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On Riflemen and Cavalry - A Letter from Militia Major General Joseph Graham in 1808

"To General W. R. Davie. M. C.
Vesuvius Furnace, Dec. 19, 1808.
Dear Genl: —

On taking a review of the organization of our regular army I apprehend it is on a plan more expensive than needful. I observe there is one regiment of Riflemen and one ditto of Cavalry. I know of nothing that can justify such an appointment and expense except it is expected by the administration to send them to such distant points westwardly or southwardly as it would be too far for the Militia. If any actual service is expected the number of Regulars is so small there is no doubt the Militia would be called on; then sir put the question to yourself what kind of troops do you get You know you have as many Cavalry already equpt at their own expense as would be a sufficient proportion to any army of Infantry you would want and when you call for footmen from the Militia take the Southern States throughout I think you will find the arms half rifles, and men. who have been habituated to use them since their infancy and furthermore the Militia generally prefer service in the Cavalry or Rifles to that of the Line. I know it is a matter certain whenever either are wanted for actual service in the old United States enough can be had from volunteers from the Militia After the war commenced in the south-land we had no Riflemen who were Regulars and I appeal to your knowledge of those times if we had not always a sufficient proportion of them yea the misfortune was we frequently had scarcely any other and as to Cavalry when the Militia was properly equipt, mounted and officered I could point out places where they acquitted themselves equal to Regulars. I have been with them when equal numbers ot Tarleton's men fled before them.

The discipline actually necessary to be known in service for Cavalry or Riflemen is so simple it may be acquired in a short time. That the United States should have some intelligent officers for each I grant may be proper; but to keep on the establishment a whole regiment of each I think inconsistent with true economy.

Regiments of Musquet and Bayonette men and a suitable proportion ,of Artillery are the kind of troops we want; it is a work of time to form these from the Militia even if you had arms enough to put into their hands; until they were some tim'e in service under regular officers they never did acquit themselves well on a large scale with those tools to the southward but generally acted well as Cavalry and Riflemen. After I was wounded in the Parthian fight opposing Lord Cornwallis entering Charlotte in September 1780 I was moved by a wagon out of the way of the enemy into Guilford County. I stopped all night near Mocks Tavern with the late Genl. Morgan on the eve of his going to the southward with about 300 regulars; interrogating me as to the position of Charlotte, the roads leading from it, the principal farms, mills, etc. etc. he inquired if we had many good Riflemen; mentioned his name was Morgan and supposed I had heard of his commanding Riflemen in the northern army which had been very troublesome to the enemy; but says he "my Riflemen would have been of little service if we had not always had a line of Musquet and Bayonette men to support us, it is this that gives them confidence. They know if the enemy charges them they have a place to retreat to and are not beat clear off." How well this doctrine of the General was verified you who were present are the best judge. Though the General might not be as scientific an officer as others he certainly understood the duties of the field (fighting I mean) nearly as well as any of them. In the disposition General Greene made of his army at the actions of Guilford, Eutaw and other places, where he had a large proportion of Militia Riflemen he adopted the same principle that Genl. Morgan communicated to me and you observe thereby he escaped the errors and disasters of his predecessor to the southward who had formed his calculations on the Militia acting equal to Regulars when they were equipt in the same manner.

I assure you sir I have not made these remarks out of an itch for scribbling but from a solemn conviction that they are well founded. If any additions should be attempted to our standing army and you coincide with me in opinion you are at liberty to make what use you please of this letter. As a looker on I may sometimes discover things which might escape the attention of those who are constantly employed in the public service; in which case I will consider it a duty and take the liberty to communicate it at any time you have leisure.

