Penmore Press is pleased to share this review of Jim Stempel’s latest nonfiction work American Hannibal: The Extraordinary Account of Revolutionary War Hero Daniel Morgan at the Battle of Cowpens.
It takes an excellent writer to craft a book on military history. One of the most difficult genres to write well, it also requires a writer with in-depth knowledge of his subject combined with an artist’s palette to paint the kaleidoscope of battle. Jim Stempel wields the pen and paint brush to craft yet another book which I would argue is his best work to date.
Little known today to most Americans, and known but to a select few military historians, the Battle of Cowpens changed the course of the American Revolution. Within eight months of the battle, the British would surrender at Yorktown. Stempel has deftly woven into whole cloth, the players on both sides, speaking to the generals and private soldiers. From Lord Charles Cornwallis, General Charles O’Hara, “Bloody” Banastre Tarleton, on the British side; and, Nathaniel Greene, John Eager Howard, Horatio Gates, little known Robert Kirkwood of Rhode Island, Francis Marion, “Light Horse” Harry Lee, and perhaps one of the least celebrated officers in American Military History, Daniel Morgan.
Stempel pulls the reader into his story, brilliantly contrasting the dashing cavalry officer Tarleton, against the backwoodsman Morgan who had been under arms since the French and Indian Wars, drawing the two antagonists closer and closer together until they meet at Cowpens.
Stempel takes his tale from the disastrous defeat of Continental forces at the Battle of Camden, which left the southern colonies almost completely in the hands of the British. Then through the seemingly endless marching and counter marching of American forces trying to regroup and re-equip. We see Horatio Gates leave the battlefield under less than honorable circumstances at Camden followed by Tarleton—who gave no quarter to those who surrendered to him—with sabers slashing, seemingly the victor. Tarleton pushed relentlessly in pursuit, wanting to close with and destroy what was left of the Americans.
Realizing that Tarleton is only days behind him, Morgan, now in command of half of the American forces, selects the site at which he decides he can meet the British. At Cowpens, Morgan—one of the few officers who understood how to use militia– selected a site between the Broad and Pacolet Rivers. Such a move was unheard of since there could be no retreat as there was at Camden due to the river barriers.
Morgan selected an open field that rose gradually to the rear. He placed his forces in three lines. The first line of rifleman—instructed to shoot British officers— were to fire only two shots and then fall back through the line behind them. The second line would hold until ordered to the rear, falling back through the third line that consisted of Continental Regulars, who thanks to the terrain were not visible to the British
Fully understanding the hard-riding, hard-charging Tarleton, Morgan knew that he would aggressively charge across the open field; and, seeing the first two lines of Americans falling back, would think that they were running from the battlefield. Lastly, Morgan placed his cavalry on either of his flanks.
It is here that Stempel’s superb grasp of military history comes to the fore.
In 216 B.C. at Apulia, Italy, Hannibal of Carthage, defeated vastly superior Roman forces. With his troops aligned facing the Roman’s, Hannibal, slowly moved his troops back as the fighting began, something that had to be accomplished with great discipline to prevent a rout. The Roman’s threw more troops into the attack and failed to see that Hannibal had infantry and cavalry on their flanks. The battle was a slaughter and tens of thousands of Romans were killed. The Battle of Cannae is regarded today as one of the most brilliant tactical maneuvers in military history.
Stempel paints the “American Hannibal” Morgan, astride his horse, moving amongst his men shouting encouragement as Tarleton charges madly across the field, not even waiting to form his battle lines. The first line’s deadly rifle fire unhorses many British officers, before they fall back through the second line of defense. Tarleton, thinking he has the Americans in retreat continues the charge, directly into the second line of Americans whose fire is again devastating, the American cavalry hitting the British flanks with great shock effect. Tarleton orders this Highland Regiment into the attack and it is then that the American Regulars rise and pour yet more deadly fire into the advancing British.
With the outcome still in doubt, John Eager Howard gave the order “Charge bayonets” and the line of Continentals lowered their bayonets, gave out a mighty roar, and surged forward like a “blue tidal wave.”
The Battle of Cowpens lasted little more than an hour. The estimated casualties for the British were 110 dead, more than 200 wounded, and 500 taken prisoner; compared to only 12 killed and approximately 60 American soldiers wounded. This battle on the South Carolina border ensured that there would be a United States of America. Tarleton—of high-birth— fled the field of battle, bested by a man of low-birth, who would become a model of what Americans were all about.
As one who reviewed Jim Stempel’s Windmill Point, I was again drawn into a fascinating story, told by a master historian, writer, and a man with the painter’s palette that left me with a most wonderful read.
About the Reviewer: James Holden-Rhodes has lectured and taught at the National Drug Intelligence Center, National Security Agency, Central Intelligence Agency, Western European Union (Paris), University of New Mexico, New Mexico Highlands University, New Mexico State University, and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. He created and served as the Director, Intelligence Studies Program, NMSU. He was selected as the 2009 Outstanding Intelligence Studies Teacher by the International Association for Intelligence Education (IAFIE). He is the author of the award winning book, Sharing the Secrets–Open Source Intelligence and the War on Drugs. He is also the author of Smart and Faithful Force: Henry Clay Cochrane and the United States Marine Corps, 1861-1905.