And Some Cut Down
Fighting Cornwallis with the Rockbridge Militia
by Odell McGuire, © Oct '95
I. The Cowpens
At end-of-summer in 1780, the British conquest of the American South had the look of a flourishing enterprise. Savannah and Charleston had fallen. Plans for General Alexander Leslie's move south and the invasion of Chesapeake Bay were advanced almost to the stage of operations. The Georgia-South Carolina back country was increasingly dominated by a network of Tory strongholds like those at Augusta and Ninety Six, and Tories in increasing numbers rallied openly to the British cause. One large American Army had surrendered at Charleston. Another, far inland at Camden, had been routed and the remnants chased well on into North Carolina. Lord Charles Cornwallis, 'the best soldier in the British army', was now in sole command and in the field with four thousand victorious regulars. Then, in October, as the leaves began to turn in the mountains, so did the fortunes of war.
From the pension application of William Miller, aged 75 years, Sept. 3rd, 1832, Rockbridge County, Virginia:
This applicant states that he was drafted as a militia man in the sd County of Rockbridge, and marched on the 9th of October 1780 under Cpt James Gilmore, then of sd County, now dead, Lieutenant John Caruthers, then of sd County, now dead, and Ensign John McCorkle, also of sd County... The company rendesvoused in the Town of Lexington, in sd County of Rockbridge--marched to New London in Bedford Cty, Virginia, thence to Hillsborough in North Carolina, where they joined Headquarters under Gen.Gates, where the company was reviewed & drew muskets & there received orders to join Gen Smallwood, stationed about 16 or 18 miles below Charlotte, toward Cambden and marched on to that Station, haping [happing] through Guilford and Salisbury. At this station this applicant was taken from his company and ordered to the Catawba to guard Garrison's Ferry, in which service he was engaged about 4 weeks. When this applicant was returning to Smallwood's camp, he heard that Gen. Morgan had gone to Charlotte...
Others on the march named Red Mill, up Cedar Creek from Natural Bridge, as the company's point of departure from the county. Also, most of Gilmore's men were armed with their own hunting rifles and Miller's remark about drawing muskets probably refers to a few men who had come to the muster unarmed. While Miller was on the Catawba, an officer of his company, Ensign John McCorkle, wrote home to his wife, Rebecca. She was the former Rebecca McNutt, mother of his two sons, Alexander and Samuel, and gave birth to a baby daughter, Catherine, shortly after he left home for the war. That his letter does not mention her indicates that John was not yet aware of the outcome of his wife's pregnancy, though he made provision for his 'unborn child' in a will executed before his departure:
My Dear Wife,
I have longed for an opportunity to write to you but have never yet been so fortunate as to have any way to send a letter to you. I have written letters and left them at different places. Perhaps you may get some of them. I am well at present thanks be to God for his mercies to me and I hope these few lines may find you and all my dear connections in the same state of health.
On the seventh day of Nov. we arrived at headquarters about ten miles below Charlotte where Major-Gen'l Smallwood's Regiment was in camp, but we are to join Col. Morgan's Light Infantry and we cannot tell how soon we must march from here.
We expect to do most of the fighting. The enemy have left Charlotte. Part of them went to Camden and crossed the Catawba River. Some think that they are on the way to Charleston. We got to Hillsborough the fourth [twenty-fourth?] day of October about 10 o'clock and that day we marched 6 miles on our way to Guilford. I did not then have time to write you. At Guilford I had the opportunity of seeing Col. Wm. Campbell who informs me that he defeated Ferguson at King's Mt. and out of 1125 he killed and captured 1105 English and Tories. The loss on our side was not great, only 28 killed and 8 wounded. Nathaniel Dryden was killed and 3 of the Edmundsons.
Being at such a distance I almost think myself buried to you, not having many opportunities to write. If you can write to me you must do so. Write in care of Capt. John [James] Gilmore's Rifles with Gen'l Morgan. Remember me to all my friends and neighbors. You may inform them that their sons Alex and Robert McNutt, Trimble Moore and Alex Stewart are well. I add no more at present but remain,
Your loving husband,
By tradition, this letter brought to Rockbridge the first news of the battle of King's Mountain, where Campbell and his over-mountain men had overtaken, surprised and massacred a Tory army in their bivouac on October 7th. The cry 'Tarleton's quarter' was heard in the American ranks and many Tories were murdered as they threw down their arms and tried to surrender. Revenge was thus taken for Banastre Tarleton's massacre of the 10th Virginia Line at Waxhaws the previous May, and most especially for the action of the Tory company which had bayoneted the wounded of that regiment where they lay on the field.