A line on the times will be acceptable to,
Your sincere friend,

J. Graham. "
pp. 134-136

General Joseph Graham and his papers on North Carolina Revolutionary history, by William Alexander Graham, 1904


"Charlotte Journal Dec. 2, 1836

   Died, at his residence in Lincoln County, on the 12th ult., MAJOR GENERAL
JOSEPH GRAHAM, aged 77 years.
   GEN. GRAHAM was born in Pennyslvania, October 13th, 1759. His mother, being 
left a widow with five small children and slender means to support them, 
removed to North Carolina when he was about seven years of age and settled in 
the vicinity of Charlotte. He received the principal part of his education at 
an academy then taught in Charlotte, and was distinguished among his fellow 
students for talents, industry, and the most manly and conciliating 
deportment. His thirst for knowledge led him, at an early period, to become 
well acquainted with all those interesting events which preceded and prepared 
him for our Revolution Struggle.
   He was present in Charlotte on the 20th of May, 1775, when the first 
Declaration of Independence was formally and publically made. The deep 
impression made upon his mind by the solemn and illustrious decisions of that 
day, gave good evidence that he was then preparing for the noble stand which 
he took during the war.
   He enlisted in the Army of the United States in the month of May, 1778, at 
the age of 19 years. He served in the Fourth Regiment of North Carolina under 
COL. ARCHIBALD LYTLE and acted as an officer in CAPT. GOODEN'S Company. The 
troops to which he was attached were ordered to rendezvous at Bladensburg in 
Maryland. Having proceded as far as Caswell County, they received intelligence 
of the battle of Monmouth, and that the British having gone to New York, their 
services would not be needed. He returned home on furlough.
   He was again called into service on the 5th of Nov., 1778, and marched 
under the command of GENERAL RUTHERFORD of Purrysburg, on the Savannah river, 
soon after the defeat of GENERAL ASHE at Brier Creek. He was with the troops 
under GENERAL LINCOLN in the trying and painful struggles agains GENERAL 
PROVOST, and fought in the Battle of Stono on the 28th of June, 1778, which 
lasted an hour and 20 minutes. 
   During nearly the whole campaign, he acted as Quarter Master. In July, 
1779, he was taken with fever, and after two months severe illness was 
discharged near Dorchester and returned home.j
   After recovering from the affects of sickness and privation, he aided his 
mother in the support of her family and was ploughing in her field when he 
received intelligence of the surrender of Charleston, and that the British had 
defeated COL. BUFORD of the Waxhaw, and were within 40 miles of Charlotte. 
Instead of being deterred by the sufferings of the previous campaign, or the 
perils of that alarming moment, he removed at once to leave the plough, and 
enter the Army. 
   He was immediately appointed Adjutant of the Mecklenburg Regiment, and 
spent the summer with them in opposing and assailling the troops of LORD 
ROWDON. When it was understood that the British were marching to Charlotte, he 
was commanded by GEN. DAVIDSON to repair to that place and take command of 
such force as should collect there, and to join COL. DAVIS. The British Army 
entered Charlotte the 26th of Sept. 1780. GEN. GRAHAM was assigned the command 
of his troops which sustained the retreat of GEN. DAVIS, and opposed 
TARLETON'S Cavalry and a Regiment of Infantry for four miles on the road 
leading to Salisbury.
   After a long and well directed fire upon the British from the Courthouse to 
the Gum Tree, GEN. GRAHAM retreated with the men under his command and formed 
on the plantation now owned by JOSEPH McCONNAUGHEY, ESQ. and again attacked 
their advancing column of infantry. There his life was providentially 
preserved from the bursting of a gun fired by the soldier who stood at his 
side, and whose arm was wounded. After again retreating, he formed on the hill 
where Sugar Creek Church now stands. There owing to the impudent, but honest, 
zeal of a MAJOR WHITE, they were detained too long, for by the time they 
reached the Cross Roads, a party of British Dragoons were coming up the road, 
heading from CAPT. KENNEDY'S, and after close pursuit for nearly two miles 
overtook them. COL. FRANCIS LOCKE of Rowan County, an intelligent and brave 
officer, was killed upon the margin of a small pond, now to been at the end of 
MR. ALEX. KENNEDY'S LANE. Between the spotand where MR. JAMES A. HOUSTON 
livesm, GEN. GRAHAM was cut down and severely wounded. He received nine 
wounds, six with the sabre and three with lead. His life was again narrowly 
