Primary Sources

Comparing Sources: The Decision to Fight at Cowpens

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Grade Level:
Middle School: Sixth Grade through Eighth Grade
Social Studies

Students will use 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.


Step 1: 

Have students read the excerpt from Nathanael Greene's letter to Daniel Morgan and complete the following tasks:

1.    Note the main idea of the excerpt.

2.    Make notes about any important facts or details the excerpt contains.

Discuss the answers with the class.

Step 2: 

Have students read the excerpt from the book Kings Mountain and Cowpens: Our Victory Was Complete and complete the following tasks:

1.    Note the main idea(s) from the excerpt.

2.    Make notes about any important facts or details the excerpt contains.

3.    Note the historical tone of the excerpt.

Discuss the answers with the class.

Step 3:

Have students read the excerpt below from The Cowpens Staff Ride and Battlefield Tour and complete the following tasks:

1.    Note the main idea(s).

2.    Make notes about any important facts or details the excerpt contains.

3.    Note the historical tone of the excerpt.

Discuss the answers with the class.

Step 4: 

Have students draw a triple Venn Diagram on a sheet of paper and designate and label one circle for each of the sources they have read. The students should then sort the main ideas and facts from each of the excerpts into the appropriate circles of the diagram. Once the students have completed the diagrams they should answer the questions below.

a)    What are the facts in each letter or excerpt?

b)   What do the facts mean?

c)    How reliable does the information in each document appear?

d)   How do the facts compare?

e)    What do the differences between the three documents imply?

Discuss the answers with the class. Students should rearrange the information in their diagrams to reflect material that is common to each source.

Step 5:

Have students answer the following set of questions to cross the boundary between the known and unknown.

a)    What risks did Morgan and Greene face at this juncture of the war?

b)   Was Morgan in a precarious position? How do we know?

c)    What seems to have been Greene's "true" intention for Morgan?

d)   Is there anything "between the lines" that we need to be aware of?

Discuss the answers with the class.

Step 6: 

Have students read the excerpt from Banastre Tarleton's memoirs. Ask them the following questions and discuss the answers.

a)    Does this information change the way that we view Morgan's actions in January of 1781?

b)   In what ways does this new information corroborate or dispute either of the secondary source excerpts?

c)    What do YOU think about Morgan's position in January of 1781 and his subsequent actions?

Discuss the answers with the class.

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 -

·        The Cowpens Staff Ride and Battlefield Tour -

·        Narrative describing the two forces movements to Cowpens -

·        Overview of the battle of Cowpens -


Download Source Materials

Last updated: January 14, 2016