The Washington Light Infantry built this monument in 1856, several years before the Civil War. At first glance, the monument is not very impressive. However, this type of design typified Revolutionary War monuments of the era. Before the Civil War, the nation commemorated few battlefields with monuments, and most of these were in the North (such as Bunker Hill). Many southern sites remained agricultural land and the battlefields became forgotten. This monument is significant in that it represents one of the few such examples of the time period to memorialize a southern battle.
The Washington Light Infantry was a South Carolina militia group organized in Charleston in 1807 in honor of the memory of George Washington. In 1827, the widow of Col. William Washington, a Revolutionary War cavalry commander and cousin to George Washington, donated the group her late husband's Eutaw flag. Col. Washington had flown this homemade flag throughout the southern campaign. From this point on, the organization became more closely associated with William Washington than their original namesake. Before becoming part of the SC National Guard, the Washington Light Infantry participated as a unit in every major war the US fought.
During the 1850s, the country as a whole was in a great deal of turmoil. The problems climaxed with the division in Kansas, as settlers in the region waged bloody battles over the issue of slavery. As this controversy continued, friction not only developed in the country, but within the WLI as well. The commanders of the unit decided they needed a common project to unify their group. The 75th anniversary of the Battle of Cowpens was coming up and Captain Lewis Hatch decided this was the perfect opportunity. Cowpens was arguably the most important battle Col. Washington was involved in, so the WLI decided to focus their efforts on building a monument to honor its memory.
After contacting the citizens of Spartanburg, the Washington Light Infantry proceeded to Cowpens Battlefield in April of 1856 to build this monument. When they arrived, the local community welcomed them with several celebrations. After much praise, the organization constructed the monument over two days, placing several relics inside the base including a vial of water from Eutaw Springs (another battle Col. Washington fought in), a brick from a house at Eutaw Springs, an account of the Battle of Cowpens, and a roster of the members of the Washington Light Infantry. The base was constructed from sand taken from Fort Moultrie. On top of the shaft, they placed a golden eagle.
At the dedication ceremony, Captain Hatch told the crowd he hoped this monument would renew the spirit of the revolution and help prevent a future war from taking place. However, local citizens saw things differently. To many, the monument signified southern independence, the ability of those in the south to throw off the chains of tyranny. In fact, a few days after secession in 1860, many local residents rallied around the monument to show their support for the Confederacy.
Over the years, the monument has suffered several attacks of vandalism. One of these incidents resulted in the theft of the golden eagle. With the creation of Cowpens National Battlefield, the National Park Service is dedicated to preserving the monument as it reflects the earliest commemorative efforts on this battlefield and in the South.