and mercifully preserved by a large stock buckle, which broke the violence of 
the stroke, which to human view, must otherwise have proved fatal. He received 
four deep gashes of the sabre over his head and one in his side and three 
balls were afterwards removed from his body.
   After being much exhausted by loss of blood, he reached the home of MRS. 
SUSANNAH ALEXANDER, who yet lives near the same place, where he was kindly 
nursed and watched during the night, and his wounds dressed as well as 
circumstances would permit. The next day, he reached his Mother's, where MAJOR 
BOSTWICK now lives. From that, he was taken to the hospital, and was two 
months recovering.
   Thus, at the tender age of 21 year, we see this gallant officer leading a 
band of brave men as ever faced a foe, to guard the ground consecrated by the 
Declaration of American Independence, and when the foot of tyranny was 
treading on it, and assistance proved unsuccessful, leaving his blood as the 
best memorial of a righteous cause, and of true heroism in its defence.
   While the whole country was in distress, its property pillaged, its houses 
forsaken, and its defenseless inhabitants flying from the shock of arms, a few 
noble sons of Mecklenburg compelled LORD CORNWALLIS to designante Charlotte as 
the "Hornet's Nest" of America.
   As soon as he recovered from his wounds, he again entered the service of 
his country. GEN. WILLIAM L. DAVIDSON, who had command of all the militia in 
the Western counties of North Carolina, applied to him such rank as the number 
of men raised would justify. It proved not only his energy of purpose, but 
great influence, that, at  that difficult and hazardous period, he could raise 
a company of 55 men in two weeks. They were mounted riflemen, armed also with 
swords, and some with pistols. They suppllied themselves with horses, procured 
their own equipments and entered the field, without commissary or 
quartermaster, and with every prospect of hard fighting and little 
   After TARLETON'S signal defeat at the Cowpens, CORWALLIS resolved to pursue 
GEN. MORGAN. At that time GENERAL GREENE had received the command of the 
Southern Army and had stationed himself at Hick's Creek, on the North side of 
the Peedee, near to Cheraw. After MORGAN'S victory and successful retreat, 
GEN. GREENE left his main army with GEN. HUGER, and rode 150 miles to join 
MORGAN'S detachment. The plan of opposing LORD CORNWALLIS in crossing the 
Catawba River was arranged by GEN. GREENE,and his execution assigned to GEN. 
DAVIDSON. Feints of passing were made at different places, but the real 
attempt was made at Cowan's Ford. 
   Soon after the action commenced, GEN. WM. L. DAVIDSON was killed, greatly 
lamented by all who knew him as a talented, brave and generous officer. The 
company  commanded by GEN. GRAHAM was the first to commence the attack on the 
British, as they advanced through the river, which was resolutely continued 
until they reached the bank, loaded their arms, and commenced a heavy fire 
upon his men, two of whom were killed. It was supposed that GEN DAVIDSON was 
killed by a Tory, who was pilot to the British in crossing the river, as he 
was shot with a small rifle ball. COL. WM. POLK and REV. MR. McCALL were near 
to him when he fell. His body was found that night and buried in the present 
graveyard of Hopewell Church.
   The North Carolina  Militia was then placed under the command of GEN. 
PICKENS of South Carolina, and continued to pursue the British as they 
advanced toward Virginia. GEN GRAHAM with his company and some troops from 
Rowan County, surprised and captured a guard at Hart's Mill, one and a half 
miles from Hillsboro, where the British Army then lay, and the same day were 
united to COL. LEE'S forces. On the next day, he was in action under COL. 
PICKENS with COL PYLES, who commanded 350 Tories on their way to join 
TARLETON. These Tories supposed the Whigs to be a Company of British Troops 
sent for their protection and commenced crying, "God Save the King." TARLETON 
was about a mile from that place, and retreated to Hillsboro'. Shortly 
afterward, GEN. GRAHAM was in an engagement at Clapp's Mill, on the Alamance 
and had two of his company killed, three woounded and two taken prisoners. A 
few days afterwards, he was in action at Whitsell's Mill under the command of 
   As the time for which his men had engaged expired, and the country annoyed 
by Tories, GEN. GREENE directed him to return with his company and keep them 
in a compact body until they crossed the Yadkin, which they did March 14, 
1781. After the battle at Guilford, the British retired to Wilmington and but 
