Lesson Plan

The Battle of Cowpens: Lesser-Known Participants


GOAL: To have students abstract information relevant to the battle, its participants and geography through the use of an original source.


  • The student will abstract material from a Revolutionary War pension application.
  • The student will list and categorize facts on the Battle of Cowpens gleaned from the abstract.
  • The student will analyze the pension for questions addressed, testimonies or other information leading to approval.


Many Revolutionary War soldiers, both militia and regular, filed pensions for their service in the Revolution. Today, these pensions can be obtained from the National Archives, Washington, D.C., and, sometimes, from state archives. These pensions, designed to spur enlistment and limit desertions, were first authorized during the course of the war.

After the Revolution, Congress passed a series of pension laws. At first, these laws gave pensions to those who suffered debilitating injuries in the Revolution and to those immediate survivors of soldiers killed in battle. Over the years, Congress passed additional laws, extending rewards to other family members. Congress also extended provisions to militia veterans when it passed laws saying militia were eligible for rewards after two years of service, even though it were non-continuous.

As part of these laws, the federal government offered free land as a reward for military service. If the pension were approved, land was given to the west of settled areas – land known as the early American frontier. These lands were surveyed in lots of sometimes 100 acres or more. Congress granted acreage based on rank and length of service. Some people made the trek west and settled their lands, while others sold their land to people known as speculators who, in turn, resold the land for higher prices. Surveyors and attorneys received benefits from this speculation. Well-known people such as George Washington became land speculators. Often, people who settled these lands clashed with Native-4 Americans who still claimed the land as their own. Land was granted to the Mississippi River, and, further, as the frontier advanced.

Continental armies kept good records, making it easy for its soldiers to get bounties. Militia, on the other hand, had to answer a number of questions in order to receive pension rewards. Usually attorneys would let them know that pensions were available. The militia veteran appeared before a judge in a local court to answer these questions. They were asked to prove their birth date and place of birth, battles they participated in, their commanders and other relevant questions. Latter applicants were old and often feeble and their memory failed them. They could get their minister or those in battle with them to testify in their behalf. Anyone could be present in the courtroom, and each had an opportunity to challenge a petition.

Judges rejected pensions when petitioners did not follow these procedures. It seems that few pensions were rejected because of outright fraud. The Federal Justice Department later weeded out false claims. A number of militia would not apply for pensions; they stressed that they fought for higher reasons than rewards – that they didn’t defend their country for money. But, as many got older they needed the reward, and applied for pensions. There are instances where young women married the pensioner to share in the bounty.

State governments also provided rewards, often in land or money. More and more, state governments gave money as a reward. This became a campaign issue as candidates courted the veteran vote and supported rewards.

Since state boundaries extended west indefinitely, land grants were given in the west, advancing as the early American frontier advanced. For example, Carolinians might have received grants just beyond the settled areas, then in Tennessee, all the way to the Mississippi River; and, later, beyond.


Have students abstract the following pension application by answering the following questions:

  1. Who is the person making the application?
  2. What battle(s) was he in?
  3. Who were his commanders?
  4. What did he relate about the Battle of Cowpens or other battles?
  5. What features of the natural or human-made landscape did he include? What features did he describe?
  6. What factors made the petition acceptable?
  7. Did the petitioner say anything that would add to the knowledge of the Battle of Cowpens, the Revolution in the South, or the Revolution in general?

Kelly, James – 28 April 1835 –

“… he returned to Camden county – in a very short time he volunteered under Col. Washington. They did not rendizvous (sic) at any particular place – there Was but one horse at that time – Declarant was a horseman & found his own Horse he can not recollect the name of his captains where were with Washington Col Howard and Col Pickens – all the men he thinks amounted to 300. We Marched to a garrison called Rugeleys occupied by tories and some British – We got a pine log and Hacked it to look as much like a cannon as possible & put It on an old pair of Waggon wheels & run it up near the fort and sent in a Flag & Col Rugeley (a Tory) surrendered the garrison. …marched on to the (sic) join Genl. Morgan and did join him at the place where the battle of the Cowpens was fought & but a few days before said battle – Declarant fought under Col Washington in said battle The battle ground was part in the woods and part an old Field – the militia were in front & the regulars in the rear Washington and his men on the wing – They barely got formed before Tarleton made his charge – the militia soon run – the British began to cut down the militia very fast and Washington and Howards men charged & with the regulars of Morgan soon routed the British – Col. Washington & two or three men pursued Tarlton 18 or 15 miles & he understood that during this chace Washington would have been killed by one of the British but that one of Washingtons men shot the fellows arm off & Washington made a hack at Tarlton & disabled tarltons fingers & glanced his head With his sword and took a good many prisoners. Morgan took the prisoners on towards virginia…”

  1. Have students put the above pension in their own words, verbally or orally.
  2. Distinguish between a primary source (original source) and a secondary source. Give examples of each. Discuss how each can contain bias or inaccuracies.
  1. View the park video, “Cowpens: A Battle Remembered". In the Visitor Center, search for evidence of rewards Congress voted for Daniel Morgan, John Eager Howard, William Washington and Andrew Pickens. Identify the rewards by photographing, sketching, or making a written description. How did their rewards differ from other battle participants?
  2. Identify the rank of each of these leaders at the Battle of Cowpens. Find and list evidence of other battles that each participated in.
  1. Set up a court system in class, with students acting as judge, clerk of court and observers. Have students make pension applications by verbally presenting their role at Cowpens or other Revolutionary War battles. Have others testify for them.
  2. Analyze the pension system. Was it fair and equitable? How could it have been improved?
  3. Have students use such sources as The Patriots At the Cowpens (Dr. Bobby Moss) to list important battle participant information in abstracts and list sources for each abstract.
  4. Have students summarize some of the pension or land bounty laws described in Locating Your Revolutionary War Ancestor (Neagles.) Trace the progression of pension laws from limited rewards offered to more liberal and inclusive rewards.

Additional Resources

Cartright, Betty G. and Lillian J. Gardiner. North Carolina Land Grants in Tennessee, 1778-1991. Memphis, Tennessee: Division of Archives, 1958.

Eller, Elizabeth F. Women of the Revolution. New York: Haskett House, 1969.

Hoyt, Max, et. al. Index of Revolutionary Pension Applications in the National Archives. Washington, D.C., 1976.

Moss, Bobby Gilmer. The Patriots at the Cowpens. Blacksburg, South Carolina: Scotia Press, 1985.

Moss, Bobby G. South Carolina Patriots in the American Revolution. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Company, 1982.

Neagles, James C and Lila L. Neagles. Locating Your Revolutionary War Ancestor: A Guide to the Military Records. Logan, Utah: The Everton Publishers, Inc. Records.

Revill, Janie. Revolutionary Claims Filed in South Carolina. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Company, 1969.