The Battle of Cowpens

Battle of Cowpens by Charles McBarron
Battle of Cowpens by Charles McBarron

The Battle of Cowpens1, January 17, 1781, took place in the latter part of the Southern Campaign of the American Revolution and of the Revolution itself. It became known as the turning point of the war in the South, part of a chain of events leading to Patriot victory at Yorktown2 The Cowpens victory was won over a crack British regular army3 and brought together strong armies and leaders who made their mark on history.

Beginning with the Battle of Moore's Creek Bridge4, the British had made early and mostly futile efforts in the South, including a failed naval expedition to take Charleston in 1776. Such victories boosted Patriot morale and blunted British efforts, but by 1779-80, with stalemate in the North, British strategists again looked south. They came south for a number of reasons, primarily to assist Southern Loyalists5 and help them regain control of colonial governments, and then push north, to crush the rebellion6. They estimated that many of the population would rally to the Crown.

In 1779-80, British redcoats indeed came South en masse, capturing first, Savannah7 and then Charleston8 and Camden 8A in South Carolina, in the process, defeating and capturing much of the Southern Continental Army9. Such victories gave the British confidence they would soon control the entire South and that Loyalists would flock to their cause. Conquering these population centers, however, gave the British such a false sense of victory that they didn't count on so much opposition in the backcountry10. Conflict in the backcountry, to their rear, turned out to be their Achilles' heel.

The Southern Campaign, especially in the backcountry, was essentially a civil war as the colonial population split between Patriot and Loyalist. Conflict came, often pitting neighbor against neighbor and re-igniting old feuds and animosities. Those of both sides organized militia, often engaging each other. The countryside was devastated, and raids and reprisals were the order of the day.

Into this conflict, General George Washington sent the very capable Nathanael Greene to take command of the Southern army. Against military custom, Greene, just two weeks into his command, split his army, sending General Daniel Morgan southwest of the Catawba River to cut supply lines and hamper British operations in the backcountry, and, in doing so "spirit up the people". General Cornwallis, British commander in the South, countered Greene's move by sending Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton to block Morgan's actions. Tarleton was only twenty-six, but he was an able commander, both feared and hated - hated especially for his victory at the Waxhaws.11 There, Tarleton was said to have continued the fight against remnants of the Continental Army trying to surrender. According to tradition, his refusal to offer quarter, led to the derisive term "Tarleton's Quarter".

These events set the stage for the Battle of Cowpens. On January 12, 1781, Tarleton's scouts located Morgan's army at Grindal Shoals on the Pacolet River12 in South Carolina's backcountry and thus began an aggressive pursuit. Tarleton, fretting about heavy rains and flooded rivers, gained ground as his army proceeded toward the flood-swollen Pacolet. As Tarleton grew closer, Morgan retreated north to Burr's Mill on Thicketty Creek.13 On January 16, with Tarleton reported to have crossed the Pacolet and much closer than expected, Morgan and his army made a hasty retreat, so quickly as to leave their breakfast behind. Soon, he intersected with and traveled west on the Green River Road. Here, with the flood-swollen Broad River14 six miles to his back, Morgan decided to make a stand at the Cowpens, a well-known crossroads and frontier pasturing ground.

The term "cowpens"15, endemic to such South Carolina pastureland and associated early cattle industry, would be etched in history. The field itself was some 500 yards long and just as wide, a park-like setting dotted with trees, but devoid of undergrowth, having been kept clear by cattle grazing in the spring on native grasses and peavine16.

There was forage17 at the Cowpens for horses, and evidence of free-ranging cattle for food. Since he had learned of Tarleton's pursuit, Morgan also had spread the word for militia18 units to rendezvous at the Cowpens. Many knew the geography; some were Overmountain men who had camped at the Cowpens on their journey to the Battle of Kings Mountain.19 They made camp in a swale between two small hills, and through the night Andrew Pickens' militia drifted into camp. Morgan moved among the campfires and offered encouragement; his speeches to militia and Continentals alike were command performances. He spoke emotionally of past battles, talked of the battle plan, and lashed out against the British. His words were especially effective with the militia the "Old Waggoner"20 of French and Indian War days and the hero of Saratoga21, spoke their language. He knew how to motivate them even proposing a competition of bravery between Georgia and Carolina units. By the time he was through, one soldier observed that the army was "in good spirits and very willing to fight". But, as one observed, Morgan hardly slept a wink that night.