little military service was performed in North Carolina during the summer of 
1781. After the first of November, COL. FANNING surprised Hillsboro' and took 
GEN. BURKE prisoner. GEN. RUTHERFORD, who had been taken prison at GATES' 
defeat and with many other distinguised citizens had been confined in custody, 
was dischared and returned home about his time. -- He immediately gave orders 
to GEN. GRAHAM, in whose military prowess and general influence he had the 
utmost confidence, to raise a troop of calvary in Mecklenburg. Three troops of 
Dragoons and about 200 mounted Infantry were raised and formed into a Legion, 
of which ROBERT SMITH ESQ., who had been a Captain in the North Carolina Line 
was appointed Colonel, and GEN. GRAHAM was appointed Major. They forthwith 
commenced their march towards Wilmington -- South of Fayetteville, with 96 
Dragoons and 40 mounted infantry, GEN. GRAHAM made a gallant and successful 
attack upon a body of Tories, commanded by the noted Tory COLONELS McNEIL , 
RAY, GRAHAM, and McDOUGAL. This action took place near McFall's mill, on the 
Raft Swamp, in which the Tories were signally defeated, their leaders 
dispersed in dismay and their cause greatly injured. That 136 Whigs should 
attack and triumphantly defeat 600 Tories, headed by four Colonels, reflects 
great honor upon the bravery and intelligence of their youthful leader.
   A short time afterwards, he commanded one Troop of Dragoons and two of 
mounted infantry, in surprising and defeating a band of Tories on MR. ALFRED 
MOORE'S plantation, opposite to Wilmington. On the next day, he led the Troops 
in person, which made a resolute attack on the British garrison near the same 
place. Shortly afterwards, he commanded three companies in defeating the 
celebrated COL. GAYNY, near Waccomaw lake. Shortly afterr this, the war was 
terminated in the South by the surrender of LORD CONWALLIS at Yorktown in 
   This campaign closed COL. GRAHAM'S services in the Revolutionary War, 
having commanded in 15 engagements with a dgree of courage, wisdom, calmness 
and success, surpassed, perhaps, by no officer of the same rank. Hundreds who 
served under under him have delighted in testifying to the upright, faithful, 
prudent, and undaunted manner in which he discharged the duties of his trying 
and responsible station.
   After the close of the War, he was elected first Sheriff of Mecklenburg 
County, and gave great satisfaction by the faithful and exemplary performance 
of the duties of that office. He was afterwards, for a number of years, a 
prominent member of the General Assembly from the same County. About the year 
1787, he was married to the second daughter of MAJ. JOHN DAVIDSON. By this 
marriage he had 12 children, seven of whom have survived him. Not long after 
his marriage, he removed to Lincoln County and engaged in the manufacture  of 
Iron, and for more than 40 years before his death, conducted a large 
establishment with great energy and prudence.
   In the year 1814, when the war with the Creek Indians was raging with 
violence, and GENERALS JACKSON, COFFEE and CARROLL, were repelling with signal 
bravery, their ruthless aggressions, North Carolina determined to send 1000 
men to aid the volunteers from Tennessee and Georgia in the confllict with 
those savages. GEN. GRAHAM'S renown as an officer, and his worth as a man, 
commended him as leader of the troops from this State. He received the 
commission of General, and was strongly solicited by the Governor of the State 
to accept the appointment. Although the circumstances of his family rendered 
his absence one of great loss and self-denial, he promptly obeyed the call of 
his country and marched at the head of a fine Regiment of Volunteers to the 
scene to the conflict. They arrived about the time the last stroke of 
punishment was inflicted upon the Creeks by GEN. JACKSON, at the battle of 
Horse Shoe; and in time to receive the submission of those they expected to 
conquer. Several hundred of the lower Creeks surrender to them. For many years 
after the last war, he was Major General of the 5th Division of the Militia of 
North Carolina.
   By the life of temperance and regular exercise, with the blessing of God, 
he enjoyed remarkable health and vigor of constitution. On the 13th of 
October, 1836, he made the following minute in his Day Book, "This day I am 77 
years of age and in good health, Dei Gratis."
   As the disease which terminated his life was apoplexy, its paralyzing 
stroke was sudden and unexpected. He rode from Lincolnton on the 10th of 
November, and on the evening of the 12th, closed his eyes upon the cares and 
trials of a long and useful life."

