Sunday, January 15, 2017

Cowpens: Following the footsteps of liberty

Stoneman's 1st Brigade probably visited the Scruggs homeplace on the Cowpens Battlefield
COWPENS, S.C.
     Americans are notoriously bad at history, but here's one question you can't get wrong: Cowpens figured in (a) the Revolutionary War, (b) the Civil War, (c) World War II, or (d) the Iraq war?
     The answer is ... all of the above.
     Tuesday, January 17, marks the 236th anniversary of the Battle of Cowpens, a brief but fierce fight in 1781 that went a long way toward ensuring American independence. Cowpens became the namesake for two Navy warships: an aircraft carrier nicknamed "the Mighty Moo" that was the first U.S. ship to enter Tokyo Bay in 1945, and a cruiser that fired Tomahawk missiles at an Iraqi nuclear facility in 1993. (That attack came on the 212th anniversary of the original Battle of Cowpens, which I will assume is only a coincidence.)

     As for the Civil War connection, we turn to Stoneman's 1st Brigade, which crossed the Cowpens battlefield April 29, 1865, in hot pursuit of Confederate president Jefferson Davis. 
     In his official report, Gen. William J. Palmer of the 15th Pennsylvania Cavalry wrote, "I had reached the vicinity of Cowpens battlefield, S.C., on April 29, when I received the order to endeavor to intercept Jefferson Davis, his Cabinet, and the Confederate specie." The orders came from Gen. George Stoneman, by now back in Knoxville, who believed that Davis absconded with up to $6 million in gold and silver specie when he abandoned his capital in Richmond April 2. 
Red lines on this 1906 map show how Gen.
Palmer's 15th Pennsylvania Cavalry headed
from Rutherfordton toward Kings Mountain
before doubling back and crossing the Broad
 River at Island Ford. "Nashville" on this map
is actually Asheville. "Cowpens" marks the
location of the town rather than the
battlefield, which is 10 miles north of the
town and just south of the North Carolina
lineI added the blue arrow to show an
April 29-30 expedition by the 12th Ohio
in pursuit of Jefferson Davis.
     Gen. Palmer actually began the manhunt the day before, starting at Hickory Nut Gap southeast of Asheville (labeled Nashville on this map). He marched through Rutherfordton, N.C., headed toward another Revolutionary War battlefield at Kings Mountain. Then he had to backtrack 20 miles to find a way across the Broad River.
     His cavalry made the crossing at Island Ford (near the current U.S. 221 bridge north of Chesnee, S.C.) and headed toward Spartanburg on a road that took them across the Cowpens battlefield.
     As the Yankees scouted for information about Davis, it seems likely that they inquired at the cabin of Robert Scruggs, whose farm encompassed part of the old battlefield. (Sixteen years earlier, in 1849, historian Benson John Lossing had interviewed Scruggs to document details of the Battle of Cowpens for his Pictorial Field Book of the RevolutionLossing later wrote the Pictorial History of the Civil War, including a clever bridge-burning episode from Stoneman's Raid that he called "one of the most gallant little exploits of the war.")
     Capt. Frank Mason wrote in his history of the 12th Ohio Cavalry that on the roundabout trip to Spartanburg, Gen. Palmer "pushed on at a swinging trot for many weary hours, crossing the revolutionary battlefield at Cowpens on the 29th, and on the same night arrived at Smith's Ford on the Pacolet River. Here Davis had crossed only forty-eight hours previous, and again the Brigade galloped forward, marching all night and reaching Spartanburg on the first of May.(Palmer's Pennsylvania troops captured Spartanburg on April 30. His Ohio regiment arrived a day later because the expedition to Smith's Ford added 50 miles. See details below.)
     Capt. Henry Weand, the unofficial war correspondent for The Stoneman Gazette, astutely noted some of the parallels between Stoneman's Raid and Cornwallis' march. "Shallow Ford over the Yadkin, as well as the ford we used over the Dan River, three miles from Danbury, were both used eighty-five years before by the British army under Lord Cornwallis, while pursuing the troops of General Morgan, who had so beautifully whipped the British under Colonel Tarleton at Cowpens."
     The original battle of the Cowpens was a strategic triumph for Gen. Daniel Morgan against what was supposed to be a superior British army commanded by Col. Banastre Tarleton, known as "Bloody Ban" for his slaughter of Patriots at the Battle of the Waxhaws on May 29, 1780 near Lancaster, S.C. If you don't know the history of Cowpens, here's your chance to wise up.
     The Battle of Cowpens came three months after the Battle of Kings Mountain, another upset victory for the Patriots. Cornwallis won the next big battle, March 15, 1781 at Guilford Courthouse, but all the fighting depleted his army faster than Britain could replenish it. Lord Cornwallis retreated to Yorktown, Va., where he surrendered to Gen. George Washington on October 19, 1781nine months after Cowpens.
     Cowpens National Battlefield is the only National Park site along the route of Stoneman's Raid (unless you count the five times the cavalry crossed what is now the Blue Ridge Parkway). The park is near S.C. 11 between Gaffney and Chesnee and makes a pleasant rest stop for travelers who need a break from I-85. Admission is free and the park is open 9 a.m.-5 p.m.
     If you visit, you may hear someone say, "If there had been no Cowpens, there would have been no Yorktown."


Following the fords of Jeff Davis

     Capt. Mason's reference to Smith's Ford gives us some clues about the pursuit of Jefferson Davis. Smith's Ford is over 20 miles southeast of Cowpens on the Broad River below Cherokee Falls and above the mouth of the Pacolet River.
     The Yankees knew Davis was headed southwest from Charlotte toward Mississippi to try to rally what remained of the Confederacy. Anticipating that Davis might go via Smith's Ford, Palmer dispatched the 12th Ohio Cavalry to intercept him. Indeed, they captured some stragglers from Davis' escort and learned that he had crossed the Broad River just 48 hours earlier.
     So why didn't the Ohioans (who were one of Stoneman's best regiments) immediately turn southwest to pursue Davis, instead of backtracking 25 miles west to Spartanburg? They were already on the south side of the Broad but still north of the Pacolet. The only explanation I can offer is that the Pacolet must have been too dangerous to cross. (It is possible that Davis crossed by boat.) 
     We do know from Mason's account that South Carolina rivers were flooded when Stoneman's Raid passed through. On May 3 when the cavalry crossed the Tugaloo River at Hattons Ford west of Anderson, the water was so high and swift that several horses drowned.
The same day the Yankees were at the Cowpens battlefield. Jefferson Davis was 45 miles south, fording the Tyger River on his way to the Cross Keys House between Union and Clinton. (This is the reverse side of the historical marker shown above.)

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