History, Holidays and Observances on January 17: The Battle of Cowpens
Holidays & Observances: Feast of Anthony the Great
Major Events: The Battle of Cowpens
Notable Events: Menorca, St. Marcellus’ flood, Avignon Popes, Huguenots, Mahdist War, Monte Cassino, Raoul Wallenberg, Palomares Incident,
Born: Antonio del Pollaiolo, Benjamin Franklin, Anne Brontë, Al Capone, Betty White, James Earl Jones, Muhammad Ali,
Died: Theodosius I
Holidays and Observances on 17 January
Feast of Anthony the Great, the Father of Monasticism who lived 105 years, from 251 A.D. to 356 A.D. Anthony was the first Christian monk who spent his life in the wilderness of Egypt’s deserts and who became well-known throughout the Christian world, largely because of the near contemporaneous biography of Anthony’s life written by Athanasius of Alexandria. Anthony was reputed to have endured supernatural temptations during his life in the desert, a popular theme of medieval art and literature regarding Anthony. Anthony is the patron Saint of those suffering skin diseases. Throughout history, many such afflictions were referred to as St. Anthony’s fire.
Major Events on 17 January
1781 – American Revolutionary War: Battle of Cowpens:
This small battle was the turning point of the American Revolution in the South. In it, the best battlefield tactician America produced, the backwoodsman Daniel Morgan, decisively and utterly defeated the most arrogant, bloody and successful field grade officer in the British Army, Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton. The Battle of Cowpens set in motion the chain of events that led directly to the decisive siege at Yorktown and the British decision to give up on the war.
The “Cowpen’s Flag” was reputed to have been carried by the Maryland Line into battle on this day in 1781.
While the American Revolutionary War started in the North, it ended in the South. By 1779, virtually all British offensive efforts were devoted to the Southern Campaign. The British plan was to capture Charleston, to pacify South Carolina and place it in control of Loyalists, and then march into North Carolina and Virginia to repeat the same there.
A small British force had succeeded in capturing Savannah, GA on 29 Dec. 1778. That allowed Britain’s overall commander of forces in North America, Sir Henry Clinton, to safely land a significant invasion force south of Charleston. On 12 May 1779, after a siege lasting over a month, the city of Charleston surrendered to the British, after which Gen. Clinton returned to New York, leaving the Southern Campaign in the operational control of Lord Charles Cornwallis.
The Continental Congress responded by sending a second Continental Army south under the command of Maj. Gen. Horatio Gates, the “hero of Saratoga.” That ended in disaster for the Americans at the Battle of Camden on 16 Aug. 1780, when Horatio Gates fled the field and his army was vanquished.
Cornwallis expected to be able to pacify South Carolina quickly, then begin doing the same in North Carolina. He immediately set up a series of Loyalist forts in the backcountry, running from Camden, South Carolina to Augusta, Georgia. He did not count on four things that severely impacted his plan.
The first came in the form of the father of modern guerrilla war, Francis Marion, and others like him in SC who harassed and challenged the British and their loyalist allies at every step.
Second was that Britain’s invasion had unleashed a civil war in the South fought in the back country between neighbors who spoke the language of the American Revolution but who were pursuing personal animosities. Cornwallis was mystified at how to pacify the state when the loyalists in the state were intent not on pacification, but on settling scores.
Third came in the form of disease. South Carolina was rife with malaria, yellow fever and other tropical diseases that severely impacted the British forces, including Lord Cornwallis and Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton. Cornwallis dearly wanted out of the cauldron of deadly disease that was low country South Carolina. As did Sir Henry Clinton, which is why he turned over the Southern Campaign to Cornwallis and returned to New York in the first place.
Fourth, and last, were enraged Scots-Irish colonists who had settled in and around Tennessee, only to be attacked by the Cherokee at the behest of the British and then threatened by Britain itself. The “Overmountain Men” came into SC, and on Oct. 7, 1780, destroyed 20% of Britain’s operational forces (as opposed to the forces needed to occupy SC) at the Battle at King’s Mountain. Afterwards, most of the Overmountain Men went back home to defend their homesteads against the Cherokee.