File contributed for use in USGenWeb Archives by:Carolyn Shank December 22, 2007, 5:28 pm

American Heritage Magazine, April 1956, Volume 7, Issue 3
At Cowpens, Dan Morgan showed how militia can be used. The formula worked in three later fights.


At Cowpens, Dan Morgan showed how militia can be used. The formula worked in three later fights.

On a January morning in 1781 a battle was fought in the South Carolina backwoods which became the tactical show piece of the American Revolution. It set a pattern not only for two other decisive actions of that war but also for a hard-fought engagement of the War of 1812.

This was the Battle of Cowpens, an American victory resulting in the destruction of Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton’s materially superior British force.

The American commander, Brigadier General Daniel Morgan, was a self-educated frontiersman. Well versed in the craft and guile of Indian fighting, he baited a psychological trap which his opponent entered unsuspectingly. Fifty minutes later the small British army had lost nine-tenths of its numbers in killed, wounded and prisoners.

The war had reached a stalemate in the North. Savannah and Charleston had fallen to the invaders, and in the summer of 1780 the only American army in the South ceased to exist when Lord Cornwallis defeated Major General Horatio Gates in the Battle of Camden.

Fugitives from that disaster were combined with southern militia and a few hundred Continentals, or American regulars, to form a new army of about 2,400 men under Major General Nathanael Greene. At the outset Greene could hardly hope to fight Cornwallis and his 4,000 redcoats for control of South Carolina. The most Greene could do was to harass the enemy’s Hanks, attack outposts, cut off detachments, and nourish the guerrilla operations of such border captains as Marion, Sumter and Pickens.

The great object was to survive. And since mobility meant more to Greene than mass, he did not shrink from the unorthodox strategy of dividing his force in the face of a stronger enemy. After all, a small army could run faster than a large one. He detached Morgan with about 600 men to prey upon British outposts in western South Carolina. Greene advanced with his remaining troops to the north-central part of the state, where he could support American guerrilla leaders.

Cornwallis saw that he had no opportunity for a classic campaign on “interior lines”—beating a divided enemy by overwhelming each force in turn with superior numbers. Morgan and Greene were 140 miles apart, and the British general reluctantly split his own army by sending Tartelon in pursuit of Morgan while he himself prepared to move against Greene.

Tarleton’s force numbered slightly more than 1,000 British regulars and American loyalists of equal merit. The stocky little Oxford graduate had made his name a legend of terror in the South. After surprising an American militia column on the South Carolina frontier, the victors gave “Tarleton’s quarter” with their sabers to those trying to surrender.

Dan Morgan also had a reputation to uphold. Commanding the famous regiment of riflemen in the early years of the Revolution, he was man enough at the age of forty to discipline those turbulent frontier characters with his own two fists. But now he commanded scared rustics instead of the tough riflemen of Saratoga.

On January 16, 1781, Morgan had reached the northwest corner of South Carolina when his scouts informed him that Tarleton was within a day’s march and pursuing at his usual hell-for-leather pace. Recent reinforcements had given the rebels nearly an equality in numbers, but the newcomers consisted of militiamen with little or no training. If Morgan continued to retreat, they would desert at every opportunity. And if he fought Tarleton, they would run. Morgan decided to fight.

Morgan impressed his officers as being confident to the point of recklessness in his choice of a battlefield. Other American generals had placed militiamen in positions where their fortitude would not be given too severe a test—in the second or third lines, or in some part of the field defended by natural obstacles. Above all, it was considered essential to keep open a line of retreat for the inevitable moment when the recruits would throw away their muskets and sprint to the rear.

Contrary to precedent, Morgan decided to make a stand in a comparatively level clearing, known as the Cowpens because it had once been a pasture for backwoods cattle. There were no natural obstacles to defend either front or flanks from the charge of Tarleton’s dragoons. And the unfordable Broad River in the rear cut off all retreat.

