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A Delaware Solider At Cowpens

The Battle of Cowpens by Don Troiani

On 9 December 1775 the Continental Congress resolved that a battalion should be raised from the lower 3 counties of Pennsylvania to serve for a year. These counties are what is now Delaware. Delaware was not yet a completely separate state and was still part of the colony of Pennsylvania. The battalion, sometimes called a regiment, was made up of 8 companies.

After the American Revolution began in 1776, the three Lower Counties became "The Delaware State", and in 1776 that entity adopted its first constitution.

Despite Delaware’s small size, small population, and divided citizenry, the state played an important role in the struggle for independence. Its soldiers participated in many of the important battles of the war, and fought with bravery. At the same time its farmers, businessmen, and sailors provided supplies to keep the American army in existence.

During the war, the Delaware Assembly struggled to govern the state. The enlistment, provisioning, clothing, and payment of troops proved a constant concern. One source of revenue was the seizure and sale of estates belonging to Loyalists.

In March 1778, Thomas Holston, a resident of Broadkill Hundred, Sussex County, Delaware enlisted as a Private in the Delaware Regiment. He probably saw his first engagement at the Battle of Monmouth on 28 June 1778.

In April 1780, the Delaware Regiment marched south with only about 300 men. At the Battle of Camden, South Carolina on 16 August 1780, the Delaware Regiment suffered heavy losses. All officers above captain were captured and 48 men died. After this time the unit had no colonel and ceased to function as a regiment. On 3 September, the Delaware Regiment was re-organized into two companies under two captains.

Prior to 1781, the Carolinas had been the site of a series of military disasters for the colonists. Things got still worse for the colonists during the Battle of Camden later that summer. In August 1780, Major General Horatio Gates led 4,000 troops comprised of 1,200 Continentals and 3,000 militiamen to take Camden. Gates held the advantage by numbers; however, it was insufficient against British Lieutenant General Charles Cornwallis. Gates marched the troops upon Camden, coincidentally meeting Cornwallis' force, who had anticipated the approach route and positioned his forces to catch the Continentals and militiamen unaware. The result was devastating for the Americans and resulted in the replacement of Gates with Major General Nathanael Greene.

After arriving in Charlotte, North Carolina on 2 December, Greene quickly went to work revitalizing the troops he had inherited and formulating a plan to tackle the elite Redcoats in the South under the command of General Charles Lord Cornwallis. Low on supplies and recognizing that his small army was not ready for a direct confrontation against Cornwallis, Greene took a bold risk and split his force in two, personally leading one division and entrusting the other to his second-in-command, Brigadier General Daniel Morgan.

General Daniel Morgan (1735/36 - 1802)

A hardy Virginian who had earned the nickname "Old Wagoner" from his service as a wagon driver during the French and Indian War, Daniel Morgan was one of the very best soldiers in the American service. In the fall of 1777, Morgan and his elite Virginia riflemen played a pivotal role in the defeat of General John Burgoyne’s British army at Saratoga, New York, a triumph that changed the course of the Revolutionary War by convincing France to openly join the Americans in their struggle against the Crown. With his "flying army" composed of roughly 300 Contiental regulars and 700 militia, Morgan would prove to be a thorn in the side of the British once again in the American South.

After discovering that a force under Morgan had been sent west from Charlotte, Cornwallis acted quickly. Fearing an attack against Fort Ninety Six in the South Carolina backcountry, he ordered his tenacious young subordinate, Lieutenant Colonel Banastre "The Butcher" Tarleton, known for ruthlessly executing American prisoners, to hunt down Morgan’s army. Given around a thousand troops for this mission, the fiery 26-year-old pushed his men past the point of exhaustion in pursuit of Morgan. The strength of the cavalry and other units under Tarleton’s command convinced Cornwallis that his subordinate was primed to achieve "the most brilliant success." The British believed a defeat of Morgan's army would lead to victory in the south.

