Examples of good leadership in historic battles

On July 7 my son and his family and I visited a significant Revolutionary War battlefield called Cowpens, fought on Jan. 17, 1781. This one-hour skirmish was seen as the turning point of the war in the South, which led nine months later to the surrender of Yorktown by the British general Cornwallis.

In the previous two years, the confidence of the British army had risen since they had captured Savannah, Charleston, and Camden along with much of the Southern Continental Army.

For the patriots, General Daniel Morgan was sent into the back country to cut the British supply lines and harass them when possible. The British sent Colonel Banastre Tarleton to block Morgan’s actions. His troops were well-trained regular British soldiers. Considered the best in the world. The patriots hated Tarleton because he murdered surrendering Continental Army soldiers following his victory at the Waxhaws only a few months before.

Tarleton’s scouts located Morgan’s troops on the banks of the Pacolet River and an all-night march was begun. When Morgan’s troops heard of Tarleton’s advance they left their breakfast on the fire and retreated to Cowpens, a well-known pasture land and crossroads consisting of a 500-yard square.

When Tarleton arrived he marched straight to battlefield and assumed formation for attack. Morgan lined up his troops in three lines. Sharpshooter hid behind trees and picked off many of the officers as the British advanced and then fell back into the second line. Two more patriot volleys were fired and the second line feel back to the third.

Then Colonel William Washington led his patriot cavalry onto the field from their hiding place in a low-lying swamp. Tarleton’s reserve troops also entered the battle. A misunderstood call to retreat resulted in an organized patriot fall back. Morgan regrouped and turned his troops who fired at close range into the charging British. Other re-formed patriot soldiers joined the battle resulting in a “double envelopment” a technique still taught in military schools. The British began surrendering in large numbers. Tarleton lost 110 dead, over 200 wounded and 500 captured. Morgan lost 12 men killed and 60 wounded.

The British were shocked and disheartened by the loss of their crack soldiers. Tarleton rejoined Cornwallis and pursued Morgan who had also rejoined his commander, General Greene. Battles at Catawba River and Guilford Courthouse were costly to the British who eventually fled to Virginia.

Creativity, good organization, highly motivated troops, and a little luck all combined to achieve this significant victory. Morgan chose to fight at Cowpens with his back blocked by the Broad River. He and his troops had nowhere to retreat. They had to fight to the end. The coordination of the various patriot lines firing and falling back and the “double envelopment” caught the weary (they had been marching all night) British command off guard. The entry of the patriot cavalry and the targeting of British officers tipped the scales for the patriots. There was courage and high emotion on both sides. However, the American knew the countryside and had more rest than the British. In the end, good leadership won the day and our country for us.

R. Glenn Ray, Ph.D., is the president of RayCom Learning. To learn more about Ray’s completely revised, third printing of The Facilitative Leader: Behaviors that Enable Success, visit his Website, www.raycomlearning.com. Everyday Leadership appears each Wednesday on the Business page.