Further shocks awaited Morgan’s officers when he drew up his line of battle at dawn on the seventeenth, after the men had eaten a good breakfast around the campfires. The most undependable American troops made up the first line. And since it was certain that they would run, Morgan created a virtue out of a necessity by giving them permission to retire after firing three times.

“Three shots, boys, and you are free!” he exhorted, riding up and down the line. But he insisted that they make an orderly withdrawal around the American left and halt out of range of enemy musket balls.

The second line, 150 yards behind the first, consisted of Continentals and reliable Virginia militia veterans. Drawn up along a slight rise, they had orders to hold their ground at any cost after the retirement of the first line.

Farther to the rear was another low ridge, just high enough to offer shelter from the British fire. On the reverse slope, in the left rear, Morgan placed his dragoons, many of whom were infantry recently mounted on country nags.

Ahead of the (list line he stationed some riflemen as a thin screen of skirmishers. Alter picking off as many foemen as possible, they were to fall back into the ranks of the militia and set an example ol steady firing.

As Morgan had anticipated, his opponent found the park-like clearing an ideal battlefield. In past operations against rebel militia Tarleton never deemed it necessary to order any variation from a plain, unvarnished frontal assault. If the mere gleam of oncoming bayonets and sabers did not unnerve these novices, a whiff of musketry usually sufficed to sweep them from the field.

Tarleton’s first move, while deploying, was to order dragoons forward against the American marksmen of the skirmish line. They were stopped by a crackle of rifle fire which emptied about fifteen saddles before the skirmishers fell back into the ranks of the first line.

Two of the British three-pounders known as “grasshoppers” began to send cannon balls ricocheting through the rebel ranks. The militiamen stood firm in spite of the screams of maimed comrades, and their ordeal was cut short by Tarleton’s impetuosity. Without waiting for the artillery to fire again, he ordered the whole battle line forward with perfect confidence as to the result.

The British had approached within’a hundred yards before their ranks were thinned by the first ragged American volley. Dingy powder smoke blotted them from sight as the militiamen reloaded with a frantic clatter of iron ramrods and firing pans. This was a tense moment for recruits who could imagine that the unseen foe was about to rip through the wall of powder smoke with bayonets.

It is to the credit of the militiamen that most of them fired three shots before retiring in haste. The first line might have stuck it out longer if the men had realized that their fire had stopped the British infantry with heavy losses. As the militiamen pounded around the American left toward the low ridge in the rear, the dragoons of the British right galloped out in pursuit. They were met by a surprise charge of the American dragoons and hurled back alter a brief melee.

Behind the ridge the militiamen scarcely had time for a sigh of relief before Dan Morgan took them in hand. Alternately praising and scolding, he ordered them to form into column and reload. Probably no other American general of the war was as well equipped to understand these scared recruits. Morgan knew that it was unjust as well as futile to condemn untrained rustics as poltroons when they ran from European regulars. They were not lacking in pride, and on this winter morning in 1781 he staked everything on an appeal to them for another effort. The militiamen did not hesitate when Dan Morgan ordered the column around the ridge at a quickstep and back into the fight.

Taking a shorter way, the paternalistic commander returned to the battlefield just in time to find the Continentals giving ground. Tarleton had thrown in his last fresh troops, the Highlanders of the 71st, in an attempt to overlap the right of the American second line and roll it up.

It is axiomatic that battles are won by reserves. The outcome of Cowpens was settled when the militiamen of the first line came back to score a devastating surprise. Rounding the ridge on the American right, they completed nearly a full circuit of the field. And they struck the British left rear just as the American dragoons closed in on the right alter routing Tarleton’s horsemen.

That was it. In a moment the field presented the strange spectacle o( British regulars surrendering wholesale to despised militiamen who yelled “Tarleton’s quarter.” They would doubtless have paid oft old scores if Morgan and his officers had not intervened. As it was, the British had 100 killed, including 39 officers, and 229 wounded. Nearly 600 unhurt prisoners were disarmed by rebels whose casualties amounted to twelve killed and sixty wounded. Tarleton and a handful of redcoats escaped as scattered fugitives, leaving behind their cannon, small arms, colors, and baggage.

