Kenneth Roberts,
The Battle of Cowpens
(Doubleday, 1958)

Kenneth Roberts was a writer whose American historical novels were very popular bestsellers. He was the forerunner of authors like John Jakes, with books of great detail and gripping stories. His Revolutionary War series included A Rabble in Arms and Arundel, centering on battles of the war as the action moved southward from New England to Maryland.

The last in the sequence was to be The Battle of Cowpens, which was published in 1958 after Roberts died unexpectedly while researching the book. It's just a short collection of the author's notes, at around 100 pages, sketches to a full-length, third novel in the Revolutionary War series. As it stands, though, by itself it's a history lesson worth reading about a pivotal battle in a South Carolina pasture.

The Battle at Cowpens was meant to complete the story of real-life Brigadier General Daniel Morgan. Morgan served as an aide to Major General Benedict Arnold and seems a footnote to Arnold's unhappy history, but he rose to command the American troops at Cowpens, S.C., against British forces. Roberts intended to set the record straight about the battle, which historians had written about as a series of mistakes and tactical errors on both sides.

Roberts makes history come alive hour-by-hour as the battle forces draw near. South Carolina militia volunteers had been victorious at Kings Mountain in North Carolina, and the British were concerned these forces would join with regulars of the the upstart Continental Army and create an unstoppable opponent. As history proves, that's just what happened.

The author writes that the militia was trained to reload while running in broken field, and could "hit a saucer at a hundred paces while so doing." When the battle started, the regiments of redcoats advancing as a unit were easy targets, and soon many of the British officers and their surprised troops were down.

Then the Americans retreated, running to safety in apparent confusion, but reloading as they went. The British thought the militia were retreating across open field "in a panic," writes Roberts, and pursued. When Morgan saw the British running up the hill, he ordered his men to fire again. They turned, fired and stopped the advancing British once more. It had been an indecisive blunder on Morgan's part, but ultimately it worked to the Americans' advantage.

The battle became a turning point for the Americans. It lasted only an hour, but was costly to the British: 100 dead, 200 wounded, 500 captured. Morgan's troops suffered just 16 casualties, and the British lost hope that Southerners would remain loyal to England as well and put an end to the Revolution.

Morgan's indecision may have been in error, but the damage to the enemy was done, regardless. Roberts writes that Morgan was later questioned on his choice of Cowpens to meet the British, and that he did little to inspire the men in his command.

Kenneth Roberts wrote his books more than 50 years ago. The Battle of Cowpens is sometimes hard to find, but it is worth wearing out shoe leather (or computer keys) to track down a copy. If you like to read great American history stories, the two previous books in the series are easily located and, like The Battle of Cowpens both are just as exciting to read today.

book review by
Mark Bromberg

28 August 2010

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