“Just hold up your heads boys, three fires and you are free! And then, when you return to your homes, how the old folks will bless you, and the girls will kiss you, for your gallant conduct.” – General Daniel Morgan
Yesterday, I stopped at Cowpens National Battlefield on my way home from Virginia to Alabama. I had driven by Cowpens (located off I-85 near Gaffney, South Carolina) over a dozen times over the years. I was determined this time to stop and check it out.
During my stay in the Old Dominion, I had the pleasure of seeing Yorktown, Bull Run, Appomattox, Chancellorsville, Fredericksburg and other famous American battlefields. Toward the end of summer, I really enjoyed watching the John Adams series with my OD roommates.
As a Southerner, I’ve always considered myself a Civil War fanatic. Lately, I have been nurturing an interest in Colonial America and the American Revolution which now seem more fascinating after visiting Jamestown and Yorktown.
Cowpens was a major battle in the Revolution. It was a turning point in the Southern theater of the War of American Secession. For years, the South had been a disaster zone for the American cause. Georgia and South Carolina had fallen under British occupation.
The Battle of Camden
The British shifted their operations to the South out of the belief the region was a loyalist stronghold and support for the Patriot cause was weaker than in New England. South Carolina and Georgia had been two of the more reluctant colonies to join the Revolution.
In many ways, the American Revolution in the South was more of a Civil War between Patriots and Tories. Every racialist in America has seen Mel Gibson’s The Patriot which is loosely based on Francis Marion, the “Swamp Fox,” and the American Revolution in South Carolina.
The British had not counted on the depth of the resistance they faced in the Southern backcountry or the guerrilla tactics that Marion and others would use to disrupt their operations there. In The Patriot, Gibson’s character “Benjamin Martin” is described as a veteran of the French and Indian War. His antagonist, Colonel William Tavington, is the British leader of the Green Dragoons.
The culminating battle of The Patriot is based on the Battle of Cowpens between General Daniel Morgan, a veteran of Saratoga, and Colonel Banastre Tarleton, who led a calvary unit under Cornwallis known as “Tarleton’s Raiders,” which enjoyed a brutal reputation in the South Carolina countryside.
The Battle of Cowpens
In real life, as with so many aspects of The Patriot, the battle didn’t actually turn out that way. Tarleton got away and later served as an elected member of the British Parliament for over twenty years. The size of the armies and the involvement of General Nathaniel Greene and Lord Cornwallis was taken from the Battle of Guilford Courthouse in North Carolina.
After arriving at Cowpens, I toured the Visitor Center and watched a short little video about General Daniel Morgan. Then I drove around the battlefield, walked across it a few times, and tried to imagine what it must have been like for the Continental Army soldiers and South Carolina militia who faced down the British and turned the tide of the war.
I found my mind returning to the John Adams series. While the Revolution was in full swing, Adams was dispatched to Paris to serve as a diplomat, and traveled to the Netherlands after his embarrassing performance in France. Succumbing to illness, Adams sat out the rest of the war, only to wake up one day to hear the news of the American victory at Yorktown.
Without Cowpens and Guilford Courthouse, there wouldn’t have been a Yorktown. The American Revolution was started in the North, but it was won in the South. Without men like Francis Marion and Daniel Morgan, John Adams could have ended his life hanged for treason, not unlike many of the men who signed their own death warrants at Philadelphia.
When John Adams was defending the British after the Boston Massacre, the Revolution was already in full swing in Massachusetts, in the hearts and minds of its citizens. The tea had already been thrown into Boston harbor before many of the Founding Fathers committed themselves to the American cause.
The role of mobs, partisans, insurgents, scoundrels, and soldiers in creating and winning the American Revolution has been overlooked. The history of the Revolution has been sanitized and rewritten as the embodiment of the highest abstract principles of the Enlightenment.
The raw emotional appeals to race, nation, religion, and revenge that incited so many ordinary Americans to rebel against their lawful government have been downplayed and ignored. Upon closer examination, the American Revolution at the grassroots level was a rebellion of the common people against King George III that swept up their social and intellectual betters in the tide of popular discontent.
What motivated the Americans who fought at Cowpens?
The same sentiments that have always motivated men to take up arms and revolt: defense of the patria, a desire to avenge the atrocities at Waxhaws, ambition, self-interest, fame, glory, a sense of religious and moral obligation, and a burning sense of grievance and injustice.