Morgan had no time to accept congratulations. Winning the battle was only halt of his responsibility, since it remained to save the prisoners and spoils from recapture by the main British force. Cornwallis, upon learning of the disaster, reacted just as Morgan had anticipated. He demanded that his army strip down to essentials for the chase to head oil Morgan. Even the casks of rum were emptied out on the ground before the mournful gaze of the redcoats.

Despite such heroic sacrifices, the British lost the rate by a margin so narrow as to cause Morgan sleepless nights. It was his last campaign in the Revolution, for arthritis compelled his retirement shortly after handing over his command to Greene.

It was Greene’s purpose to play a grim game of strategic tag by keeping just a march or two ahead of Cornwallis and drawing him ever farther from his bases of sea-borne supplies. Thus the British detachments and outposts in the rear would be left a prey to American guerrilla bands.

Greene had resolved not to accept battle unless he held a great advantage, and he led his opponent a chase all the way to the Virginia border.

On the return trip, with Cornwallis still doggedly pursuing. Greene received large militia reinforcements in the vicinity of Guilford Courthouse. He decided to fight. With 4,400 troops, he had a temporary numerical advantage of two-to-one, but fewer than 700 of the Americans had ever been in battle. Grccnc trusted in the Cowpens plan to overcome this handicap, and on the morning of March 15,1781, he drew up his three lines in the clearing.

The most undependable novices were placed in the first line behind a rail fence, so that the enemy would have to cross 500 yards of open ground to reach them. Greene’s second line, made up of somewhat more reliable militiamen, was goo yards to the rear. About a quarter of a mile farther back, the third line consisted of Continentals. Picked riflemen had been posted in the woods on both sides of the clearing for the purpose of enfilade fire.

Unfortunately, a departure from precedent may have cost him the victory. The distances of Cowpens had been reassuring, but at Guilford nearly half a mile separated the front-line militiamen from the haven of the third line. In their haste to withdraw, most of them fired at ranges too long for effect before scattering in a wild flight which did not end until the majority were miles away. This collapse unnerved the men of the second line, though at least they did fire two respectable volleys before the rout of one wing led to the retreat of the other.

The numerical advantage now passed to Cornwallis as he bore down on the American third line. Although a new Maryland regiment broke, the rest of the Continentals proved a match for the Guards. Cornwallis was in danger of losing the day when he resorted to the desperate expedient of firing grapeshot into a melee and cutting down some of his own Guards as the price of driving the rebels back.

Greene could probably have retained the field by throwing in a regiment he held in reserve. But with his usual prudence he used these fresh troops to cover a general withdrawal, and the redcoats were too crippled by casualties to pursue. Of the approximately 2,000 British who took part, 93 were killed and 439 wounded, including losses of the Guards which amounted to nearly fifty per cent. Greene’s casualties were 78 killed and 183 wounded, though hundreds of the militia had deserted.

Greene incurred two more tactical reverses during the summer of 1781, but he continued to hold the upper hand in strategic respects with his marches and countermarches. His dream of another Cowpens came very near to realization, moreover, in the Battle of Eutaw Springs. Greene had about 2,500 men early in September when he encountered Colonel Alexander Stewart’s nearly equal force on the main British supply route about seventy miles northwest of Charleston. This time the rebel militia of the front line fired at least ten shots before falling back without panic. Greene’s victory seemed assured as the second line of Continentals charged with the bayonet while the dragoons hit the British flank.

Success was the undoing of half-starved troops who broke ranks to plunder stores of rum and rations after overrunning the enemy’s camp. Their disorder gave Stewart the opportunity for a counterstroke which drove them from the field with losses of 522 killed, wounded, and missing. But he suffered 866 casualties of his own, and after leaving scores of wounded to American care, he retreated to Charleston.

This was the last battle in the South for the invaders, who evacuated the interior and withdrew to the protection of their cannon and warships at Charleston and Savannah. Thus the Cowpens formula, by accounting in eight months for the destruction of one small army and the crippling of two others, must be reckoned among the decisive factors in evicting the British from the Carolinas.

Dan Morgan was in his grave, and so was Nathanael Greene, when the pattern battle had a reincarnation after an interlude of 32 years. It was revived in the spring of 1813 by Jacob Brown, another ex-Quaker who loved war. And in half an hour the 38-year-old militia brigadier won a victory which snatched him from obscurity to nation-wide notice.