By Dec. 1780, Cornwallis was enraged and frustrated, unsure of what strategy to pursue. Then another Continental Army, this under the command of Maj Gen. Nathanael Greene, marched into Charlotte, NC. Gen. Greene stayed in Charlotte, keeping the main body of his army in place, while detaching a light force under Brigadier Gen. Daniel Morgan and sending him off to threaten Britain’s back country forts.
Cornwallis took the bait. He positioned his main army between Greene and Charleston, then he sent Banastre Tarleton, commanding the British Legion and augmented with Cornwallis’s light infantry units, to track down and destroy Morgan.
Morgan was the iconic charismatic, hard drinking, hard fighting man of the backwoods in early America. He had no formal education and what little he knew of reading and writing he had learned from his much younger wife. But he was a very intelligent man and a natural leader. He had a hatred of the British that came from when he was in the French and Indian War. He had punched a British officer, and for that, he was given 500 lashes. It should have killed him, but he survived, just as he survived being shot in the face and countless brawls.
At the start of the Revolution, the backwoodsmen of Virginia put together a regiment of long riflemen – proto-snipers – and voted Morgan to lead them as their Colonel. Morgan did so successfully, including playing a key role in the American victory at the Battles of Saratoga. Morgan, who was by 1779 suffering from crippling sciatica, retired after he was passed over for promotion and returned home to Virginia. He came out of retirement when, on his march south, Gen. Greene stopped in at his house and, with orders promoting Morgan to Brigadier General and asked Morgan to rejoin the army.
When Gen Greene dispatched Morgan to threaten the backcountry forts, he gave Morgan a force consisting of 400+ Continentals, several long riflemen, an 82 man cavalry unit, and about 500 southern militia soldiers.
There was no man in the British Army more hated or feared by the Americans than Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton. Lord Cornwallis considered Tarleton his finest unit commander.
Tarleton was the polar opposite of Morgan in every possible way but for skill as a soldier. Tarleton was young, urbane, a womanizer and Oxford educated. He had purchased a commission as a cavalry officer at the start of the Revolution and, in America, proven himself a gifted cavalry commander. By 1777, he was allowed to raise and train his own “legion” of soldiers in America consisting of 250 cavalry, 200 infantry, and light artillery pieces. Tarleton’s British Legion proved a devastatingly effective force throughout much of the war.
Cornwallis brought Tarleton to South Carolina as part of his command and made of Tarleton his right hand man. It was Tarleton’s charge at Camden that destroyed Gen. Gates’s Continental Army, and it was Tarleton who Cornwallis regularly dispatched to engage the guerrilla forces that formed in S.C.
Tarleton’s most infamous exploit had come at the Battle of Waxhaws. After Charleston had fallen, Cornwallis dispatched Tarleton to intercept a group of Continental soldiers known to be marching towards SC. Tarleton met them at Waxhaws, today near Beaufort, SC. His legion massacred the Americans, slaying many that had been attempting to surrender.
Tarleton had little respect for the American forces, and no respect at all for the American militia forces that had regularly broken and run in the face of his cavalry or bayonet charges. Tarleton’s hallmark was pure aggression. It had served him well until 1781.
Cornwallis augmented Tarleton’s British Legion with his light infantry forces of about 600 men.
Some notes on the American forces –
Long Rifleman –
These were the proto-snipers. An experienced soldier firing a long rifle had an effective range of 300 yards. But he was limited by two things. One, the long rifle couldn’t mount a bayonet, so it was useless in hand to hand combat against bayonets. Two, the rate of fire from a long rifle was slow. It took 30 to 45 seconds to reload a long rifle. By comparison, it took 10 to 15 seconds to load a musket.
Continental Soldiers –
These were the professional soldiers of the United States serving on long term enlistments. They were trained to fight as a unit and, by 1781, the Continentals were ever bit the equal of the British soldiers, then the finest military in the world. Morgan had 400+ Continentals.