Dawn at the Cowpens on January 17, 1781, was clear and bitterly cold. Morgan, his scouts bearing news of Tarleton's approach, moved among his men, shouting, "Boys, get up! Benny's22 coming! Tarleton, playing catch up, and having marched his army since two in the morning, ordered formation on the Green River Road for the attack. His aggressive style was made even more urgent, since there were rumors of Overmountain men on the way, reminiscent of events at Kings Mountain. Yet he was confident of victory: he reasoned he had Morgan hemmed in by the Broad, and the undulating park-like terrain was ideal for his dragoons23. He thought Morgan must be desperate, indeed, to have stopped at such a place. Perhaps Morgan saw it differently: in some past battles, Patriot militia had fled in face of fearsome bayonet charges - but now the Broad River at Morgan's back could prevent such a retreat. In reality, though, Morgan had no choice - to cross the flood-swollen Broad risked having his army cut down by the feared and fast-traveling Tarleton.

Tarleton pressed the attack head-on, his line extending across the meadow, his artillery in the middle, and fifty Dragoons on each side. It was as if Morgan knew he would make a frontal assault - it was his style of fighting. To face Tarleton, he organized his troops into three lines. First, out front and hiding behind trees were selected sharpshooters. At the onset of battle they picked off numbers of Tarleton's Dragoons, traditionally listed as fifteen24, shooting especially at officers, and warding off an attempt to gain initial supremacy. With the Dragoons in retreat, and their initial part completed, the sharpshooters retreated 150 yards or more back to join the second line, the militia commanded by Andrew Pickens. Morgan used the militia well, asking them to get off two volleys and promised their retreat to the third line made up of John Eager Howard's25 Continentals, again close to 150 yards back. Some of the militia indeed got off two volleys as the British neared, but, as they retreated and reached supposed safety behind the Continental line, Tarleton sent his feared Dragoons after them. As the militia dodged behind trees and parried saber slashes with their rifles, William Washington's26 Patriot cavalry thundered onto the field of battle, seemingly, out of nowhere. The surprised British Dragoons, already scattered and sensing a rout, were overwhelmed, and according to historian Lawrence Babits, lost eighteen men in the clash. As they fled the field, infantry on both sides fired volley after volley. The British advanced in a trot, with beating drums, the shrill sounds of fifes, and shouts of halloo. Morgan, in response, cheering his men on, said to give them the Indian halloo back. Riding to the front, he rallied the militia, crying out, "form, form, my brave fellows! Old Morgan was never beaten!"

Now Tarleton's 71st Highlanders27, held in reserve, entered the charge toward the Continental line, the wild wail of bagpipes adding to the noise and confusion. John Eager Howard's order for the right flank to face slightly right to counter a charge from that direction, was, in the noise of battle, misunderstood as a call to retreat. As other companies along the line followed suit, Morgan rode up to ask Howard if he were beaten. As Howard pointed to the unbroken ranks and the orderly retreat and assured him they were not, Morgan spurred his horse on and ordered the retreating units to face about, and then, on order, fire in unison. The firing took a heavy toll on the British, who, by that time had sensed victory and had broken ranks in a wild charge. This event and a fierce Patriot bayonet charge in return broke the British charge and turned the tide of battle. The re-formed militia and cavalry re-entered the battle, leading to double envelopment28 of the British, perfectly timed. British infantry began surrendering en masse.

Tarleton and some of his army fought valiantly on; others refused his orders and fled the field. Finally, Tarleton, himself, saw the futility of continued battle, and with a handful of his men, fled from whence he came, down the Green River Road. In one of the most dramatic moments of the battle, William Washington, racing ahead of his cavalry, dueled hand-to-hand with Tarleton and two of his officers. Washington's life was saved only when his young bugler29 fired his pistol at an Englishman with raised saber. Tarleton and his remaining forces galloped away to Cornwallis' camp. Stragglers from the battle were overtaken, but Tarleton escaped to tell the awful news to Cornwallis.

The battle was over in less than an hour. It was a complete victory for the Patriot force. British losses were staggering: 110 dead, over 200 wounded and 500 captured. Morgan lost only 12 killed and 60 wounded, a count he received from those reporting directly to him.

Knowing Cornwallis would come after him, Morgan saw to it that the dead were buried - the legend says in wolf pits -- and headed north with his army. Crossing the Broad River at Island Ford30, he proceeded to Gilbert Town31, and, yet burdened as he was by the prisoners, pressed swiftly northeastward toward the Catawba River, and some amount of safety. The prisoners were taken via Salisbury32 on to Winchester, Virginia. Soon Morgan and Greene reunited and conferred, Morgan wanting to seek protection in the mountains and Greene wanting to march north to Virginia for supplies. Greene won the point, gently reminding Morgan that he was in command. Soon after Morgan retired from his duty because of ill health- rheumatism, and recurring bouts of malarial fever.

