On 17 January 1781, Brigadier General (BG) Daniel Morgan showed the British and Lieutenant Colonel Tarleton what type of American military tactician he was at the Battle of Cowpens. BG Morgan proclaimed, “I have given him a Devil of a Whipping.”1 This battle, lasting a little more than an hour and being small in comparison to the Revolutionary War, had an immense impact serving as a turning point in the Revolutionary War.2 Brigadier General (BG) Morgan was the commander of the American forces that met Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton at Cowpens. This small battle helped shape the remainder of the Revolutionary War by pushing the British farther north. Historians refer to BG Morgan’s use of tactics as “the finest American tactical demonstration of the war.”3 Having a vast knowledge of the area of Cowpens and the British tendencies, BG Morgan capitalized on the terrain and disposition of the British to score an immense victory. This battle affected the British morale vastly and gave sweeping confidence to the Americans. By successfully utilizing mission command tactics, BG Morgan ultimately shaped and won the Battle of Cowpens. Mission command helps commanders counter the unpredictability of battle by reducing the amount of certainty needed to act.4 BG Morgan was successful in employing the following mission command principles: giving mission orders, accepting prudent risk, building cohesive teams through mutual trust, and exercising disciplined initiative, leading to his victory at the Battle of Cowpens.
The Americans victory at Cowpens was vital because it shaped other victories that forced the British out of South Carolina, later leading to the end of the Revolutionary War. BG Morgan was from Virginia and commanded the American troops while Lieutenant Colonel Tarleton led the British troops. Morgan had previously fought in the French and Indian wars as a wagoner. Morgan’s immediate commander was General Greene while General Cornwallis led Tarleton. BG Morgan chose the Cowpens location because it was an open grassy plain with definitive elevated locations. At or around 7 a.m. on January 17, 1781 the Americans first spotted the British at Cowpens. The battle began with the British cavalry charging the American militia. The Americans welcomed the British and their charge with long-range sharpshooters. Once the British reached 50 yards from the first line the militia fired two volleys and retreated. Tarleton noticed this retreat and just as in the past, he pushed his troops to charge. The militia, who were in full sprints, cleared the second line of advance and the line opened fire on the British charge. The charge stopped with the advancement of the American Calvary. During the skirmish, the American troops began to march to the rear in an orderly fashion. The British noticed this and quickly began to press forward only to find the Americans had halted and were ready to open fire. Before, Tarleton could realize what was going on he was defeated in less than an hour.
First, BG Morgan provided mission orders by assigning tasks and allocating resources successfully. Morgan verbally gave the orders to the officers and militiamen who were at the front lines of combat. Author Lori Davis Perry said, “Morgan’s orders were that the militiamen were to fire two volleys before withdrawing back through the Continentals to reserve positions near Washington’s cavalry.”5 The direct order provided by Morgan gave a specific task to accomplish. That task gave enough guidance for the militiamen to carry out the volleys and retreat with absolute synchronization. The militiamen completed this task by waiting for the British to reach killing range prior to firing their first volley. These men understood the importance of their results and the impact it played on the cavalry’s ability to handle any counterattack. This simple order called for maximum initiative and relied on lateral understanding from all elements.
In conjunction with successfully assigning tasks, Morgan was just as successful at utilizing the resources at Cowpens. Morgan kept his men fully engaged and energized by placing an emphasis on the resources Cowpens offered for horses, as well as free-range cattle for food. His preparations throughout the night did not go in vain – his men were well fed and rested.6 BG Morgan selected the Cowpens location because he knew how to properly utilize the resources the operational area offered. It appeared that Morgan had chosen to fight in a trap, which was no more than a backwoods cow pasture.7 Morgan knew the truth about this area, that it provided food for his men, as well as water from the Broad River to his rear. BG Morgan ordered that each militia receive twenty-four rounds of ammunition and then the militia received extra rounds once the battle was certain.8 Morgan knew by issuing an exact number of rounds he would be able to understand how long his men could fire. He knew by controlling ammunition he had the ability to provide the correct amount of resources needed to complete each task he assigned. With Morgan’s understanding of where is ammunition was he had the ability to shift men around depending on how the battle was shaping going. By exploiting and capitalizing on these resources, Morgan’s men ate prior to the impending battle. During the Revolutionary War, food was a vital resource that boosted morale in Soldiers. Through the successful implementation of mission command Morgan was able to provide adequate supplies and assign tasks that set the conditions for success.