Brown would have thought anyone mad to suggest such a possibility on the May morning when he descried an enemy squadron anchoring off Sackett’s Harbor, the American naval base at the eastern end of Lake Ontario. The British, he realized, were about to launch an amphibious assault; and he had the responsibility of defense with a force too small to win and too large to be sacrificed.

For that matter, his own professional attainments were not impressive. He had been commissioned a militia general because he was a New York landed proprietor, not because he had demonstrated any grasp of tactics. But if he had never commanded in a battle, at least the former schoolmaster had read a good many books about battle. And somewhere along the way he had been fascinated by the saga of Cowpens.

The American squadron was at the other end of the lake, attacking Fort George, a British post of second-rate strategic value at the mouth of the Niagara River. Brown had been left with about 500 regulars, including a few marines and bluejackets, and nearly the same number of local militiamen.

At dawn on May 29 Sir George Prevost’s 800 regulars landed on wooded Horse Island, within easy wading distance of the mainland. Brown’s 500 militiamen were posted behind natural cover along the beach. He asked only that they fire while the redcoats were wading through the shallows. Then they were free to make for the nearby woods, where Brown hoped to rally them later as his mobile reserve.

The small harbor was formed by Navy Point, a tongue of land projecting from the mainland into Black River Bay. At the base of the peninsula, just north of the village and about half a mile from the beach, were the navy yard, the blockhouse named Fort Tompkins, the log barracks, and the parade ground. Two American vessels were potential enemy prizes—a captured 10-gun brig, and a nearly completed 28-gun ship designed to be the dreadnaught of the lake.

Brown’s militiamen made it hot for the redcoats before scattering. The grenadiers of the 104th, according to the British account, waded ashore under “so heavy and galling a fire from a numerous but almost invisible foe, as to render it impossible for the artillery to come up.”

While the militiamen found a refuge in the second-growth woods, Prevost’s troops re-formed on the beach. Advancing with a stately tread under fire from Fort Tompkins, the scarlet column deployed for battle against the 500 American regulars drawn up on the parade ground as the second line of defense. There a memorable fight ensued as the opposing lines traded volley after volley without giving an inch.

Both forces were hidden by gunpowder smoke when a nervous American naval officer concluded prematurely that the battle was lost. Setting fire to the navy yard and the two ships to cheat the enemy of spoils, he precipitated one of the most melodramatic scenes in the nation’s military annals. For Brown’s regulars continued to stand their ground with the British fire in their faces and the flames of the blazing warehouses at their backs.

Both casualty-ridden lines were near the breaking point when Prevost tried for victory with an attack on the American left flank. By this time Brown had managed to rally about a hundred militiamen—farmers and villagers led by the local butcher—after convincing them that it was safe to share in the glory already won by the regulars. They bore down with awkward zest on the British right flank just as the redcoats were carrying out their own flanking movement; at this critical stage it took only a threat by fresh forces to decide the issue, and the British broke and ran.

The redcoats were allowed to withdraw to Horse Island and row away in their longboats without any interference. Brown did not trust his mobile reserve for a pursuit. Besides, all hands were needed as firemen; and the two ships were saved, though the navy yard burned to the ground as the enemy sailed back to Kingston.

Brown was rewarded for his revival of the Cowpens tactics by an appointment as brigadier in the regular army. Early in 1814 he put up a second star after relieving the incompetent James Wilkinson as commander on the northern front. Colonel Winfield Scott being made a brigadier soon afterwards, the two generals trained the little American army which distinguished itself during the summer of 1814 in the battles of Chippewa and Lundy’s Lane. After the war Brown remained in the army and became commanding general from 1821 until his death in 1828.

Before long, of course, the Cowpens formula was outdated by improvements which multiplied the range of cannon and small arms. But after figuring in four decisive actions, the old battle piece had passed into honorable retirement with a record unique in American military history.

Lynn Montross has written several books on the American Revolution, including The Reluctant Rebels (1950) and Rag, Tag and Bobtail (1951), the story of the Continental Army.


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