Lesson Plan

Comparing Sources: The Decision to Fight at Cowpens

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Grade Level:
Eighth Grade-College Undergraduate Level
Revolutionary War, Social Studies
one class period - 55 minutes
Group Size:
Up to 36 (6-12 breakout groups)
National/State Standards:
NC: 8.H.1.2;  8.H.1.3;  8.H.1.4;  8.H.2.1; 8.H.2.2; AH1.H.2.1;  AH1.H.2.2
SC: 8-2.5


Using multiple primary sources to build analytical and corroborative skills to examine the circumstances surrounding Daniel Morgan’s decision to fight when and where he chose.


1.    Students will develop a fuller understanding of the events leading to the battle at Cowpens

2.    Students will build historical thinking skills through the use of multiple sources of information and differing interpretations.

3. Students will use analysis of primary and secondary source information to reach historical conclusions.


The battle of Cowpens is considered by many historians to be a turning point in the American Revolution. The fighting at Cowpens ended in a classic double envelopment of the British forces and led General Cornwallis to give chase to a lighter and faster Patriot army. The fighting at Cowpens has not been lost to historians and the military. In recent years the fighting at Cowpens has been memorialized in a major Hollywood feature film and the military has conducted innumerable staff rides and field problems based on the events of the battle. While the tactics and specific events of the battle are usually the focus of study about Cowpens, they are only one aspect of this important episode in American history. The events that led to General Daniel Morgan's decision to fight at Cowpens deserve detailed study within the cause-and-effect structure of history.


In the wake of the Patriot defeat at the battle of Camden in August and the Patriot victory at Kings Mountain in October, the Continental Congress appointed General Nathanael Greene at the commander of the southern armies. Greene's task was daunting; he was to build "an army to look the enemy in the face." In Charlotte, N.C. he found several of the building blocks of just such an army. Perhaps most importantly he found General Daniel Morgan, one of the best natural leaders in the army. Greene set about to gain the support of the notoriously independent militia leaders in the Carolinas. Greene also determined that he needed to split his army so that it could be supplied from the countryside as well as bolster Patriot morale in as wide of an area as possible. One part of the army would become a "flying army" under Daniel Morgan that would move through South Carolina and harass Cornwallis and fight small actions. The remainder of the army would move eastward and compel the enemy to split his force as well. The two parts of the Patriot army would be on the move making it extremely hard for Cornwallis to achieve a decisive blow.[1]


Daniel Morgan and his flying army were to operate in the rear of Cornwallis' main force. This would threaten British strongholds as well as divert attention from Greene and the rest of the Patriot army. Morgan was also to get the militia to take the field and harass the enemy as much as possible while bolstering Patriot morale. Morgan set out in late December 1780 and came to camp between the Broad and Pacolet Rivers. Here Morgan's flying army was joined by militia leader Andrew Pickens and his regiment of militia. This would not be the last group of militia that would join Morgan before he gave battle. Morgan got word of a Loyalist incursion into the South Carolina backcountry and sent William Washington's dragoons to deliver a blow. This sharp fight at Hammond's Store ended with the Loyalists running and Washington not losing a single man. The Patriots continued the march and forced the Loyalists out of a fort that guarded the communications to Fort Ninety Six. These actions caused Cornwallis great concern and he wrote to his commander about the issues they caused. "But the constant incursions of Refugees, North Carolinians, and Back-Mountain men, and the perpetual risings in the different parts of the province; the in variable successes all these parties against our militia keep the whole country in a constant alarm." [2]


Cornwallis was embarrassed by the Patriot actions and incursions into the rear of his army. In preparation for a planned second invasion of North Carolina, Cornwallis and Tarleton devised a plan to rid the backcountry of Morgan and his flying army. Tarleton's Legion would be reinforced and run Morgan to ground on the western side of the Broad River and hopefully trap Morgan between the Legion and Cornwallis' main force. As Tarleton set out on the march, Morgan was growing apprehensive about his available forces and was fearful of what was to come. Greene however was sanguine about the plans that had been laid. In fact Greene sent the following letter to Morgan about his prospects. "It is my wish that you should hold your ground if possible, for I foresee the disagreeable consequences that will result from a retreat…Col. Tarleton is said to be on his way to pay you a visit. I doubt not but he will have a decent reception and a proper dismission." [3]


