The Battle of Cowpens: The Battle Geography
OverviewGOAL: To show students how Carolina backcountry geography affected the course of the Battle of Cowpens.
- The student will identify the rivers and other features of Carolina backcountry geography affecting pre-battle strategies and events, the course of the battle, and post-battle strategies and events.
- The student will analyze the effects of backcountry geographic features on pre-battle strategies and events, the course of the battle, and post-battle strategies and events.
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.
- Have students use a South Carolina map to identify each of the following: The Enoree River, the Tyger River, the Pacolet River, the Green River Road, Thicketty Mountain, Cowpens Battlefield, the Broad River, Turkey Creek (present-day York County) and the Catawba River. Which rivers appear the widest? What would be the effects of floodwaters? (current, depth, floating debris, etc.)
- Have students analyze the part each site above played in events leading to the battle, the battle itself, and its aftermath.
- Have students analyze the part played by hillocks on the battlefield, and the slight hill the British had to negotiate in their advance toward the militia line.
- Walk the battlefield, and from interpretive signs, have students identify the hill the British had to negotiate. Begin at the point the British formed, and walk up this hill to the militia line, timing your walk. Discuss how this hill affected the British advance. Identify any rises or hillocks, which could offer cover to the Patriot army. Note especially the hillock William Washington and his cavalry waited behind. What part would erosion make in changing the height of these hillocks? Look for a swampy area near where the British formed. How could this site have delayed the 71 st Highlanders?
- Have students identify Thicketty Mountain from the battlefield, or on the trip to or from the battlefield. Have students explain what a landmark is and how Thicketty Mountain served as one.
- Have students write an imaginary journal as a British soldier may have viewed the battlefield and journey to it.
- Have students write an imaginary journal as a Patriot soldier may have viewed the battlefield as well as the journey to and from the battlefield.
- Have students analyze how armies would have crossed flooded rivers, and how Morgan crossed the Broad with more than 500 prisoners.
- Have students use a map of South Carolina to plot travel from present-day Charleston to Greenville, South Carolina, without crossing a major stream. (Note to the teacher: It can’t be done, but the exercise will show the student the impact of rivers on travel across the state.)
- Read Dr. Larry Babits’ study of erosion at the Battle of Cowpens. Have students analyze how this erosion has affected the battlefield landscape and limited present-day understanding of the battle.
- Have students identify changes that led to easier and safer crossings of rivers (ferries, bridges).
- Have students give directions to their school or community, and, in doing so, describe bodies of water or landmarks (natural or human-made) to guide the traveler.
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.