It took character to show up on battlefields like Camden and Cowpens and fight for your country. Sadly, the sacrifices of the Revolutionary generation are taken for granted by their more venal descendents. We are better at enjoying our freedom than preserving it for posterity.
Thanks, Hunter. It seems that history according to “historians” aint history…
Book suggestion: “A Devil of a Whipping: the Battle of Cowpens”, by Lawrence E. Babits. It’s kind of scholarly, but the author is out to explain just what, how, and why things happened as they did. It’s maybe a couple hundred pages long, a weekend well spent. I read it about eight years ago, so it may be out of print.
Interesting article, thank you. Just one small nit-pick – it’s cavalry, not calvary. I’ve noticed a lot of Americans pronounce it calvary, too. It’s kind of jarring – like nucular.
It has been many years since I read about Morgan and Cowpens, but my recollection indicates that there are other lessons relevant to our situation.
Morgan was dealing with a mixed force, including a number of barely-trained militia. According to my recollection, his success at Cowpens involved an intelligent use of these forces. He had them in the front line, risking the possibility that their inexperience and skittishness would de-stablize the Continental cause. He made a virtue out of this by promising the front line it was responsible only for a initial volley or so, and would then be permitted an orderly withdrawal.
This was done, so that those troops were available as relatively fresh reserves at the criitical moment of the battle.
The “lesson” is that recognizing our limitations does not mean sacrificing chances for victory.
Interesting article. I, too, visited some American Colonial place sites this summer, along with my wife & children. I was at Jamestown, and all the rest. We saw over and over again sites of Civil War import as we drove around Virginia, but for the ‘brood’ and my wife, we were seeing Colonial America this time around.
Your observations raise an issue, as does the Jacksonian Club thing. As an academic, theologian/pastor, my concerns are always about the ‘head knowledge’ thing. I distrust mere ‘gut instinct’ and find appalling the image of ‘white trash’ – the pale-skinned, gap-toothed, tattooed, flat-tooted, t-shirt wearing, monster truck rally sort of individual that is not an isolated individual for the South- we have here in the North as well! It has been something that has been a long time formulating in my mind, but I am willing to say it now, after six months of thinking about it.
Your statements about the War for Independence sound suspiciously like those of a marxist bent (Not that I am saying you are a marxist- hang on here, for a minute) in that you WISH to consider the War for Independence as a REVOLUTION- with all the anarchy, individualism, and factionalism that such a vision entails.
Yet I am also reading/learning that neither the Colonists, nor the Founding Father Aristocracy, considered themselves to be ‘revolutionaries,’ in the vein, and/or after the manner of the communist-leaning French Revolution, (capital ‘R’) which followed later. They (Americans) were fighting for their Rights as Englishman, and nothing more. If that meant that they would have to cut themselves off from a German Despot (King George III) then, so be it!
But I read that during the era of 1776, some 90% plus of the populace were both literate, and well-read in their Bibles. That is a far cry from a populace of ‘white trash’ that stop their education around an 8th-grade level, and only are conditioned to be consumerist drones in a passive hyper-capitalism, who get their news from the “jewsmedia.” How (truthfully) can ANYONE expect such a group of people to ‘throw off the usurper’ (the Obamanation) or the false prophet (Barry’s Jewish handlers), when we have these types of detrius on our national coattails, the likes of which used to fill Jerry Springer shows?
How, too, can we hope to rescue the vision of an overwhelmingly calvinist/reformed ecclesial consensus as we had during the decades before the ‘Revolution’ (the Second Great Awakening/Whitefield- who was far more calvinist than the Arminian Wesleys) when Dispensationalism (the Fallwell/Robertson/Hagee/Swaggart ‘Israel is God’s Chosen People’ heresy) holds such tight rein on the minds of most who consider themselves to be the heirs of this era under discussion?
So when you say, “The role of mobs, partisans, insurgents, scoundrels, and soldiers in creating and winning the American Revolution has been overlooked,” it sounds much more like France, the guillotine, and Robespierre, than it does Jefferson, Adams, or Washington.
I would welcome some comment.
Fr. John: with all due respect, the role of mobs and riots in creating and perpetuating the American Revolution is extremely well documented, and has been sanitized out of popular history. Colonial governments and officials who didn’t go along with the Revolution were intimidated and overthrown by well organized mobs who replaced them with Patriot governments. British government officials and prominent Tories were terrorized by mob violence. People the patriots didn’t like were tarred and feathered, and their property seized.
