John Eager Howard

Portrait of John Eager Howard
John Eager Howard

NPS Photo

The Americans and the British met and fought at the Cow Pens, a well-known pasturing area for cattle in the upcountry of South Carolina, on January 17, 1781. Recent research reveals that Brigadier General Daniel Morgan, the American commander, probably had more soldiers than the 970 for which he could account. The British, under Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton, had around 1050 men. Both the Americans and the British fought in the long, straight lines which were characteristic of 18th century combat. Morgan decided to divide his men and deploy them in three main lines of infantry with his cavalry held in reserve. His first two lines of defense consisted of militia, or volunteers. Of these, he placed around 120 sharpshooters in the first line with orders to aim for the officers, get off two or three good shots, and retreat to the second line. The second line also was ordered to fire twice and retreat through the third line. His third line of defense was composed of about 300 Continentals, or paid soldiers, from Maryland and Delaware and some Virginia militia. The commander of this line was John Eager Howard.

John Eager Howard was a great Army officer and leader. Born on June 4, 1752 to a wealthy Maryland planter and his wife, he was well educated and became a Captain in the 2nd Maryland Brigade of the Flying Camp (which was a mobile, strategic reserve unit) in July 1776. He quickly advanced in rank, becoming a Major in the 4th Maryland Regiment on December 10, 1776, and a Lieutenant Colonel in the 5th Maryland Regiment on March 11, 1778. Howard was a portrait of paradoxes. Known to be placid and reserved, he never let his mild temperament interfere with his military methods. He was a superb infantryman and always seemed to be involved in the fiercest part of the fighting, ready to use his bayonet when necessary. By January 1781 he was a Lieutenant Colonel and in charge of the Continental forces under Daniel Morgan at the Cow Pens.

Morgan's strategy was to place the untrained militia in front of the Continentals with orders to get off two good shots and then retreat. Both Morgan and Howard explained to the Continentals the planned militia retreat so that they would not be alarmed. The first two lines followed orders and retreated as planned. Then after the Continentals and the British had been fighting fiercely for several minutes, Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton ordered his reserves, Fraser's 71st Highlanders, to advance toward Howard's line. Howard, realizing that his right flank was exposed to the enemy, attempted to change the front of the company on the right. He ordered his right flank, which was composed of Virginia militia, to wheel backward and to the right to face the enemy. In the noise and confusion of battle, the soldiers misunderstood Howard's order for the Virginia militia, and the entire line began an orderly retreat. Howard maintained control and, when Morgan questioned him about the retreat, he pointed out to Morgan that the line was retreating in good order was not beaten. He then followed Morgan's order and had the Continentals continue their retreat to the rising ground and face about and fire. As his men faced about, Howard reported that they remained uncommonly cool and gave the British "an unexpected and deadly fire." Taking advantage of the disorder of the British lines, Howard ordered a bayonet charge. The Americans executed a double envelopment, a classic military maneuver in which the enemy's flanks are turned, and won the battle in a little less than an hour. Morgan wrote of Howard's performance at the Battle of Cowpens: "[Howard's attack] was done with such address that the enemy fled with the utmost precipitation…. We pushed our advantages so effectually, that they never had an opportunity of rallying."

After Cowpens, Howard enhanced his solid reputation for coolness and courage under fire in the South Carolina battles of Hobkirk's Hill (April 25,1781), Ninety Six (May 22 - June 19, 1781), and Eutaw Springs (September 8, 1781). His wounds at Eutaw Springs were so severe that they ended his career, and caused him to suffer the rest of his life. He returned to Maryland, where he married Margaretta "Peggy" Oswald Chew, daughter of Chief Justice Chew of Pennsylvania, in 1787. Howard's contemporaries considered him to be one of the finest officers of the period. "Light-Horse Harry" Lee wrote of him: "We have seen him at the Battle of Cowpens seize the critical moment and turn the fortune of the day; - alike conspicuous, though not alike successful, at Guilford and the Eutaws; and at all times, and all occasions eminently useful. He was justly ranked among the chosen sons of the South." General Nathanael Greene wrote, "Colonel Howard is as good an officer as the world afforded, and deserves a statue of gold, no less than the Roman or Grecian heroes." Congress honored John Eager Howard for his actions at Cowpens, not with a gold statue, but with a silver medal, which he received in 1790.

After the Revolution, Howard continued his public service as a delegate to the Continental Congress in 1788, Governor of Maryland from 1788 - 1791, and as a US Senator from 1796 - 1803. He was an influential member of the Federalist Party and ran unsuccessfully as their Vice Presidential candidate in 1816. The state of Maryland honored him in the song, Maryland, My Maryland. In addition there is an equestrian statue of him in Baltimore near a monument to George Washington on land that Howard donated to the city. In fact, today, much of the land occupied by the city of Baltimore, Maryland once belonged to Howard.

John Eager Howard, a great Revolutionary War veteran and politician, died at his home on October 12, 1827, and is buried at Saint Paul's Church cemetary in Baltimore.

To learn more about John Eager Howard, read the following books:

  • A Devil of a Whipping by Lawrence E. Babits
  • Downright Fighting: The Story of Cowpens by Thomas J. Fleming
  • Encyclopedia of the American Revolution by Mark M. Boatner, III
  • Leaders and Battles: The Art of Military Leadership by W. J. Wood The Road to Guilford Courthouse John Buchanan

Cowpens National Battlefield

Last updated: June 7, 2024