These were local units that came together as needed, often with little training as a unit. Some units performed well in battle, but all too often, militia units were liable to break and run during combat, especially against a bayonet charge or a cavalry charge. These men made up a little over half of Morgan’s army. Until Cowpens, no one had figured out how to successfully exploit their militia units.
A note on British Infantry Tactics –
Britain’s smooth bore Brown Bess muskets were notoriously inaccurate at any appreciable distance. Accordingly, the British Army’s main tactic was to maneuver sufficiently close to the enemy, then begin a bayonet charge. It had proven devastatingly effective against American militia forces and against the Continental Army, at least until the winter of 1777 when, at Valley Forge, Baron von Steuben trained the Continental Army both to defend against such tactics and to conduct their own bayonet charges as a cohesive unit.
The Battlefield –
Cowpens was the battlefield chosen by Morgan. It was then and still is a mile long cow pasture mostly devoid of trees with a slight undulation and grade. And It was a bowling alley, with both sides of the field heavily wooded and swampy, thus limiting the maneuver of Tarleton’s cavalry forces which outnumbered Morgan’s cavalry two to one. A river ran behind Morgan’s position, protecting his rear flank.
Morgan put his men in three ranks. To the very front were his line of long riflemen, whom Morgan told to start firing as soon as the British came in range. Their priority for targeting was always enemy officers first, then cavalry.
About 150 meters behind the skirmish line was Morgan’s second rank consisting of all of his militia soldiers. He didn’t expect them to stand against Tarleton’s Legion. To the contrary, he was counting on them running. He wanted Tarleton to see exactly what he, Tarleton, expected to see – the Americans running away, foxes to be hunted by Tarleton’s legion in full chase. Morgan told the militia soldiers to stand until they had fire two volleys, then to retreat behind the third rank of soldiers and reform.
200 meters behind them was the third rank of soldiers, the professional soldiers, the Continentals. Morgan planned to draw the British into a headlong charge against the militia, only to be met by the shot and bayonet of the Continentals.
In the rear, Morgan kept his cavalry as a reserve force.
On 16 January 1781, after several weeks of leading Tarleton on a merry chase through back country SC, Morgan arrived at Hannah’s Cowpens. He let his men rest the night and had them up and in position well before dawn on the morning of the 17th. Tarleton, advised of Morgan’s position, marched his men through the night.
Taleton’s men emerged from the woods at the far end of Cowpens a few minutes before sunrise. Tarleton, seeing Morgan’s back against a river, believed he had Morgan trapped and did not take time to study the battlefield or Morgan’s dispositions. Tarleton immediately sent his cavalry to drive away the skirmish line. The long riflemen fired, killing fifteen of the cavalry before falling back.
Tarleton immediately formed his infantry and set them advancing on the second line of the militia. The militia did as Morgan asked, holding their line while firing off two shots as the British advanced. Then they broke and ran.
Tarleton couldn’t resist the trap. He sent his infantry charging headlong after the retreating militia.
There is an old saying that no plan in war survives the first shot. In this case, the Continental soldiers on the far right flank of the line prepared to meet the charging British. But they misheard a command to wheel slightly to the right and instead began to retreat in formation. Morgan raced to the men, stopping them and turning them in the knick of time. Aiming at the charging British, the Continentals fired their first volley into the British infantry at about twenty yards.
The carnage was horrendous.
Then the Continentals, with fixed bayonets, began their own charge. At the same time, Morgan sent the militia now reformed, out from behind the Continental line to envelop the right flank of the British infantry while, on the other side of the line, Morgan sent his cavalry to do the same.
The shock of the sudden charge, coupled with the reappearance of the American militiamen on the left flank where Tarleton’s exhausted men expected to see their own cavalry, proved too much for the British. Nearly half of the British and Loyalist infantrymen fell to the ground whether they were wounded or not. Their will to fight was gone. . . . Caught in a clever double envelopment that has been compared with the Battle of Cannae in ancient times, many of the British surrendered.