There is a reason why the British lost, and they ultimately lost before the first shots were fired in battle: because their support base amongst Tory loyalists were intimidated and driven from power. The British in the end could only rely on the ground they actually held with troops, because the hinterland had been cleansed of Tories – either killed, fled, or intimidated into silence.
I was watching something on C-Span a month or two ago by a historian who has a new book out about the ratification of the Declaration of Independence. The reason it was delayed for so long, until July 4th, was due to the holdouts in the Pennsylvania delegation, who didn’t want full independence from Britain. Yes the then government of Pennsylvania were Patriots and they supported resisting the British politically, but did not favor full independence.
What did John Adams, Samuel Adams, and the other radical Patriots do? Respect the wishes of the sovereign government of Pennsylvania, who, like them, were Patriots? Hell no! Adams and the rest formed an alliance with the Pennsylvania radicals outside of the then Pennsylvania government, and helped them overthrow the Pennsylvania Patriot government, and replaced it with a (hurriedly elected) new Pennsylvania Patriot government that was more radical and was in favor of independence.
Presto chango! Declaration of Independence signed a few days later, and the rest, as they say, is history. Funny how all that messy stuff gets dropped from the popular histories intended for the general Boobus Americanus reading audience. Real history is messy. It never goes down as neatly as writers of popular history would have you believe – the messy stuff doesn’t make for as good a story (not “morally uplifting” as they say).
Anyway, “Hunter”, funny you should mention Cowpens, I’ve been driving by it on my trips down south for years, and I finally visited it last March. I also visited King’s Mountain, another crucial battle, last March. You should visit: King’s Mountain is pretty close to Cowpens, off the same highway, right on the border between North and South Carolina. Militia came from as far away as Tennessee to fight, because Col. Ferguson had threatened them with destruction if they did not pledge loyalty to the King. Big mistake! Ferguson died with his boots on, though, unlike Tarleton.
Hunter, did you/are you coming through my neck, Charleston? I would take you to a helluva a dinner. I might even get a hottie, single drug rep to pay for it and entertain us (heh, heh).
Best Wishes, Mike
Fr. John: “How, too, can we hope to rescue the vision of an overwhelmingly Calvinist/reformed ecclesiastic consensus as we had during the decades before the ‘Revolution’ when Dispensationalism…”
By proceeding at the rate that the times dictate. Right now, slowly, and steeped in blood and soil. When things accelerate, disabusing people of their false props.
Fr. John: You’ve got a point. The colonial “rabble” were independent farmers, not video game devotees. We can’t expect the moderns to have the character that the colonists, men who took responsibility for themselves, did. Still, we are bearing far more provocation than our ancestors did. Even sheeple can be goaded into action, but the action may resemble the French Revolution more than our own.
I-85 runs through Spartanburg and Greenville. When I return to Virginia in January, I might pass through Charleston. Would love to meet up.
I’ve been reading a lot about the American Revolution lately. I will address some of the issues you raised in an upcoming review.
The American Revolution was oddly enough a “conservative revolution.” If that makes any sense to you. The colonists claimed throughout the conflict that they were fighting for the “rights of Englishmen” under the “British constitution.” Some even circulated the wild claim that the “true Anglo-Saxons” had escaped the yoke of “Norman tyranny” in Britain and emigrated to America.
At the same time, it is unmistakeably clear that the Revolution was fomented by ordinary people, not the upper crust of the colonies, and was a messy and bloody affair throughout. Before the Founding Fathers, there was the Patriot movement. Before the Patriot movement, there was the insurgency.
The insurgents were the ones who set the whole snowball rolling. In town after town, ordinary small farmers created extra-legal governing bodies and systematically purged the countryside of royal officials. They used Ku Klux Klan tactics to cow the Tories and expel the British.
It was the insurgents who fired the first shots at Lexington and forced the issue of submission or secession on the debating society in Philadelphia. Throughout the Revolution, Congress was forced to swim with the popular tide or risk losing its legitimacy.
Fr. John, You sound like all that is wrong with the South today with your racist, silly rant against the media and the present administration in the White House. The “Elites” have bought the Senate & the House. When they buy another Republican president, God help us all.
Hey Southern Lady! Did you know “racist” is a made up gibberish word, that is only used against whites in their own countries? The word did not exist at all before the 1930’s, its totally made up.
You may as well be calling him a “bleepopzeebob”. Anyone still using that word, looks pretty foolish in this day and age. Just saying!