Tag: Daniel Morgan

Battle of Cowan’s Ford, North Carolina 1 February 1781

After Daniel Morgan’s devastating victory over the British commander Banastre Tarleton at the Battle of Cowpens on 17 January 1781, the American commander of the southern theatre, Nathaniel Greene, was leading a confident force. However, they were still far outnumbered by British Lord Cornwallis’ forces. Greene needed to recruit more before he turned to face the British. To this end, Greene ordered William Lee Davidson to take a small force and provide rear cover to Greene’s evasion.

Background to the Battle of Cowan’s Ford

Davidson was a member of a family that had immigrated from Ulster to Lancaster County, Pennsylvania before the Revolution. They had moved to North Carolina shortly after William’s birth. Davidson became a respected member of the colonial establishment in the area. He served as an envoy to the Cherokee to set boundaries and later served as a constable. By the time of the Revolution, Davidson was a prominent patriot leader in the area of Mecklenburg County, North Carolina and knew the area well. He was responsible for a highly successful recruitment effort. The Mecklenburg County area had become known to Cornwallis as a “hornet’s nest” of Revolutionary activity. The victory at the Battle of Cowpens had re-energized the recruitment. He was to become one of the founding members of Jim Webb’s Born Fighting breed of Scots-Irish American fighting men.

The Battle of Cowan’s Ford

On 31 January 1781, Davidson had sent pickets out to the east of the fording areas of the Catawba River that he felt were likely to be used by Cornwallis in his pursuit of Greene’s army. There were two suspected, Beatties Ford to the north (now part of Lake Norman formed by Cowan’s Ford dam) and Cowan’s Ford to the south (now the point of the dam on the Catawba River). Therefore, Davidson had to spread himself thin with his cavalry and infantry contingents. Cornwallis had sent a show force to Beatties Ford to make a racket in an attempt to fool the patriots into thinking he was crossing there. However, Cowan’s Ford was always the more likely with high water from recent rains, because Cowan’s had both a deep, but straight wagon crossing and a shallower, but oblique horse crossing. Davidson had situated himself near, but to the rear of Cowan’s Ford, wanting to ward off a suspected attempt by Tarleton to flank him.

In the early morning of the 1st of Febuary 1781, the pickets near Cowan’s Ford fired to alert Davidson. Davidson’s force began firing on the British near daybreak as they crossed the rain swollen river at the deeper wagon crossing point. Many British horses were going under and the Americans were able to take quite a toll on the British as they floundered in the Catawba. Davidson moved to the sound of the guns and arrived at the river’s edge not long after the skirmishing began. Unfortunately, Davidson was almost immediately hit in the chest. The loss of Davidson made the patriots in the immediate area retreat and soon the retreat was general. The patriots hadn’t lost many in number, but in Davidson, they had lost their charismatic leader.
Cornwallis completed the crossing and was not slowed much, but the British morale must have slumped even further with the significant casualties. These rebels were proving hard to root out. Davidson’s death was taken hard by the local community. Davidson College would later be named after him when his son provided ground for the college.

Battle of Cowan’s Ford Motorcycle Ride Recommendation

Check out the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission’s tour of the area. Here is my imperfect attempt to recreate their route using Google Maps.

Battle of Cowpens, South Carolina 17 January 1781

On 17 January 1781, the outlook for the British Army in America changed forever. A British Legion (combined infantry and cavalry) led by one of the British star, young officers, Banastre Tarleton, met its match on this day with a mixed force of one-third Continentals and two-thirds militiamen, led by what can only be called a “Good Old Boy,” Daniel Morgan.

American General Nathaniel Greene commanded the southern army and knew he couldn’t withstand a full encounter with the British, so he instructed his forces to split up and conduct operations against isolated British outposts. General Daniel Morgan commanded one of these smaller units. Tarleton was well known to the American forces for “Tarleton’s quarter.” Tarleton had a reputation, at least partly earned, for total war. He did not mind burning provisions and communities who supported the patriot cause. He also was reputed to have refused quarter to Americans at Waxhaws (Buford’s Massacre) by refusing surrender and continuing to assault.

Morgan had decided to attack Fort 96. Lieutenant Colonel Tarleton had set off to catch Morgan and prevent Morgan from disrupting the British / Loyalist forts and communities, like Fort 96. Tarleton had Morgan on the run and Morgan was attempting a ragged retreat when he decided to turn and face up to Tarleton in an area known a Cowpens (an open area of upland pasture) in northwestern South Carolina, near Gaffney. Tarleton had pushed his Legion hard through the night and they arrived at Cowpens ready to fight but tired.

Morgan had a plan to feign retreat after the intial exchange of rifle fire, knowing that Tarleton liked to take the initiative as fast as possible. When Morgan’s skirmishers fired and pulled back, Tarleton ordered his Legion forward to press the attack in hopes of a rout. Morgan had his skirmishers join his infantry line in fall back positions. What was planned and what just happened next is open to debate, but what is clear is that Morgan managed to envelope Tarleton’s Legion with infantry and cavalry and deliver withering fire into the British ranks whilst they were totally committed to a headlong rush. This may seem unusual, but much of the killing by the British Legions was by bayonet, so when they pressed the attack, they would have been mentally and physically committed to a bayonet charge. Taking heavy fire from an infantry line that was thought to have fled, whilst simultaneously having your flank rolled by cavalry might just make you want to drop your bayonet and run. That’s what Tarleton did with a handful of his command. Most of his force did not do so well with the majority being killed, wounded or captured.

Tarleton, 26 years old at the time, was rebuked and many older British officers felt it had been just a matter of time before the young rake’s risk taking had cost the British Army dear.

Motorcycle Ride

This is truly one of those perfect marriages of a great battlefield and a great ride. Here’s a beauty of a ride along the Cherokee Foothills Scenic Highway. It starts very near The Cowpens National Battlefield and makes it way through several state parks, lakes and geological sites.

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