American Hannibal, Jim Stempel

American Hannibal, Jim Stempel

The Extraordinary Account of Revolutionary War Hero Daniel Morgan at the Battle of Cowpens

The battle of Cowpens was a fairly minor affair by the standards of most European wars of the periods, involving around 3,000 men in total, but it had a major impact on the course of the war. In its aftermath Lord Cornwallis attempted to catch the victorious Americans, who were withdrawing to avoid being trapped by superior numbers, but failed. This gave the Americans time to gather reinforcements, and at Guilford Courthouse Cornwallis was badly outnumbered. Although he achieved a battlefield victory, it was far too costly, further weakening his army. He then decided to invade Virginia, a campaign that ended with the famous surrender at Yorktown, the defeat that finally convinced the British government that the war couldn’t be won.

It’s fair to say that this book isn’t aimed at the British reader. If you don’t share a belief in American exceptionalism then the claims in the introduction will ring rather hollow and the subtitle makes it clear what attitude the author is going to take.

The author makes a big thing of the British having fallen into a ‘trap’ at Cowpens. However on close examination this claim simply doesn’t stand up. Morgan came up with a highly effective way of using his troops, which played into their strengths, but this doesn’t really count as a trap. The incident the author has in mind is the accidental retreat of the Continental infantry, caused by the misunderstanding of an order. This did indeed turn out to be a key point in the battle, as the British lost their discipline and pursued the withdrawing Americans, only to suffer heavy casualties when the Americans formed a new line. However this wasn’t in any way a deliberate move, so really can’t be called a trap. The American commanders gain a great deal of credit for the way they turned a potentially disastrous error into a battle winning moment, and the Continental Infantry for their ability to stop and turn after starting to withdraw, but it would only have been a trap if the initial movement had been part of a deliberate plan. The brief attempt to compare the American victory with Cannae isn’t convincing either – at Cowpens one part of the retreating and defeated British army was surrounded and forced to surrender by much stronger forces, while at Cannae the smaller army managed to surround and crush the larger one..

The author repeatedly states that the British army was the best in the world at the time (often in sections on how impressive the American achievement at Cowpens was). While it is true that individual battalions of British infantry often performed well in this period, the army as a whole wasn’t at its best during this period. During the Seven Years War British troops had often performed well, but their commanders were less impressive (most famously Lord Sackville, who was widely blamed for allowing the French to escape relatively intact after the battle of Minden, and then went on to serve as Secretary of State for American for most of the war). The entire conduct of the campaign that led to Cowpens rather demonstrates the flaws of the army in this period, with isolated units fighting a disjointed campaign, and poor planning and communication between the wings of the British army.

I’d also disagree with the author’s analysis of the British plan for victory, which was based on the assumption Loyalists would emerge in large numbers once the British had achieved a clear military victory in the South. The author claims that the events proved this theory to be false, but I would say that the British never actually achieved that military victory – despite winning several major victories, they were never able to eliminate the American southern army, so there was always a focus for resistance. It is also worth remembering that Tarleton’s British Legion was composed of American Loyalists, with strong elements from New Jersey, Philadelphia and New York (perhaps one of the reasons that Tarleton was so unpopular), and the account often mentions local Tory militia.

Having let off steam, let us now turn to the positives, of which there are plenty. First of all this is a very readable account of this campaign, bringing the characters to life. The book is well written and well structured, generally alternating between the two sides beween chapters, so we get to see both versions of the campaign in far more detail than is often the case. We also get a very good feel for the problems posed to both sides by the terrain in what at the time was very much a frontier region, with river crossings playing a major role in the campaign, as did a lack of supplies in each area.

Morgan emerges as a skilful intelligent commander, perfectly suited to getting the best out of his militia troops. His plan for Cowpens took advantage of their excellent marksmanship, but also acknowledged that they were unlikely to stand and fight when faced by the British (as demonstrated no long before at Camden). By allowing for that in his plan he reduced the chance of a collapse by the militia triggering a wider collapse, and also made it more likely that they would stay on the battlefield after their initial role was over. Morgan was also a much more experienced man than Tarleton, who was after all a relatively junior cavalry officer in his mid twenties, with a reputation largely won by frontal assaults on less capable opponents. It didn’t take any great skill to realise that Tarleton’s approach would be a simple frontal assault, but coming up with a tactic to counter that was impressive. Cowpens was an impressive achievement for Morgan and one of the most one-sided victories of the entire war, and this is an interesting  account of that battle.

Chapters - twenty four, named after main character in each one

Author: Jim Stempel
Edition: Paperback
Publisher: Penmore Press
Year: 2017

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