Due to Morgan’s ability to successfully implement mission orders, he was also able to be excel when accepting prudent risk at the Battle of Cowpens. His plans allowed for gaps in the battle that created openings for the militiamen to pass through and reform with the calvary.9 BG Morgan accepted this risk by reasonably leaving his flanks open to create opportunities in his battle plan that prevented defeat and he judged the outcome to be worth the cost. Morgan focused on creating opportunities to exploit the tendencies of the British to charge and be aggressive. Morgan’s plan took into account for Tarleton’s aggressiveness.10 His theory to leave his flanks exposed was a very calculated move based on imagination and audacity to create the perfect double envelopment. This maneuver, which the Continental Army had never used before caught the British completely by surprise. In addition, during this battle Morgan reasonably estimated the spacing needed between firing lines. He had to assume risk with the militia’s ability to retreat. The militia retreated some 300 yards to their rear while Tarleton ordered a charge on them.11 The Broad rivers blocked any retreat and prevented the Americans from any withdrawal if overrun. Morgan set three layers of reserves to prevent the British from overrunning his position and causing a retreat. He used risk management and assessment to mitigate prudent risk. Morgan did not waste time or delay his actions when choosing Cowpens because he knew the British were not far behind. Through this process, he was able to establish the three layers of defense that led to his victory. This battle plan allowed Morgan to successfully accept prudent risk and strike in such a way that the British would never expect.
Following Morgan’s ability to accept prudent risk, he was also able to successfully build cohesive teams through mutual trust. The militiamen trusted Morgan because they knew his personal qualities and the examples he set. They held him in very high regard because he fought in the French and Indian wars and they considered him a frontiersman who dressed and spoke like them.12 The militiamen looked at Morgan as one of their own because they shared experiences. They knew that Morgan was willing to share in their hardships and danger. One militiamen wrote, “that Morgan went among the volunteers, helped them fix their swords, joked with them about their sweethearts, and told them to keep in good spirits and the day would be ours.”13 The volunteers respected the interpersonal relationships that Morgan was shaping while being among them. BG Morgan knew if he was able to unite all the diverse capabilities at Cowpens, he could achieve success through collaborative and cooperative efforts that focused on a shared goal. He was able to light a spark in his usually unreliable militia the morning of the battle because they were in good spirits and very willing to fight.14 Morgan knew he had a team built on mutual trust through the militia’s willingness to fight. Their desire to fight at Cowpens relied on trust and understanding that it would take a cohesive team to beat the British.
Finally, BG Morgan also excelled at exercising disciplined initiative. Howard, one of Morgan’s Generals, commanded an organized withdrawal in the absence of orders. Morgan, thinking his men were retreating, rode to Howard only to find out through discussion that Howard had exercised disciplined initiative during this maneuver. Howard said, “Morgan expressed apprehensions of the event; but he soon removed his fears by pointing to the line and observing that men were not beaten who retreated in that order.”15 Howard knew that the situation had changed and he needed to take the initiative to deviate from the orders to save the lives of his men. This slight deviation from the original orders allowed the Americans to capitalize on the British’s desire to charge when they saw a retreat. Howard at no time jeopardized the tactical operations of the battle. Some have said the design by which Morgan placed his men has been derived from General Greene’s statement that, “we fight, get beat, rise, and fight again.”16 Greene did not explicitly tell Morgan how to fight the Battle of Cowpens, but Morgan took the disciplined initiative to create a design based on his commander’s intent. Greene gave a broad intent that outlined the parameters to which Morgan was able to fight. Morgan applied sound judgement to the ambiguous state of Cowpens to create his desired outcome of beating the British. He was able to capitalize on the open-ended orders given by Greene to dictate the terms of action throughout the Battle of Cowpens.
Through the successful implementation of mission command, BG Morgan was able to shape his victory because he provided mission orders, accepted prudent risk, built cohesive teams through mutual trust, and exercised disciplined initiative. He assigned very clear and specific tasks through verbal orders to his officers and militiamen. Morgan was also able to allocate resources, specifically food and positions for horses through his understanding of what resources Cowpens offered. These very simple orders clearly stated Morgan’s task and intent for all his men. Morgan also understood and accepted prudent risks. He intentionally left his flanks open to create an advantage for his militiamen when they were conducting their organized retreat. Morgan realized that the Broad River blocked any actual retreat if the British overran their position. He was able to create opportunities by emplacing three layers of reserves that exploited the British’s tendency to charge when they see a retreat. Next, Morgan created cohesive teams through mutual trust. His men respected him because he was one of them and he had fought in the French and Indian wars. Morgan knew he had to go amongst the men and communicate with them, so he could be interpersonal relationships with them to increase their trust in one another. Morgan knew this trust was at an all-time high when the militia were so willing to fight not for him, but with him against the British. Lastly, BG Morgan exercised disciplined initiative, as well as allowing his men to practice the same principle. Morgan took what his commander said and created a near perfect fighting environment that led to victory. By creating this foundation, he allowed Howard to improvise when the situation deviated from the original battle plan. Morgan’s plans are some of the finest exhibitions of military tactics in the Revolutionary War, providing a foundation for future American leaders.