“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.