The rank-and-file militiamen and company officers mentioned in McCorkle's letter were Rockbridge County natives. Of the senior officers who play major roles in this history, General Dan Morgan was from the northern part of the Valley of Virginia, near Winchester. He had distinguished himself as a leader of riflemen in a dozen combats from Quebec to the Delaware to Saratoga. Colonel, later General, William Campbell was originally from Tinkling Spring, in Augusta County, and a Liberty Hall graduate. He had commanded riflemen fighting Indians in the 70s. Though still well known in the Rockbridge-Augusta area, he had removed to southwest Virginia in 1772 and most of his men and subordinate commanders at King's Mountain were from Washington County, Virginia, or settlements in what is now east Tennessee.
In addition to 'Gilmore's Rifles' from Rockbridge, there was with Morgan in Charlotte another company of volunteers from southern Augusta County commanded by James Tate, also a graduate of Liberty Hall. Tate's men were residents of a fragment of the old 'Borden Tract', which had been politically separated from the rest of the Presbyterian Irish, Borden Tract community in Rockbridge by the boundary fixed in 1778. During that year, also, the Valley college, which had been variously named and situated at various sites near the county line since mid-century, moved to the new county seat of Lexington and was rechristened 'Liberty Hall Academy'. Both Tate's and Gilmore's companies, another from Augusta under a Captain Buchanan and one more from Fauquier County under Major Frank Triplett, to a total of perhaps a hundred seventy men, were equipped, not as ordinary infantry with smoothbore muskets and bayonets, but as rangers, with flintlock rifles, tomahawks and scalping knives. Many of the riflemen, especially officers and sergeants, had campaigned against the Shawnee, in Lord Dunmore's War, on the Ohio in 1774 and, more recently, against Indians cooperating with the British: Cherokees in the Tennessee Valley and Shawnees in western Virginia. The rifle companies we re considered by Morgan, 'as good militia as could be found', and were used by him for tactical purposes as 'regulars', along with his 290 Maryland/Delaware Continentals.
The new American commander in the Carolinas was Nathanael Greene of Rhode Island, called the Fighting Quaker. On his orders, Morgan's Light Infantry Corps marched west from Charlotte on December 21st, reaching the Pacolet River in South Carolina on Christmas Day. His cavalry, aided by a detachment of mounted infantry, made a series of successful raids on Tory outposts in the area. His seventy odd troopers were Virginia regulars led by Colonel William Washington, a rotund, humpty-dumpty figure with a reputation for ferocity in combat. They were mounted on the great warmblood war horses of the mid-Atlantic region, horses of mixed thoroughbred and draught-horse stock. In equal numbers, the British cavalry were no match for men on such mounts, but they would have a significant numerical advantage over the Americans in the coming fight.
After three weeks of collecting militia and irregulars from the Carolinas, Morgan had something over 800 men altogether, half of them militia. This little army stood in the the line of march of the dreaded and hated Tarleton, 'Bloody Ban' himself, advancing northward with around 1000 regulars ahead of Cornwallis' main British army. In his command, in addition to the 550 troopers and mounted infantry which made up his own legion, were the 7th regiment of foot, a battallion of the 71st Highlanders, three companies of Guards light infantry, and a detachment of the Royal Artillery with two three-pounders. These little brass cannon, having caissons mounted directly on the gun carriage, were also called 'grasshoppers'.
Colonel Tarleton's orders from the Earl Cornwallis were to cross Broad River, and, with regard to Morgan, 'push him to the utmost.' Morgan's most recent orders from Greene: '... Col. Tarlton is said to be on his way to pay you a visit. I doubt not he will have a decent reception and a proper dismission ...' On January 16, after a day of rapid retreat, marching in a cold rain, Morgan made a stand at 'the cowpens', a few miles south of the swollen Broad River. His site was a low, open, grassy ridge, surrounded by woodlands. The river at his back, thought Morgan, would discourage men tempted to desert. During the night 150 more men riding doubled on their horses arrived with the veteran South Carolina partisan, Colonel Andrew Pickens. This almost evened out the total numbers of all arms in each of the two forces.
A sometime muleskinner, General Morgan enjoyed being called 'The Old Wagoner'. He spent the night swapping stories with his militiamen around their campfires; kidding them about their wives and sweethearts, the longed for comforts of home.
II Tarleton's Attack
Early next day Morgan
disposed his forces so that the Carolina foot militias were in a front
rank under Pickens, partway down the south facing slope of the ridge. He
told them: 'hold up your heads, boys; three fires and you are free...'
