Lt. Gen. Charles, Earl Cornwallis assumed command of the Southern theater after the fall of Charleston on May 12, 1780, and British commander-in-chief Sir Henry Clinton returned to New York. Clinton’s orders of Cornwallis were to secure South Carolina and then move north. Cornwallis planned to restore Royal authority in South Carolina, then do the same in North Carolina. He established a series of armed outposts stretching from near the coast, to Ninety-Six on the western frontier.
Major General Horatio Gates, the “hero of Saratoga” appeared on the scene, disrupting Cornwallis’ troop movement. Cornwallis’s army defeated Gates’s in the humiliating battle near Camden, South Carolina on August 16, 1780. With little opposition, Cornwallis moved into North Carolina. However, an outbreak camp fever halted the invasion at Charlotte. The Battle at Kings Mountain greatly weakened Cornwallis’s army on October 7, 1780.
General George Washington replaced Gates with Major General Nathanael Greene, formerly the Army’s quartermaster general. Greene took command of the southern army at Charlotte on December 3, 1780. He described his new army as “but the shadow of an army in the midst of distress.” Greene would spend the next few months writing countless letters to local officials and governors for clothing, food, and soldiers. Greene needed time to refit and strengthen his army, therefore he divided his inferior force with Brigadier General David Morgan. With Morgan, the army would travel to the western Carolinas to annoy the enemy and “spirit up the people.”
In response, Cornwallis’ sent a thousand men against them under Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton’s command. Morgan defeated Tarleton at the Battle of Cowpens on January 17, 1781, setting back Cornwallis’ goals.