The victory was complete. At a cost of 25 men killed and 125 wounded, Morgan’s army had killed 110 British, wounded 229, and captured 629, that being almost the entirety of Cornwallis’s light infantry forces. The only forces to escape were Tarleton himself and most of his cavalry, though William Washington, the commander of Morgan’s cavalry, caught up with Banastre Tarleton before Tarleton fled the field. Their engagement was memorialized in the 1845 painting by William Ranney, The Battle of Cowpens, at the top of this post.
On a final note, none of the British expected quarter after the battle – not after Waxhaws. But Morgan and his junior commanders restrained their soldiers from revenging Waxhaws.
Legacy of the Battle.
Lord Cornwallis became monomaniacal after the loss, determined to bring Greene’s Army to heel in a single great battle. Ignoring orders, Cornwallis stripped his army of all but the barest essentials and chased after Greene in what became known as the Race to the Dan. When Greene finally let Cornwallis catch him at Guilford Courthouse, Greene punished Cornwallis in what was, for the British, a Pyrrhic victory. It was followed not all that long after by Cornwallis’s surrender of his army to Washington at Yorktown.
Notable Events on 17 January
1287 – King Alfonso III of Aragon reconquers the island of Menorca from the Moorish Muslim invaders. The Muslim commander, seeing his forces defeated, signed the Treaty of San Agayz, turning the island over to Alfonso in return for safe passage off of the Island.
1362 – Saint Marcellus’ flood, driven by a powerful cyclone occurring in the North Sea at a new moon high tide, kills at least 25,000 people, from England and Scotland to Germany, on the shores of the North Sea.
1377 – Pope Gregory XI reached Rome, after deciding to move the Papacy back to Rome from Avignon. It ended the nearly 70 year period in which the papacy resided in Avignon, France. It was a tumultuous period that would soon become even moreso when Gregory’s death brought about the Western Schism.
1562 – The regent of France, Catherine de’ Medici, issued the Edict of Saint-Germain on this day, declaring that the Protestant Huguenots would be shown complete tolerance in France. It was an unsuccessful effort to forestall the Religious Wars in France between the Catholics and the Huguenots that would last until 1598 and claim the lives of three million people.
1885 – Mahdist War: A small British force of 1,400 soldiers was ambushed by a Dervish army ten times their number at the Battle of Abu Klea in the Sudan. The British won the battle, killing approximately 1,000 of the enemy in 15 minutes of fighting, but the engagement so delayed the British force that they did not arrive in time to prevent the fall of Khartoum to a separate Dervish army. That loss forced the withdraw of Britain from the Sudan and led to the fall of the Gladstone government.
1893 – Lorrin A. Thurston, along with the Citizens’ Committee of Public Safety, led the Overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii and the government of Queen Liliʻuokalani. The running joke in Hawaii is that the evangelicals came to Hawaii to do good, they ended up doing very good.
1917 – Concerned that Germany might annex Denmark during WWI and that it would mean that Germany gained Denmark’s possessions in the Caribbean, the United States negotiated with Denmark to purchase their Caribbean holdings. On this day, the U.S. paid Denmark $25 million for the Virgin Islands.
1929 – Popeye the Sailor Man, a cartoon character created by E. C. Segar, first appears in the Thimble Theatre comic strip.
1944 – Allied forces under the General Sir Harold Alexander launch the first of four assaults on Monte Cassino with the intention of breaking through the Winter Line and seizing Rome. It was a meat grinder that would ultimately take four months and cost 105,000 Allied casualties.
1945 – Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, responsible for saving tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews (some of whom were friends of Ms. BWR and her parents). On this date, the Soviets took Wallenberg into custody, never to be seen again. Why the Soviets arrested Wallenberg and probably executed him is still a mystery.
1950 – The Great Brink’s Robbery: In a meticulously planned and executed robbery, eleven thieves steal more than $2 million from an armored car company’s offices in Boston. They agreed among themselves not to distribute the money until after the statute of limitations ran out. That fell apart when some were arrested on other charges and needed money to hire lawyers. Ultimately, one of the eleven decided to put a hit on a problematic member. He survived and sang like a diva. Five days shy of the statute of limitations in 1956, the FBI filed charges and began to round up the entire gang.
