deviation from this seemingly routine pattern of behavior.
But these Americans had not been beaten. They were not retreating, and even more importantly, they were reloading.
The Highlanders “came on like a mob”. As they closed, the Virginians reached Howard’s designated position on the field. The Americans suddenly stopped, wheeled about, and fired almost point blank into the disorganized ranks of the 71st. It was an 18th century sucker punch. The Highlanders dropped–some from musket fire and others from shock.
Almost simultaneously, William Washington’s cavalry arrived. The surprising appearance of the American cavalry multiplied the shock and surprise. The Americans infantry took advantage of the situation and charged. A brutal melee ensued and the proud 71st Highlanders broke and eventually surrendered.
At this point, the battle of Cowpens was all but over. The British, having suffered devastating blows to both their infantry and cavalry, began to melt away.
The training and courage of American soldiers coupled with a decisive correctional action by Daniel Morgan turned bad luck into an unintended, yet innovative battlefield counterattack against the British.
For an extensive and excellent read on the subject, I recommend Lawrence E. Babits, A Devil of a Whipping, the Battle of Cowpens.