The geography of South Carolina has been a force in shaping the state’s history. Rivers and streams, mountains, and swamps all played a part in this history. All these were forces shaping the course of the Revolutionary War and the Battle of Cowpens.
South Carolina’s three major river systems (the Santee, the Pee Dee and the Savannah) flow generally from northwest to southeast, bisecting the state. Smaller rivers and streams flow into these systems. Many of the watercourses originate in the Blue Ridge mountains of the Carolinas. No one, then, can travel from the coastal plain to the upcountry without traversing rivers and streams. In many instances, rivers were obstacles.
Five rivers played an important part in the Battle of Cowpens, all part of the Broad River watershed and eventually the Santee. The Enoree, Tiger, Pacolet, and Broad rivers were instrumental in pre-battle travel, strategies and events. The Broad and Catawba rivers (both originating in North Carolina) figured prominently in post-battle travel and events. A swampy area leading to the battle site was most likely an obstacle, possibly affecting the outcome of the battle.
After the Patriot defeat at Camden, South Carolina (August 16, 1780), General George Washington changed commanders of the Southern Continental Army. He appointed General Nathanael Greene, who rebuilt the defeated army. The British at the time controlled Charles Town, Camden and many parts of South Carolina. Greene split his army, sending General Daniel Morgan to the backcountry to encourage the Patriots in the area and keep the British from getting supplies. General Cornwallis, commander of the British army in the south, learning of Morgan’s whereabouts, reciprocated by splitting his army and sending Lt. Colonel Banastre Tarleton in pursuit. Morgan, by then joined by militia units and knowing Tarleton was in pursuit, stopped at the flood-swollen Pacolet River.
Tarleton, further South and having already crossed the Broad in his pursuit of Morgan, crossed the Enoree and Tyger, both swollen by flood-waters. Morgan, on learning of Tarleton’s approach, crossed the Pacolet, and as Tarleton grew even nearer, struck out on the Green River Road (Mills Gap Road) towards the Cow Pens. Thicketty Mountain, a small mountain to the north of the Green River Road served as a landmark. Tarleton, pushing his army, crossed the Pacolet in pursuit. In the meantime, Morgan, with the flooded Broad River six miles to his rear (west), decided to stand and fight at the Cow Pens, fearing the fast-moving Tarleton would catch up and cut his soldiers down as they crossed the Broad. Morgan and his army of regulars and militia camped at the Cow Pens, the night of January 16 th and 17th . Tarleton, again trying to catch up, marched his army from two in the morning on the 17th and arrived at the Cow Pens before daybreak. He began the attack on Patriot forces at daybreak, his army now marching up a slight hill toward the waiting Patriots. Morgan, having arranged his army in three lines, had the advantage of trees and small hillocks for cover; the Patriot cavalry under the command of William Washington, were stationed behind an even larger hillock. From Tarleton’s view, the Americans appeared to be running, as the sharpshooters ran back to the militia line, and the militia retreated behind the Continental line. The British, thinking it a rout, were drawn in toward the remaining lines of Continentals. The British 71 st Highlanders entered the battle late, having been held in reserve by Tarleton and having had to negotiate a swampy area as they moved forward. An order to face the oncoming 71 st Highlanders was misunderstood as a call to retreat. Morgan stopped the retreat, had the line face about and fire in unison. The Continental line followed by a bayonet attack, and Washington’s cavalry and the regrouped militia came around to help envelop the British. The weary British began surrendering in numbers – more than 500 total.
Tarleton escaped the battle with some 50 of his soldiers, traveling the Green River Road east, and crossing the Broad River to Cornwallis’ camp at the head of Turkey Creek. Morgan, believing Cornwallis would come after him, left the Cowpens before noon. He, his army and more than 500 British prisoners, crossed the still-flooded Broad at Island Ford and proceeded to Gilbert Town. From there, they traveled northeast through Cane Creek valley, their destination Salisbury on the other side of the Catawba. He eventually met with General Greene at Salisbury. Patriot forces tried to delay the British at Sherill’s Ford of the Catawba.
Though Morgan retired from battle because of his health, Nathanael Greene led Cornwallis on a chase north to the Dan River which separated North Carolina and Virginia. From there he returned to fight Cornwallis at Guilford Courthouse, where the British held the field but suffered numerous casualties. Cornwallis, a great distance from his base, short of supplies, and frustrated with the Carolinas, proceeded to Wilmington and on to Yorktown, where he was defeated by Washington, October 1781.
Babits, Lawrence E. A Devil of a Whipping: The Battle of Cowpens. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1998.
Kovacik, Charles F. and John J. Winberry. South Carolina: The Making of a Landscape. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1987.