1961 – U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower delivered a televised farewell address to the nation three days before leaving office, in which he warned against the accumulation of power by the “military–industrial complex” as well as the dangers of massive spending, especially deficit spending. He got the last bit right, but it was not the military industrial complex that has proven problematic, it’s the green industrial complex that threatens western civilization.
1966 – Palomares Incident: On this date, a U.S. B-52 bomber collided with a KC-135 Stratotanker over Spain, killing seven airmen. That was bad, but far far worse was that the B-52 dropped hydrogen bombs, each with a 70 kiloton yield. Three fell near the town of Palomares in Spain and another one fell into the sea. The non-nuclear explosives in two of the weapons detonated upon impact with the ground, resulting in the contamination of a 0.77-square-mile area by plutonium. The fourth, which fell into the Mediterranean Sea, was recovered intact after a 2 1⁄2-month-long search.
1991 – Gulf War: Operation Desert Storm began early in the morning as aircraft strike positions across Iraq, it is also the first major combat sortie for the F-117. LCDR Scott Speicher’s F/A-18C Hornet from VFA-8 is shot down by a Mig-25 and is the first American casualty of the War. Iraq fired eight Scud missiles into Israel, trying unsuccessfully to provoke Israel to retaliate.
1998 – Matt Drudge breaks the story of the Bill Clinton–Monica Lewinsky affair on his Drudge Report website. Stand up comics everywhere rejoice that they now have a never-ending source of jokes.
Born on 17 January
1429 – Antonio del Pollaiolo, an Italian artist, sculptor and goldsmith during the Renaissance.
Pllaiolo is credited with adding the suckling figures of Romulus and Remus to the famous statute depicting the myth of Rome’s founding, La Lupa Capitolina
1706 – Benjamin Franklin, one of the few indispensable men at our Founding. Having had two years of formal grade school education, he was a self-educated polymath. Over his lifetime, he became the world’s first international celebrity for his inventions and his wit. To our nation, he left a legacy of civic engagement. And to our Founding, he played a crucial role as ambassador to France during the Revolution, and he laid his imprimatur on the drafting and then the passage of our Constitution.
1820 – Anne Brontë, the youngest of the three literary stars that were the Bronte sister. Anne published several poems with her sisters and two novels, the second of which is most well known, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Anne’s life was cut short by tuberculosis at age 29.
1852 – T. Alexander Harrison, an American painter who spent most of his life in France and whose favorite subjects were marine and ocean shores.
1899 – Al Capone, the most famous American gangster of Chicago who wasn’t a politician.
1922 – Betty White, an actress whose career, the longest of any actress on stage or screen, has spanned eight decades. And she is still going strong at 97. Her most recent gig was in 2019, as a vocal artist in Toy Story 4. Legend has it that she attributes her longevity to drinking the same brand of scotch and smoking the same type of cigars as Keith Richards, but that might be just internet rumor.
1931 – James Earl Jones, a man who has ridden his powerful basso profundo voice, perhaps the most immediately recognizable voice in Hollywood, to stardom. He is perhaps most well known today for his voice roles as Darth Vader in the Star Wars film series and as Mufasa in Disney’s The Lion King,
1942 – Muhammad Ali, one of the great American heavyweight boxers of all time, and one of the greatest self-promoters of all time. Like so many American blacks since the 1960’s, he bought into the amazing canard that Christianity was part and parcel of black slavery, and the even greater canard that Islam was not. For all that he did for the sport of boxing and the advancement of black and mulatto Americans, his lasting legacy may in fact be as a role model for blacks in America to adopt the incredibly toxic brand of Islam preached by Louis Farrakhan.
Died on 17 January
395 – Theodosius I, Roman emperor who, as a practical matter, made Nicene Christianity the state religion of the Roman Empire. He ruled Rome during the tumultuous period that marked the start of the Migration Period, the mass immigration of barbarian tribes into Roman lands that destroyed the Empire.