Babits, Lawrence E. A Devil of a Whipping: The Battle of Cowpens. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1998.
Even if the American Revolution is not a specific area of study, but you are a student, a history buff, or historian, at some point, The Battle of Cowpens has been touched upon during some lecture or another. This battle took place in the latter part of the Southern Campaign during the American Revolution. This particular battle gets such attention because it’s known as the turning point of the war and that is why it is so well known. It is one event, in a sequence of events that would eventually see the Patriot’s victorious at Yorktown.
Lawrence Babits uses to his advantage, documentary evidence to reconstruct Cowpens in his book A Devil of a Whipping: The Battle of Cowpens. Babits leaves nothing out in this minute-by-minute account. He brings Daniel Morgan’s army of Continental troops in sharp focus so that the reader will walk away from this monograph knowing that there is not a moment of the battle that is unaccounted for. One question does remain. Was the Patriot’s win a fluke? Does all the evidence lead to a missed British victory or did the Americans have it in the bag all along?
Lawrence E. Babits, born June 22, 1943, is a professor of maritime archaeology and history at East Carolina University. After high school Babits joined the Army and served for three years, receiving an honorable discharge with the rank of Sergeant in 1966. He received his Bachelor of Arts in anthropology with a minor in history. While working as a teaching assistant he finished his Master’s degree. He began as an archaeologist for the North Carolina Department of Environment and National Resources in Raleigh, North Carolina. Interestingly, Babits earned his Doctor of Philosophy from Brown University and his dissertation was entitled Military Documents and Archaeological Site: Methodological Contributions to Historical Archaeology. He eventually became the director of the Maritime History and Nautical Archaeology program in Greenville, North Carolina.
If any were to wonder if the author has the knowledge to be an authority on the Battle of Cowpens, one should not worry. Among others, Babits teaches classes on the Revolutionary War in the South and 18th Century Warfare. Some of Babits’ works are Underwater Archaeology, Maritime Archaeology, and Southern Campaigns, plus numerous articles. He had the honor of becoming a Fellow in the Company of Military Historians in 2007 and even the Daughters of the American Revolution awarded him a History Medal in 1990. This list of accomplishments proves that Lawrence Babits has the credentials to further elucidate the battle of Cowpens while integrating eyewitness accounts, secondary accounts, historians who wrote accounts while participants were living, participants who wrote memoirs, and accounts by pensioners. As for this book, A Devil of a Whipping: The Battle of Cowpens, the praise received says it all. Military History of the West writes, “An exceptionally well-researched and richly detailed treatment of one of the most important battles of the American Revolution,” the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography wrote that this book is “A superb example of the ‘new military history,’” and the Journal of Southern History writes, “One of Babits’s purposes was the hope that the Cowpens veterans would not be forgotten. The masterful work that he has produced goes far toward achieving that purpose.”
Babits prefaces his work with a series of questions he believes have been overlooked in previous studies. Questions like, why were so many wounded by sabers if British dragoons never reached them? What caused a mistaken order on the Continental right flank? (p. xvii) Babits answers these questions and more after having thoroughly researched the site.
The first half of Babits’ monograph is spent on tactics, the opponents, prebattle activities, and basically setting the stage for the battle to come. Tactics are dictated by weapons and troops. The author writes that at Cowpens, the British used infantry, cavalry, and artillery while being armed with smoothbore muskets. The Americans used infantry and cavalry and while the Continentals were also armed with smoothbore muskets, the militia was carrying a variety of rifles.
Daniel Morgan is not necessarily considered a Revolutionary hero today but Babits believes this is a grievous oversight and that contemporaries considered his experience and talents as legendary. (p. 23) Morgan or “old Waggoner”, a nickname from the French and Indian War, was well liked by his men and “led through respect and by example.” (p. 23) The author mentions that the core American force at Cowpens had fought with Morgan for more than three months already and that his most reliable soldiers were Continental infantry. These men from Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia had proven themselves in prior battles. Morgan’s tactical expertise is not focused on enough by other historians Babits believes.
On the British side of the battle is a “young, aggressive officer” named Banastre Tarleton. (p. 42) The author gives this young officer credit for his “rapid marches, hard, driving attacks, and an approach to warfare that seems more modern than that of some contemporaries.” (p. 44) Babits also feels that the nickname “Bloody Tarleton” by American writers who portray him as cruel and arrogant is unwarranted. In January 1781 Tarleton is in command of infantry, artillery, and cavalry.
Babits believes the key to understanding Cowpens is to dissect what happened to the two forces while maneuvering against each other in the South Carolina backcountry. He believes the movements the troops made from the 10th to the 17th of January “adversely affected the British while providing advantages for the Americans.” (p. 47)
Tarleton kept a fast pace north to meet with Morgan. The British soldiers were unable to forage, which was difficult on them as Tarleton left Brooke’s Plantation with only four days food supply. Unfortunately, Tarleton did not recognize Morgan’s strategy of leading him and his troops further from Cornwallis and through land that had already been foraged and depleted of supplies. Unlike Morgan’s men who had plenty of food and forage time on their trek, plus had a feast waiting for them at Cowpens, as cattle had been driven earlier to the site for that purpose. Babits’s theory of Tarleton’s forces suffering from hunger and fatigue are seemingly contradicted as the British troops moved on Burr’s Mill above Thicketty Creek. Here Tarleton’s men availed themselves of all the rations left by Morgan’s men that very morning, not to mention the fact that the battle itself was short-lived. Morgan’s preparations certainly benefited his troops as they were not only fed but resting in the line of battle. (p. 60) Morgan also had the advantage of choosing the battleground.
Now at Cowpens, the British met a series of combat episodes. The Americans were strategically posted to minimize any British advantages. Morgan’s “logistical trap” weakened Tarleton’s force. (p. 61) The author is able to show the mastery tactician that Morgan clearly was. He was able to use Tarleton’s well-known “aggressiveness and perceptions of how a battle was fought” to his advantage. (p. 61)
The Battle of Cowpens can easily be seen as a stepping stone that leads to the British defeat at Yorktown. Also, Babits went about researching Cowpens like the researchers did for Little Big Horn. Battlefield archaeology research answered questions and raised more, such as positioning, troop size, and casualty figures. Babits relies heavily on participant narratives to give credence to Morgan’s tactical genius.
Babits’s thorough research has proven that the size of the British and American forces was not quite accurate in earlier accounts and the author’s attention to detail is welcome. He also raises the importance of the southern campaigns in the Revolutionary War. The author goes to surprising limits to test theories and hypothesize over events. He and his son John walked the Cowpens battlefield after a rain, and at dawn to better describe what could be seen. After the exercise, he felt he had an improved understanding of “battle timing, light conditions, distances, and positioning in the early stages of the Cowpens fighting.” (p. xxi) He and his family even wore wet wool uniforms and slept in soldiers’ tents to get a sense of what the eighteenth-century soldier endured.
All extracurricular activities aside, Babits uses historical records to the very best advantage in this monograph. Without a surplus of wordage, he describes both armies in great color and detail. The Battle of Cowpens’s outcome and overall importance can still be debated but there should not be a debate on the strength of each side’s commanding officers, both of which had experience and courage. This battle changed the psychology of the war. When people’s hearts and minds are lifted up, they fight harder and smarter. That is the true importance of Cowpens. It changed men from hoping for the best to expecting it.
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