Now it was Greene and his army on the move north. Cornwallis, distressed by the news from Cowpens, and wondering aloud how such an inferior force could defeat Tarleton's crack troops, indeed came after him. Now it was a race for the Dan River33 on the Virginia line, Cornwallis having burned his baggage34 and swiftly pursuing Greene. Cornwallis was subsequently delayed by Patriot units stationed at Catawba River35 crossings. Greene won the race, and, in doing so, believed he had Cornwallis where he wanted -- far from urban supply centers and short of food. Returning to Guilford Courthouse36, he fought Cornwallis' army employing with some success, Morgan's tactics at Cowpens. At battle's end, the British were technically the winners as Greene's forces retreated. If it could be called a victory, it was a costly one: Five hundred British lay dead or wounded. When the news of the battle reached London, a member of the House of Commons said, "Another such victory would ruin the British army". Perhaps the army was already ruined, and Greene's strategy of attrition was working.

Soon, Greene's strategy was evident: Cornwallis and his weary army gave up on the Carolinas and moved on to Virginia. On October 18, 1781, the British army surrendered at Yorktown. Cowpens, in its part in the Revolution, was a surprising victory and a turning point that changed the psychology of the entire war. Now, there was revenge - the Patriot rallying cry Tarleton's Quarter 37. Morgan's unorthodox but tactical masterpiece had indeed "spirited up the people", not just those of the backcountry Carolinas, but those in all the colonies. In the process, he gave Tarleton and the British a "devil of a whipping".


1 Battle of Cowpens - At the Cowpens, a frontier pastureland, on January 17, 1781, Daniel Morgan led his army of tough Continentals and backwoods militia to a brilliant victory over Banastre Tarleton's battle-hardened force of British regulars. Located in present-day South Carolina north of Spartanburg.

2 Yorktown - On October 18, 1781, the British under General Lord Cornwallis surrendered to American and French troops under General George Washington at Yorktown, Virginia.

3 British regular army - Regular, trained and uniformed soldiers of the British Army, as distinguished from Loyalist (Tory) militia.

4 Battle of Moore's Creek Bridge - On February 27, 1776, patriot militia defeated a larger force of Loyalists. The battle was crucial because it ended royal authority in North Carolina and delayed a full-scale British invasion of the South.

5 Southern Loyalists - Those of the southern colonial population remaining loyal to the Crown. Also referred to as Tories.

6 rebellion - The British term for the American Revolution. Those involved were termed "rebels" by the British.

7 Savannah - The British captured this Georgia coastal town on December 29, 1778.

8 Charleston - On May 12, 1780, British forces under Clinton forced the surrender of the Charleston militia and Continentals under the command of General Benjamin Lincoln. The victory was a major setback for American forces in the South.

8A Camden - Fought on August 16, 1780, near Camden, South Carolina, the Battle of Camden was a disastrous defeat for the Patriots. Gates, the American general, gained a reputation as a "fool and coward" for his actions and fleeing the battle site. Reports of the results made Banastre Tarleton a national hero in Britain.

9 Southern Continental Army - Those regular, trained, and uniformed soldiers of the American army stationed in the South, as distinguished from local militia in each colony.

10 backcountry - South Carolina area west of the coastal area, especially west of Camden. Today, referred to as the Upcountry or Upstate.

11 Waxhaws - On May 29, a1780, Tarleton's Legion overtook and defeated Colonel Abraham Buford and his Third Virginia Continentals as they returned through the Waxhaws area toward North Carolina after the fall of Charleston. (Known also today as Buford's massacre) There is some contention over the origin of the name Waxhaws. It was the name of Native Americans of the region, derived, some historians, believe, from native language. Others believe it is an English corruption of the original and described not only the Native Americans of the region but also the waxy-looking haw and "hawfields", (shrubs, either Black Haw (vibernum prunifolium) or hawthorns (crataegus linnaeus) prominent in the region. The Waxhaw settlement, just off the Great Wagon Road, today covers parts of both Carolinas in an area southeast of Charlotte.

12 Pacolet River - An upstate South Carolina river with its headwaters in North Carolina flowing through present-day Spartanburg and Cherokee Counties before it empties into the Broad. The armies of Daniel Morgan and Banastre Tarleton crossed the flood-swollen Pacolet as they journeyed toward the Cowpens.

13 Thicketty Creek - An upstate South Carolina creek, a tributary of the Broad River. Most likely named for the thick plant growth along its banks. Daniel Morgan and his army camped along Thicketty before their hurried departure for the Cowpens.