Free, that is, to retreat to the flanks and rear of the second line which
was drawn up near the crest of the ridge, 150 yards behind the first. The
second line was composed of the continentals on the left, or east, and the
Virginia riflemen on the right, or as some have it, continentals in the
center and half of the Virginians on each wing. Their orders, of course,
were to stand their ground. The mounted men of Washington, now reinforced
by a troop of Georgia irregulars, were held in reserve behind the ridge.
When the British appeared at the foot of the slope and began their advance
they took up the hunt cry: 'View Halloo'. The Old Wagoner, with his front
rank militia at the time, bawled out:
They give us the British halloo, boys, give them the Indian halloo, by God!
Tarleton made his attack on the morning of January 17th. His account of it is in his memoir of southern campaigns published in 1787. Even though he speaks of himself in third person and uses the stilted, unemotional vocabulary expected in a professional military report, he conveys, unintentionally, in the cadences, something of the pride of command, excitement of battle, and baffled anguish of defeat which he felt on that morning. He refers to the Valley and Fauquier men as 'back woodsmen'. It may help the reader in visualizing what follows to recall that these riflemen were in hunting shirts and animal skin caps, as were the the other militia; the continentals, and the British gunners wore blue coats; Tarleton's and Washington's horsemen dressed in green, and the British infantry, including the Highlanders, wore red coats and pants that had once been white:
[Knowledge of Morgan's dispositions being established]
Tarleton desired the British infantry to disencumber themselves of every
thing, except their arms and ammunition: The light infantry were then
ordered to file to the right till they became equal to the flank of the
American front line: the legion infantry were added to their left; and
under the fire of a three-pounder, this part of the British troops was
instructed to advance within three hundred yards of the enemy. This
situation being acquired, the 7th regiment was commanded to form upon the
left of the legion infantry, and the other three-pounder was given to the
right division of the 7th: A captain, with fifty dragoons, was placed on
each flank of the corps, who formed the British front line, to protect
their own, and threaten the flanks of the enemy: The first battalion of
the 71st was desired to extend a little to the left of the 7th regiment,
and to remain one hundred and fifty yards in the rear. This body of
infantry, and near two hundred cavalry, composed the reserve. During the
execution of these arrangements, the animation of the officers and the
alacrity of the soldiers afforded the most promising assurances of
success. The disposition being completed, the first line received orders
to advance: a fire from some of the recruits of the 7th regiment was
suppressed, and the troops moved on in as good a line as troops could move
at open files: The militia, after a short contest, were dislodged, and the
British approached the continentals. The fire on both sides was well
supported and produced much slaughter: The cavalry on the right was
directed to charge the enemy's left: they executed the order with great
gallantry, but were drove back by the fire of the reserve, and by a charge
of Colonel Washington's cavalry.
As the contest between the British infantry in the front line and the continentals seemed equally balanced, neither retreating, Lieutenant-colonel Tarleton thought the advance of the 71st into line, and a movement of the cavalry in reserve to threaten th e enemy's right flank, would put a victorious period to the action. No time was lost in performing this manoeuvre. The 71st were desired to pass the 7th before they gave their fire, and were directed not to entangle their right flank with the left of the other battalion. The cavalry were ordered to incline to the left, and to form a line, which would embrace the whole of the enemy's right flank. Upon the advance of the 71st, all the infantry again moved on: The continentals and back woodsmen gave ground: The British rushed forwards: An order was dispatched to the cavalry to charge: An unexpected fire at this instant from the Americans, who came about as they were retreating, stopped the British, and threw them into confusion. Exertions to make them advance were useless. The part of the cavalry which had not been engaged fell likewise into disorder, and an unaccountable panic extended itself along the whole line. The Americans, who before thought they had lost the action, taking advantage of the present situation, advanced on the British troops and augmented their astonishment. A general flight ensued....'
Well, well: 'augmented their astonishment.'
Just before he described his own dispositions, Tarleton reported that he had spotted 'back woodsmen' anchoring the right of the American second line. Now it is obvious from his placing the Highlanders, his best infantry and only infantry reserve, on his own extreme left, opposite the flank of the Virginia militiamen on the American right, and also from his sending the small party of fifty dragoons in a feinting attack to his own right, in order to draw Washington's troopers to the American left, that the poorly disciplined, unsoldierly 'back woodsmen' were his principal target all along. He thought that the Virginia rifle companies, in absence of strong cavalry support, would break under flank attack by his own infantry with their bayonets, and when they did, he would order in his cavalry to complete the rout.
