In the early morning hours of Jan 17th, 1781, four companies of the Royal Fusiliers were about to fight one of the most pivotal battles of the American war.
The Battle of Cowpens
The regiment had been on the march for five hours covering rough terrain strewn with creeks, ravines, and heavy woods in near darkness, but they were finally within striking range of Brig. General Danial Morgan’s American army.
The Fusiliers had set out in early January with Lt. Col Tarleton, who was charged with destroying Morgan’s army. With them were Tarleton’s loyalist legion composed of both calvary and infantry, a troop of the 17th Light Dragoons, the 1st Bn of the 71st Highlanders, and two guns from the Royal Artillery. Opposing them Morgan had the veteran Maryland and Delaware regiments, Washington’s 3rd Light Dragoons, and various volunteers and militia. They were in all respects an even match.
The Fusiliers with Tarleton numbered 169 and were led by a newly promoted Major of the 60th Regiment, Timothy Newmarsh. Maj Newmarsh had served as an officer in the Fusiliers since at least 1766 and was extremely familiar with the officers and men of the regiment. Of the 169 men 38 had recently joined the regiment and had probably a little over a year’s experience in the army, the remainder of the detachment were experienced combat veterans with many service records pre-dating the start of the war.
The Fusiliers took position on the left of Tarleton’s line, dropped their packs, and fixed bayonets. To their right was the infantry of Tarleton’s legion and to their left a troop of dragoons to cover their flank. Behind them were the Highlanders, ready to give support. As the line advanced the Fusiliers engaged Morgan’s first line, driving them in and rushed upon them with the bayonet.
Morgan’s lines withdrew under heavy pressure from infantry volley’s and charges by the dragoons. As the Fusiliers continued to advance they came face to face with an old foe, the Continentals of the 1st Maryland and Delaware regiments. The engagement devolved into a slugging match with both sides giving as good as they got and it is telling that the majority of American casualties were opposite the Fusiliers.
Tarleton, observing this predicament, committed the 71st Highlanders which swept over the left flank of the Fusiliers in an effort to turn Morgan’s line. In an attempt to redress the line the American army turned about to gain some distance and Tarleton mistaking this for the beginning of a retreat ordered the whole British line to charge.
With bayonets leveled and hurrah’s the Fusiliers charged into the withdrawing Americans who at 30 paces turned about and delivered a devastating volley into the Regiment. Dazed, confused, and stunned the regiment was then subjected to the bayonets of the Marylanders and fierce hand to hand fighting ensued. Attempting to withdraw the Fusiliers soon found their route of escape cut off by American cavalry. Cohesion and discipline broke and as the American line advanced individual Fusiliers made last stands, attempts to escape, or surrendered as best they could. The American victory was complete.
The Fusiliers had fought heroically, and of the 169 officers and other ranks present 21 were killed in action, with an unknown number wounded. All were made prisoners of war. Of the officers, Major Newmarsh, Lieutenant L'Estrange (commanding the Major’s company) and Harling were wounded. Captain Helyar and Lieutenant Marshall were dead. Shortly after the battle the Regiments baggage was captured, which contained the kings and regimental colours. Despite popular myth and paintings the regiment had not carried them into battle, but the loss would grant the regiment the distinction of being the only regiment to lose their colours twice during the war. The previous time had been in 1775 after the majority of the regiment was captured in Canada.
The regiment would go on to fight in several more actions, such as Guilford Courthouse, the Virginia Campaign to include Yorktown, and actions near Savannah in 1782, but Cowpens was the severest battlefield loss for the Fusiliers during the conflict. Four companies had been captured but six remained. Most of what remained was garrisoning Charleston. Cornwallis had retained 71 fusiliers prior to the Cowpens campaign at Winnsboro, and both the Grenadier and Light Infantry companies were in New York City. Though severely wounded, the regiment was far from being destroyed and would continue to conduct operations until the end of the war two years later.