14 Broad River - A river beginning in the mountains of North Carolina flowing southeast and joining with the Saluda River at present-day Columbia to form the Congaree River. Morgan, his army, and British prisoners crossed the Broad after the Battle of Cowpens. British General Cornwallis crossed the Broad in pursuit.

15 "cowpens" - A term, endemic to South Carolina, referring to open-range stock grazing operations of the colonial period. These were usually cleared areas, 100 to 400 acres in extent. Many, in eastern South Carolina, were known for their native cane- brakes. Piedmont pastures, though less numerous, often contained peavine.

16 peavine - A native legume found often in piedmont South Carolina cowpens.

17 forage - Food for animals or humans. Also, the search for food for animals or humans.

18 militia - Part-time soldiers, subject to colonial (state) authority, they sometimes fought with the Continental or standing army in battles such as Camden, Cowpens, and Guilford Courthouse. Thought unreliable by some Continental officers, they proved themselves at the Battles of Kings Mountain and Cowpens. 19

19 Battle of Kings Mountain - The Overmountain men and other militia defeated British loyalists at Kings Mountain in upstate South Carolina on October 7, 1780.

20 "Old Waggoner" - Affectionate name given to General Morgan who began his military career as a wagon driver in the French and Indian War.

21 Saratoga - In fierce battles on September 19 and October 7, 1777, American forces under General Horatio Gates defeated the British under General John Burgoyne. This victory encouraged France to enter the war to assist the Americans. Saratoga is in upstate New York.

22 "Benny" - Daniel Morgan's derisive name for Banastre Tarleton.

23 dragoon - A mounted infantryman, who often rode his horse into battle and dismounted to fight. Used synonymously with cavalrymen, both of whom could fight on horseback or dismounted.

24 15 - Dr. Lawrence E. Babits in his book, A Devil of a Whipping: The Battle of Cowpens,believes this figure is wrong and has been perpetuated by writers over the years.

25 John Eager Howard - Native Marylander and Revolutionary War officer who distinguished himself at the Battle of Cowpens. He was subsequently elected governor of Maryland (1788-91), and at one time owned much of the land that was to become Baltimore.

26 William Washington - Patriot Lieutenant Colonel of a cavalry unit, who distinguished himself at Cowpens. He was second cousin, first-removed to George Washington.

27 71st Highlanders - Two battalions of highland Scottish troops raised by England and sent to America in 1775. 71st Highlanders fought at Charleston, Camden, and Cowpens, among other battles. At Cowpens, Tarleton initially kept his Highlanders in reserve, but, as the advance faltered, he ordered them into action against the American right. The Highlanders bore the brunt of the last dramatic events of the Battle.

28 double envelopment - Envelopment is an attack on the enemies flank, rear, and sometimes the front. Double envelopment would entail attack or a surrounding on both flanks, hence all sides.

29 bugler - William Washington's bugler was very likely African-American. A famous painting by Ranney dipicts him so. Apparently the bugler didn't file a pension, and Washington didn't leave behind written papers of his own role or of anyone else's role in the Revolution. His surname was possibly Ball, Collins, or Collin, but an exact name hasn't been verified.

30 Island Ford - A normally low-water crossing point on the Broad River, reached by Island Ford Road. When Morgan, his army, and his prisoners crossed on January 17, the water was high from heavy rains and flooding.

31 Gilbert Town - Presently, Rutherfordton, North Carolina. Gilbert Town was a small settlement in 1781 a few miles north of Rutherfordton's present site.

32 Salisbury - An early town in the North Carolina piedmont known for its Confederate prison and National Cemetery, today, but lesser known for its Revolutionary War prison, most likely established in the latter years of the war. There is no evidence the prisoners from the Battle of Cowpens were imprisoned there.

33 Dan River - A river separating North Carolina and Virginia.

34 baggage - Military supplies such as tents, tools, and rations carried in wagons. Burning the baggage (and wagons) allowed an army to travel faster.

35 Catawba River - River originating in the mountains of North Carolina, flowing eastward, before turning south into South Carolina, where is known as the Wateree, and, further east, the Santee. Morgan crossed the Catawba west of present-day Charlotte, North Carolina.

36 Battle of Guilford Courthouse - On March 15, 1781, a British army under Cornwallis attacked Nathanael Greene's patriot forces at Guilford Courthouse, North Carolina (part of present-day Greensboro). Although Greene's forces were forced to retire from the field; the British were badly battered with many men killed or wounded.

37 "Tarleton's Quarter" - Since it was said that Tarleton gave no quarter (opportunity to surrender) at the Waxhaws, "Tarleton's Quarter" came to mean no quarter at all.

Last updated: January 5, 2022

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