It might have worked except for the very unsoldierliness and indiscipline of the Valley and Fauquier militias which had informed Tarleton's plans in the first place. When the 71st was seen moving around to their flank, it became necessary to face the Virginians about, right-wheel them, and face them about a second time so as to confront the Scots. Now these 'back woodsmen' turned around well enough but, being ignorant of the parade ground maneuver, Right-wheel, March, they heard only the March part, and strode off to the rear across the ridge crest and down into a swale behind it. Maryland officers, seeing this, thought an order to retreat had been given, and ordered the Line to face about and march rearward as well. Tarleton and the British now assumed that the Americans 'thought they had lost the action' and were abandoning the field. The jubilant British infantry broke into an uncontrolled, running, shouting charge, and Tarleton, sharing their euphoria, ordered his cavalry reserve into the fight.
Meanwhile, Morgan and Colonel John Eager Howard, who had local command of the second line, rushed into the swale to overtake their retreating troops. There, on Morgan's signal, they were ordered to halt, turn and fire. This they did, just as the main body of huzzaing redcoats crested the rise thirty yards away. Many fell. The rest were startled and confused. What had just been a line of soldiers showing their backs, moving harmlessly and ever more rapidly away, was now a thoroughly unintimidated line standing their ground, facing them, guns smoking, reloading, bristling. After two or three volleys the Americans, on Howard's order, countercharged. Washington and Pickens and the by-now-regathered cavalry and front line militias were turned loose on the survivors and the thing was quickly over. Only the Scots and the Royal Gunners put up much fight. The latter were cut down to the last man trying to save their cannons. Morgan allowed no abuse of prisoners or those trying to surrender, not even 'so much as an insult.' This was both unexpected and appreciated by the British, and the rest of the war in the south, for the most part, was fought within somewhat more civilized outlines.
Tarleton escaped the disaster to rejoin Cornwallis' main army with 140 of his dragoons. Of the remainder of his command, a hundred and ten were counted dead on the field, well over 700 were captured, 200 of them wounded, and the rest ran away. The British cannons, such wagons as had been brought forward, most of their horses, a traveling forge and 60 slaves were taken; also an assortment of fifes, drums, bugles, and bagpipes. The Earl Lieutenant General Cornwallis wrote to the Earl Lord Rawdon, guarding his trains at Camden: 'The late affair has almost broke my heart.'
Morgan's overall losses were light: twelve killed and about sixty wounded of around 950 engaged. The Rockbridge losses out of forty engaged: of those mentioned in McCorkle's letter, Robert McNutt, who was his wife's brother, and Trimble Moore were killed. McCorkle himself was wounded in the wrist. John Caldwell was wounded and there may have been others. Also, William Youel, said to have been slightly wounded, picked up a powder horn from among the fallen British on the battlefield and carried it home for a souvenir. After burying their own dead, Morgan, his men, and those able to walk of their prisoners, retreated before the main British army, back behind the flooding Catawba northwest of Charlotte. There the 3 month enlistments of Tate's and Gilmore's men having long since run out, they were assigned to take their 500 remaining British prisoners, together with others being held at Salisbury, back north over the mountains to the Valley of Virginia.
Private William Miller's pension application, made fifty years later, picks up the story again:
...[before his march to the Pacolet] Gen. Morgan... had sent the sick and infirm to the Hospital... cpt James Gilmore advised this applicant on account of his health to go to the Hospital also. He preferred going on next day with the army, but his cpt prevailed upon sd applicant to remain a short time with William Gilmore then sick, a relation of Cpt James Gilmore, and to meet the army as soon as possible. But this applicant by reason of this circumstance, was delayed and on his march, met the company to which he belonged returning with prisoners from the Battle of the Cowpens. This applicant returned with his company to sd Rockbridge County, having his discharge from Cpt James Gilmore dated the 7th February 1781, making this Term of Service 4 months, lacking 2 days...
The company had returned without Ensign John McCorkle, however, who was left behind near Guilford Court House. His wound had become infected and he died there of lockjaw or, as some say, gangrene.
The Rockbridge County Lieutenant's payroll voucher gives the names of those who marched with Gilmore's Rifles in the Cowpens Campaign:
I do certify that the Militia was order on duty as set
forth in the within pay-roll. John Bowyer, Lieut.
