How a backwoods battle and a leader you’ve never heard of changed history

Photo of the Battle of Cowpens in the Charleston Custom House.

               Painting in the Charleston Custom House.

Snark MeterrealMID.003

You probably haven’t heard of it. I hadn’t. It is known as the Battle of Cowpens and it isn’t in most high school history books these days. Here is the backstory: America was losing the revolution – badly. The British, well funded, well mannered, and well dressed, had established forts in the southern countryside and were converting loyalists to their cause as the patriots, hungry and ill equipped, hid in the woods. American General, Daniel Morgan, had 300 regulars and was trying to elude a British trap.

Morgan was a veteran. He had proven himself at Quebec and Saratoga. At Cowpens, in the face of a far superior force, Morgan did everything right and modeled leadership under pressure.

What did Morgan do?

  1. He analyzed the situation accurately: Morgan had 300 Continental soldiers. The British under the ruthless “Bloody Tarleton” were marching 1000 crack troops to surround the Americans and wrap up the frontier campaign.
  1. He recruited aggressively: Seeing the hopeless mismatch, Morgan sent out the call to “meet at the cow pens!” This produced 650-ish militia to meet him to attempt to turn the tide.
  1. He motivated passionately: The night before the battle, Morgan went among the untrained militia imploring them “just give me three good shots and you can go home heroes.”
  1. He chose his battlefield carefully: A brilliant strategist and realistic leader, Morgan chose “the cow pens,” as the place his untrained men would make their fight. It is a high and open ground with a road the British would travel down right up the middle. He stationed his Continentals on the uphill side of the pens, an open spot one hundred yards wide by five hundred long. The cow pens were surrounded by dense woods and streams. This prevented flanking. Even more, the swollen Broad River at their back gave his men nowhere to run.
  1. He formulated his plan brilliantly: Three lines of riflemen. Each would shoot at the officers and dragoons and then melt behind the next, each line providing cover for the other and leading the enemy deeper into Morgan’s midst.
  1. He estimated his foe wisely: He knew Tarleton would press the battle, confident of the open ground and anxious for a decisive blow.
  1. He led his men courageously: When the battle began to fall apart, Morgan was right there. He rode among his panicked troops, rallying a right flank in disarray, until it resembled a purposeful wheeling/pivot movement backwards from his right.
  1. He pressed the victory brilliantly: As the British came forward on their left, Morgan’s best men, mounted “Dragoons” were waiting in the trees. They came galloping down, surprising and surrounding Tarleton’s troops. This is known as a “double envelopment.” 120 British troops were killed and 800 surrendered en masse.
  1. He finished honorably: It is often difficult to be a good winner. Morgan was. The American colonists (most of whom were not trained, disciplined ‘regulars’) were very angry about the atrocities and brutal tactics  of “Bloody Tarleton.” They wanted to show no quarter and cut the British down. When the British laid down their arms in surrender, it was Morgan who forced the Americans to overcome their adrenaline and put an honorable end to the fighting. Morgan would never again lead a significant fight. Eight months later ill health would force him to resign his commission. A great leader finishes well.
  1. He did his part faithfully: Morgan was a small part of a big picture. The defeat at Cowpens deprived British General Cornwallis of his offensive weapon. Forced back to Virginia, Cornwallis was pinned on land by Washington and at sea by the timely arrival of the French at Yorktown, thus winning U.S. independence. But it was Morgan, faithfully doing his small part in the back country, who set up the famous surrender at Yorktown. We have the America we have today because of someone most of us have never heard of faithfully doing a job that needed to be done, in an out of the way spot, in the face of great adversity and terrible odds.

What kind of leader will you be?

In your life you will likely be called upon at some point to lead. Will you accept the call? And when you do, what kind of a leader will you be? Today it is fashionable to tell young people, “Follow your passion.” Frankly, that sets up a world that begins and ends with the self. The world was not built on such little thinking. And it is no coincidence that as our culture follows that line of thinking it is running right off the rails. You see, the men and women that you most admire were not people who did what they “wanted” with their lives. The great acts of history, the great leaders of the ages, and the great works of literature were all forged in the fires of difficulty and conflict. I am fairly certain that Dr. King would rather not have been writing from a Birmingham jail. I am fairly certain Lincoln would have preferred not to have to write an address for the slaughter at Gettysburg. I am absolutely certain that the New Testament would not be what it is if Jesus was not crucified and if his followers, Paul and John, were not writing from prison cells and penal colonies. Difficult times produce great humans. The world does not need you to follow some narcissistic “passion.” It needs you to find a need, step into that gap, and do something. Something small or great, that needs doing. To do that thing that is part of the bigger picture. To fight your battle, so that whether or not anyone else notices, you will have contributed to the great victory of leaving the world a better place than you found it. That is leadership.

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3 thoughts on “How a backwoods battle and a leader you’ve never heard of changed history

  1. Love it. Morgan is a Carolina institution. I wish our culture would acknowledge figures like him as much as they do the Kardashians.

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