Daily Archives: January 17, 2009

Bring on the fanciful Cowpens images

Today is the anniversary of the pivotal Battle of Cowpens, the Revolutionary War’s tactical masterpiece.  Daniel Morgan’s Continentals and militia won a remarkably complete victory over Banastre Tarleton’s British dragoons and infantry.

An incident took place near the end of the battle that’s become a hallowed bit of Revolutionary lore.  The details vary a bit from source to source; Lawrence Babits examines the different versions in his exhaustive study of the battle.¹  The most popular version goes something like this…

Near the end of the battle, as the Americans overran Tarleton’s cannon, British dragoons rode forward in an effort to drive them off.  Galloping to meet them were American cavalrymen commanded by William Washington.  Three of the British horsemen set upon Washington, who was riding ahead of his men and was therefore somewhat isolated.  Finding himself outnumbered and with a broken sword, Washington almost lost his life, until members of his staff came to his aid and killed or wounded two of his assailants.  The third British dragoon fired a pistol at Washington, hitting the commander’s horse, and then rode off to join the few British dragoons who escaped.  Some contemporaries and later historians identified this dragoon as Tarleton himself, although Babits finds this improbable.²

This cavalry duel proved a popular subject for illustrators.  Whatever these pictures lack in accuracy, they make up for with creativity.  Here’s an early engraving:

The trees in the background look more like something out of the African savanna than the South Carolina backcountry.  For that matter, they wouldn’t be out of place in a Dr. Seuss book.  Green eggs and ham, anybody?

Here’s another image of the Washington-Tarleton duel, painted by William Ranney in 1845.  I think the original is at the South Carolina State House:

Tarleton’s dragoons were famous for their green coats, but here it’s the Americans who are decked out for St. Patrick’s Day.  According to some accounts, just as a dragoon was about to slash Washington with his saber, Washington’s servant/waiter/bugler pulled a pistol and shot the trooper, possibly saving his master’s life.

There are a few other depictions of this episode floating around out there, most of which take various liberties with the terrain, uniforms, and other details.  Whatever their inaccuracies, they manage to capture the desperation that must have accompanied these eighteenth-century clashes of men, horses, and metal.

¹Lawrence E. Babits, A Devil of a Whipping: The Battle of Cowpens (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1998), 129-30,

²Ibid., 155.

 

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