James Gilmore, Capt. John Carrothers, Lieut. John McCorkle, Ensign. Sergeants: Alex. McNutt, Robert M. Campbell, John Lysle, Joseph McAlister. Corporals: Thomas Lockhart, James Berry, Andrew Campbell. Privates: James Smith, John Peoples(?), Charles Trafford, James McCoskey, John McKenny, William Youl, John Folley, James Carruthers, Timothy Penitent(?), Thos. Cunningham, Joseph McAlister, James Stewart, John Caldwell, Joseph Wiley, Robert Moor, Richard Jones, John Gilmore, Thomas Howell, William Smith, William McClung, James Berry, Cornelius Linning, William Miller, Thomas Whitby [or Whitley], John Liggot, William Trimble, Robert McNutt, John Harris, Alex. Walker, George Stowell, Daniel Lewis, Daniel Brady, Robert Stewart, Alexander Stewart, Mark Morris.
Meanwhile, Cornwallis had been reinforced by the arrival of General Leslie and over 1500 more British regulars. North Carolina's General William Davidson, with much effort, raised an army of 600 to 800 local militia to help Morgan oppose the British on the Catawba. The rest of Greene's army was still far to the east, marching from Cheraws in South Carolina. Then on January 31st, the British forced a crossing of the Catawba against Davidson and a few hundred of his men at Cowan's Ford. These militia picked away at the troops crossing the river, wounding some thirty five of them, a few fatally, and Cornwallis' own horse. But when the British reached their side, Davidson was killed almost immediately. Twenty or thirty of his men were also killed or left behind wounded according to British reports; Greene's report admits to only 'two or three'. The rest of the Carolinian army, including those stationed at other fords, deserted. None, 'not a man of them', reported to Greene who had arrived ahead of his main army and awaited them at the assigned fallback rendezvous. When Davidson's body was recovered by his friends, it had been stripped by bummers and had to be buried in borrowed clothes.
Then began the long flight of Greene's and Morgan's remaining forces before Cornwallis to Virginia. At Guilford, on February 7th, General Greene called a 'Council of War', a committee meeting of his senior commanders, in order to obtain their formal consent for the evacuation of North Carolina. The reasons given were lack of sufficient men or supplies to oppose Cornwallis any longer. Greene crossed the flooding Dan in boats at Irwin's Ferry, Virginia on the afternoon and evening of February 14th. The British arrived twelve hours later on the south bank where Cornwallis, with no immediate way of getting across, gave up the chase.
Greene at this time, felt that the principal cause of his Army's failure in North Carolina was the unwillingness or inability of its militia to support him. There were less than 200 militia of all kinds with him on the retreat from the Catawba, most of them from Virginia and South Carolina. A week earlier, before Davidson's death and the beginning of that retreat, he had written a general letter to officers of the Salisbury District Militia:
The enemy are lying on the opposite side of the river and from every appearance seem determined to penetrate the Country. Genl Davidson informs he has called again and again for the people to turn out and defend their country. The inattention to his call and the backwardness of the people is unaccountable. Providence has blessed the American Arms with signal success in the defeat of Tarleton and the surprise of George Town by Col Lee and his Legion. If after these advantages you neglect to take the field and suffer the enemy to over run the Country you will deserve the miseries ever inseparable from slavery...
Even as early as the last days of December, in letters to Generals Robert Howe, LaFayette, Cornell, and other confidants, Greene had expressed his bleak appraisal of his army's situation vis a vis the state's militias, already reduced to marauding bands of Whigs and Tories conducting their own civil war, and its government, financially incompetent and split into partisan factions so that it was unable to help meet his need of supplies and soldiers. Since then the failure of the local militias to join him or Morgan in anything like hoped-for numbers, the desertion of those which had been raised by General Davidson, and the exhaustion of his supply depots made the decision taken at Guilford inevitable.
That western North Carolina proved much more difficult than most other regions to assimilate to the cause of the Continental armies is well known; demonstrated by a wealth of contemporary documents. The fact has been deplored by some historians, denied by others, ignored by a few, explained by none. Toryism was no stronger nor was revolutionary zeal more lacking there than in many other regions of the south. Certainly Greene's notion of an 'unaccountable backwardness of the people' is no explanation at all. Greene's own imperiousness, as revealed in his letters and even in the open letter quoted above, must have been a factor. The loss by the piedmonters of their favorite generals, Davidson and Smallwood, which latter had gone North seeking promotion, was another. For whatever reasons, their was mutual mistrust between Greene and his regulars on the one hand and the Carolina Whigs on the other. And, as events would soon prove, that mistrust was not, by either side, much misplaced.