Book Review: Cowpens by Ed and Catherine Gilbert.

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Series: Campaign (Book 283)
Paperback: 96 pages
Publisher: Osprey Publishing (September 20, 2016)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1472807464

https://www.amazon.com/Cowpens-1781-American-Revolution-Campaign/dp/1472807464

I had high hopes for this book, but right off the bat I was a tad confused by the subtitle of this book. The phrase “Turning point of the American Revolution” has been used to describe so many battles that it has become so worn out as to become see through. Quite how Cowpens, a battle fought by two forces independent of the main armies, can be more of a turning point than Guilford Courthouse, or Saratoga is not adequately explained. Though we could suppose that given the outcome every American victory from 1776 onwards can claim to be the turning point. The claim at the end is that “History was made and the fate of a nation decided”, is not something I’ve associated with this fairly small battle which had more of an impact on the reputation of the British commander than the overall campaign.

The initial statements suggest the story of a battle undeservedly ignored, a story in which it is necessary to understand many preceding and parallel factors not all of which are germane to the battle itself.

A brief introduction to the aftermath of the siege of a Charleston highlights a worrying tendency to demonise Tarleton and the British legion and indeed paint the British side in a prejudicial light. It is not so much that Tarleton deserves lauding, but a more even handed approach would be a better harbinger. It is patently reckless to state that the legion “slaughtered most of those who surrendered, mutilating the wounded” and leave it at that. The curious terminology is reinforced with the mention of Gates’ being “brutally defeated” at Camden. Further on it is categorically stated that Waxhaws was out and out atrocity, utterly failing to explain the niceties of the action adequately, and that to do so would only be the work of apologists. The denigration continues when the British legion dragoons which were loyalist troops are described as not distinguishing themselves against enemies who fought back.

Unfortunatley the opening statement of the Opposing commanders section highlights a gross misunderstanding of the British army in America. Falling back on the tried and true cliche of blue blooded officers who were promoted through connections and cash (the latter part is fair enough) or their willingness to sacrifice their brutalised rankers, who fought only through fear of corporal punishment, (deeply unfair). These said dandies were also apparently out of their depth with non linear tactics. While the Americans are down home self taught Paladins. In recent years there has been a dramatic rethinking of the traditional image of stolid Redcoat vs wily patriot and its disappointing not to see it reflected here, not least to see such an uneven partiality displayed in the dissemination of a military event. The problem with all of these assertions is Tarleton himself who doesn’t come off extremely well (which is par for the course and fair enough), but whose career more or less throws all those assumptions about officers out the window.

Opposing forces are dealt with in the same curious and disappointing fashion. The Americans get a fairly decent writeup, based principally on the author’s research on the southern militia, but when turning to the British there is a distinct weakness in appraisal and conclusions. True open order tactics and light companies are mentioned but the odd mention of Grenadier companies as “Heavy Shock Infantry” wearing “helmets” is highly suspect. There is another use of the old cliche of the British being overconfident when facing militia, firing a few times and going in with the bayonet. Completely ignoring the fact that it was firm tactical doctrine to advance, take enemy volleys at distance, close to point blank range, blaze away and then charge. The battle was a small one, with just over 1,000 men on each side, allowing for the authors to examine individual battalions and junior officers, a chunk of which is taken up with informing the reader how brutal the British were to prisoners and how they forced some men to join their side (once more unfair). The Americans again get specifics and the British get tired generalisations. Not only that but I am baffled by the assertion that the 71st Highlanders as a regiment (rather than a battalion) were all but destroyed thereafter and curiously did not use facings as a result of the battle. A confusion in the writing may account for the fact that the 2nd battalion continued to serve under Cornwallis until the end of the war, and that the loss of facing colour should more probably be attributed to the natural wastage of war in the south which saw great strain put on uniformity.

The element of caricature is heightened during the retelling of the campaign where stock phrases are used to liven things up. “Hard riding Tarleton,” and “Greene the master of planning”. Not a single British officer goes without taint of atrocity to civilians, no British unit escapes being labelled as the blunt instrument used in such matters. Every American reprisal against the British and Tories is always nobly described as against troops. The authors seem to have borrowed their caracterisation from the Disney TV show swamp fox.

The battle itself is well handled with some excellent use of contemporary accounts. Although no opportunity is lost to illustrate the supposed invincibility and cruelty of the British. The authors are wise to pay only superficial attention to Tarleton’s memoir. The battle was in another author’s words a “Devil of a whipping”, the British receiving a total thrashing, principally because of poor leadership and cool headed american officers like W. Washington, Morgan and Howard.

Graham Turner handles the artwork with his usual skill and earthiness. It’s obviously been hard not to be inspired by Troiani’s painting of the action. The artist’s brief must have made interesting reading for the gripping scene of the Yankee counterattack. The artist has used Frasers Highlander’s but has opted for an identical viewpoint and general composition as Troiani. Yet has added a distant glimpse of the Continental Dragoons charging on the flank of Morgan’s 3rd line of Maryland and Delaware regulars, now making their decisive advance that would wreck Tarleton’s strike force. The artist has also inserted militiamen with the regulars.

All in all I cannot report anything but disappointment in this book, except in the description of the battle itself and the artwork. Not so much in the sense that the British should be lauded greater than the Americans, nor that Tarleton should be necessarily vaunted greater than Morgan or anyone else, but that as a military history and not a local guidebook, the authors had a responsibility to present an even accoint. As an example there is patent absurdity of twice pointing out Tarleton’s links to the slave trade and not once mentioning that this was common on all sides. This should have rendered the fact moot and irrelevant signalling its elimination from a purely military based book.

Josh.

 

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