Tarleton's spies reported that Morgan's army was growing daily, which made it a very dangerous animal. Rains had swollen creeks and muddied roads to the point that the Legion was unable to travel at its accustomed pace. While Tarleton moved slower than expected, Cornwallis was having an even rougher time in the red Carolina clay. Morgan however was afraid of the possibility of being caught between the two enemy forces. If he retreated in either direction then part of his militia would leave and the morale of the Patriots in the area would drop. With no good options, Morgan moved his army northward where he could supply his men and search for an advantage to exploit. By January 15, 1780 Morgan had pulled his men out of their camp near Grindal Shoals and were moving toward the Broad. [4]


Even though Tarleton was moving slower than he would have liked, he was still on pace to catch Morgan before Morgan was ready. On the evening of January 15, 1780 Tarleton fooled Morgan into thinking he was encamped, when in reality he was marching for the Pacolet. He crossed without Morgan receiving any advanced warning. By the morning of January 16, 1780 the Legion was about six miles from Morgan and Morgan was unaware of their approach. When word finally reached him, Morgan ordered a hasty retreat. The Cowpens had been a fixture in the backcountry for years and it became a rallying point for the militia at this time. Morgan sent militia units toward the Cowpens, and other militia units naturally rendezvoused at this location. Morgan's force was growing rapidly, yet he was not ready to give battle to Tarleton and his vaunted Legion.[5]

[1]Robert Brown, Kings Mountain and Cowpens: Our Victory Was Complete (Charleston: History Press, 2009), 92-93.

[2] Brown, Kings Mountain and Cowpens, 94-98. Charles Cornwallis to Henry Clinton, as quoted in John Buchanan, The Road to Guilford Courthouse (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1997), 306–7.

[3] Ed Bearss, Battle of Cowpens (Johnson City, TN: Overmountain Press, 1996), 5. Greene to Morgan, quoted in Theodorus Myers, Cowpens Papers (Charleston, SC: News and Courier, 1881), 19. Brown, Kings Mountain and Cowpens, 99-100.

[4] KM & Cowpens 101-102. Lawrence Babits, A Devil of a Whipping (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998), 52.

[5] Brown, Kings Mountain and Cowpens, 102-103. Babits, A Devil of a Whipping  52-53. Brown, Kings Mountain and Cowpens, 103.


The materials for this lesson are two excerpts from primary sources (a letter and a memoir), and two excerpts from recent monographs on the battle of Cowpens. Each source provides important information as well as a unique point of view about the events and thought processes surrounding the decision to fight at Cowpens.



1.    The type of student responses to the tasks in the lesson and the questions that that pose to the teacher.

2.    The quality of discussion about the various materials in the lesson.

3.    The amount of interaction and quality responses in Steps 4, 5 and 6 that have students synthesize why Morgan chose Cowpens to fight and what the ramifications of that decision potentially were.

Park Connections

The decision to fight at Cowpens was crucial to Morgan's success against Banastre Tarleton. The process Morgan went through to determine when and where to fight Tarleton is essential to understanding why Cowpens National Battlefield is important to our understanding of the American Revolution. Once students understand the decision and its ramifications, they can visit the park to walk the battlefield and develop an understanding of the battle itself.


·        Students should use the information in the sources and their analysis of the sources to discuss the counterfactual question of "What if Morgan had retreated across the Broad River instead of turning at fighting at Cowpens?"

Additional Resources

·        Narrative overview of the southern campaign - https://www.nps.gov/cowp/historyculture/southerncampaign.htm

·        The Cowpens Staff Ride and Battlefield Tour - http://lib.jrshelby.com/moncure.pdf

·        Narrative describing the two forces movements to Cowpens - http://www.patriotresource.com/amerrev/battles/cowpens/page3.html

·        Overview of the battle of Cowpens - https://www.nps.gov/cowp/historyculture/the-battle-of-cowpens.htm


• Patriot
• Loyalist
• Militia
• Refugees
• Retreat
• Rendezvous
• Corroboration
• Disgrace
• Conundrum
• Morale

Last updated: April 14, 2015