On 15 January 1781, Morgan wrote to Greene that his force was inadequate to defeat Tarleton's force. Morgan had an army consisting of 900 personnel, with 340 militiamen. As Morgan's force postured to retreat, news traveled that Tarleton's force was almost in reach of his troops. On 16 January Morgan decided to take a defensive position as a renewed spirit sifted through the cold Southern air. Morgan and his troops stood ready for battle on a 500 yard grazing pasture called "the cowpens" near Thicketty Creek, South Carolina. The field had a gradual incline, obscuring the size and placement of Morgan's forces. Morgan's forces were placed in three successive lines facing Tarleton's line of advancement. The first line of men consisted of sharpshooters. The second line was composed of the South Carolina militia, who had orders to fire three volleys and then retreat to the third line. The third line consisted of the rest of the Continental Army, Virginia militiamen, and William Washington's cavalry in reserve. By luring Tarleton into attacking his militia and pursuing them once they fled, Morgan hoped to wear the British down with his first two lines and to inflict a finishing blow with his final line composed of his best troops.

After traveling several miles across rugged terrain in the early hours of Wednesday, 17 January 1781, Colonel Tarleton and his men reached the field and attacked at sunrise. With his enemy’s back to the Broad River, the young British commander believed the ground before him was the perfect place for a fight. Speaking of himself in the third person, he said, "It is certainly as good a place for action as Lieutenant Colonel Tarleton could desire. America does not produce any more suitable to the nature of the troops under his command." Not long after launching his attack, Tarleton would come to rue those words.

In under an hour, General Morgan and his troops achieved one of the most complete American victories of the Revolutionary War. As ordered, Morgan’s militiamen fired three volleys and then retreated, giving the British the impression that they had won the battle. As the Redcoats reached the main American line, however, they faced their toughest fighting of the day. As Tarleton commited his cavalry and elite Highlanders of the Seventy-first regiment to the brawl, Lieutenant Colonel John Eager Howard ordered a withdrawal of his stout Continental regulars. Seeing the enemy falling back, Tarleton’s troops once again saw victory in sight and pursued the fleeing rebels.

"Face about boys! Give them one good fire and the victory is ours!" So yelled General Morgan to his men before they turned and poured a devastating fire into the advancing British ranks. With the Redcoats stunned, the Americans thrusted their bayonets forward and charged. At this critical moment, Morgan’s militiamen reappeared and took sharp aim at the enemy. With the British on the verge of collapse, Morgan called in his cavalry under Lieutenant Colonel William Washington, a cousin of George Washington, and the horsemen slashed their way through the enemy. With Tarleton's center and his two flanks struck simultaneously, his battle line crumbled. The fiery British leader tried to rally his troops until the very end and even charged Washington’s cavalry in a daring final effort, but realizing he had been utterly defeated, he ultimately fled the field with what remained of his shattered command.

The Battle of Cowpens was over within an hour. Daniel Morgan and his band of warriors had stared down some of the best soldiers in the world and won comprehensively. The Battle of Cowpens was the only time in the American Revolution that a double envelopment (pincer movement) was employed. The victorious commander was so overjoyed that he picked up his nine-year-old drummer boy and kissed him on both cheeks. The British had 110 men killed and 712 captured, which devastated the British army. Morgan’s losses came to approximately 60 wounded and 12 killed.

A few days after the battle, Morgan wrote to a friend, "I have given [Tarleton] a devil of a whipping." It was yet another loss that the British Crown could ill afford. In the aftermath of the clash, momentum would continue to swing toward the American cause. The American Revolution would continue for two more years; however, with the loss of the south due to the Battle of Cowpens, the British no longer had superiority and officially surrendered on 3 September 1783 with the Treaty of Paris.

During the battle, Private Thomas Holston was one of the 60 soldiers wounded, being struck in the right arm by a musket shot. It put an end to his military career. He would return to his home and family and Delaware where he received a pension for his service. He would survive until 1828.

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