This weekend commemorates the Battle of Cowpen, fought on January 17, 1781. It was a decisive victory by the Continental Army, with substantial aid from the Militia led by Major McDowell, Major Cunningham and Andrew Pickens, under the leadership and direction of Brigadier General Daniel Morgan. They were up against Lord Cornwallis and Banastre Tarleton, the pit bull of the British army . It was a brilliant and daring campaign; using his practical knowledge of British command reaction and his intimate knowledge of the topography of the area, Morgan’s plan was simple yet clever. Split his troops, use the rolling hills and river as shields and as Morgan was to say “the whole idea is to lead Benny [Tarleton] into a trap so we can beat his cavalry and infantry as they come up those slopes. When they’ve been cut down to size by our fire, we’ll attack them.” Needless to say , it worked and this battle was the psychological turning point of the war. It encouraged the citizenry to fight on, demoralized Cornwallis, his troops and the Loyalists and started a series of events leading up to Cornwallis’s surrender in Yorktown. There is a wonderful blog site that recounts the battle in miniature and it’s well worth checking out.
Today when you go to Cowpens, you see the buccolic setting in which this battle took place.It was a cow pasture, pure and simple, a place where the town would gather its livestock, similar to our livestock pens today. Who would have thought this deceptively peaceful place would be the scene of such a battle with so little loss to the Continentals and so great a loss to the greatest army of the world? When you go to Cowpens this Saturday, you will see what seems like miles of groups honoring the ancestors who fought in this campaign and others. They will be named and people will lay wreaths.
This process seems like forever but when you look into the faces of those who are honoring, you see two things, intense pride and the geneological geography of the place. Everyone talks about which ancestor fought and how they were descended from this or that person or family. I listen quietly and reverentially, mostly quietly. When I’m asked from whom I am descended, I honestly say that it’s no one from here. Everyone who knows me knows of my obsession with American Revolutionary history and quite a few of my co-workers and family think I’m a bit nuts.They wonder, especially with my last name, obviously an ethnicity who didn’t settle this land, why I feel compelled to honor ancestors I don’t lay claim to. The answer is simple. The families that came together to create me came at a much later date. I can trace my ancestry, though, to landowners in 15th century Sicily, to a tavern keeper and a minor noble Florentine line (that was a love match there), to a Vatican Secretary of State and successful merchants in Latium and Abruzzi. None of them came here before 1880, but come they did, either for an expansion of economic opportunities, for love and, in all cases, for the ability to raise their families in peace and freedom. I honor the ancestors who fought for freedom because if it wasn’t for them, my family would not have had the advantage of their sacrifice which gave them the limitless opportunities they came to enjoy and the peace and freedom we all honor. It’s as simple as that. When I go to these places and people ask me who I am related to, I say ” to all the men who fought in this place because if it wasn’t for them, then the families that came later would never have been able to contribute to what we call the Melting Pot which is , in part, what made this country the greatest country in the world.