Student Activities

Morgan’s Plan of Battle at Cowpens

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


Utilizing six fundamental historical concepts, students will break down and critically analyze Daniel Morgan’s innovative plan of battle at Cowpens. 


1.    Students will develop a deeper understanding of Morgan's plan for battle at Cowpens

2.    Students will build their skills as historians through analysis, contextualization, and synthesis of source information.

3. Students will use analysis of source information and collaboration to develop evidence-based historical arguments.


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. Morgan's plan for defeating Tarleton's vaunted Legion was militarily brilliant in both its conception and execution. For students, Daniel Morgan's plan of battle at Cowpens deserves detailed study as a study of the fighting of the American Revolution in microcosm.

Fighting Tarleton at the Cowpens would allow Morgan to get his flying army farther from that of Cornwallis while also allowing him to fight on ground of his own choosing. The ground that Morgan chose was perfect for a defensive battle, being relatively wide with open plains and a few old-growth trees. There were some subtle terrain features such as hillocks, a ravine, and a swampy area that would impact the course of the battle, and Morgan could use them to his advantage. The shape of the field would act much like a funnel and steer an attacking force straight into any arrangements that a defender had devised. The terrain of the battlefield also played into Tarleton's own ideas about fighting. He would see an open field dotted with Patriot soldiers and use his combined dragoons and infantry to charge and scatter them, just as he had done on numerous battlefields in South Carolina.[1]

Morgan devised an ingenious plan for the coming battle with Tarleton. Not only had he chosen an excellent battlefield, he also planned to use deception and intricate positioning of his troops to deal the Legion a crippling blow. Morgan had three kinds of soldiers in his flying army – militia (many armed with rifles), Continental regulars and state troops (armed with muskets and bayonets), and dragoons. Each of these types of soldiers had unique strengths and weaknesses that Morgan planned to exploit in the coming battle. He developed what the modern military calls a "defense in-depth" rather than relying on one single line of battle. Morgan's plan was to array his forces in three parallel lines of battle so that Tarleton would have to deal with each line in succession and break the force of his charge.[2]

On the first line, straddling the Green River Road, would be two groups of handpicked militia that were expert marksmen. Their job was to initiate the battle by getting Tarleton to attack and eliminate as many officers as possible before they were compelled to retreat in the face of Tarleton's bayonets. The second line would be composed of the various militia units that had joined Morgan. This group would be situated about 100 yards behind the skirmish line. Their job was to cover the retreat of the skirmishers and fire two or three well aimed shots from "killing distance" at the advancing Legion. Like the skirmish line they were also to pay particular attention to the officers and thereby hinder Tarleton's ability to control his men. Once the militia had fired their shots they were to retreat behind the third line, which would appear to Tarleton as if they were retreating. On the third line, approximately 150 yards behind the militia, were the Continental regulars and Virginia State Troops. This would be Morgan's main battle line where they would trade volleys with the Legion who by that time would think they were winning a great victory. By the time they reached this point the Legion's command and control would be degraded and the combat power of the infantry would be weakened by the necessity of breaking the two previous lines of militia. The dragoons who were hidden from view would appear on the field and attempt to get into the rear of the attacking Legion. While a desperate gamble, Morgan's plan and disposition made the best use of the troops that he had available and played on the hyper aggressiveness of Tarleton.[3]

On the evening of January 16, 1781 Morgan met with his commanders to explain the plan. While Morgan's men were resting, Tarleton's men were tired from days of marching and were then slogging through muddy roads in pursuit of the flying army. Morgan himself stayed up much of the night, going around and encouraging the men and reassuring them about the outcome of the battle. One participant even stated that Morgan told them he would crack his old whip over Tarleton just as sure as he lived. The same soldier stated that Morgan told his group, "Just hold up your heads boys, give them three fires and you will be free. Then when you return home how the old folks will bless you and the girls will kiss you, for your gallant conduct." Morgan then claimed he climbed a tree and prayed as hard as a man could pray.[4]

[1]Lieutenant Colonel Jon Moncure, The Cowpens Staff Ride and Battlefield Tour (Fort Leavenworth, KS: Combat Studies Institute, 1996), 46. Robert Brown, Kings Mountain and Cowpens: Our Victory Was Complete (Charleston: History Press, 2009), 105-106.

[2] Brown, Kings Mountain and Cowpens, 107-108.

[3] Brown, Kings Mountain and Cowpens, 108.

[4] Brown, Kings Mountain and Cowpens, 109. Thomas Young's memoirs, quoted in Ed Southern, Voices of the American Revolution in the Carolinas (Winston-Salem, NC: Blair, 2009), 181.


Step 1: Before you can begin the major components of this activity it is necessary for students to have a working understanding of the conceptual terms that they will work with, as well as why they are important to the exercise they will be completing.

  •  Discuss the Conceptual Terms list with the class.

Step 2: Read the excerpt from Kings Mountain and Cowpens: Our Victory Was Complete

  •  Have students write down a minimum of five major items from the excerpt. (This number can be adjusted depending on the readiness level of the students and size of the class). These items can be questions the student has, statements about the content, key concepts or ideas, or important terms.

Step 3: In a whole class format write (or have the students write) their five things on the board.

  • There does not need to be any order as to where or how they are written on the board, random lists work best for this exercise.

Step 4: Divide the class in groups of three to four students. (This is where the heavy processing and critical thinking will occur.)

  • Each group will take the items written on the board and categorize them on the Fundamental Historical Concepts Chart based on their working understanding of the six fundamental historical concepts. (The discussions and thinking required by group members is the information processing and critical thinking.)

Step 6: Have the different groups develop a one-sentence answer to the following question:

  • In what ways was Morgan's plan at Cowpens an exercise in leadership and a demonstration of an understanding of the soldiers in his command?

Step 7: Students in each group should gather historical evidence in support of their one-sentence answer.

  •  The evidence can come from the statements, questions, concepts, and other information that was written on the board. 
  •  The evidence should be conceptual and based on the information on their charts or can be from a re-examination of the reading. Students can also use evidence from other sources or from prior knowledge they may possess.

Step 8: Each group should present its thesis and evidence to the whole class. The goal is to allow all students in the class to discuss and debate the merits of each case as well as demonstrate additional and/or alternative approaches to the issue.

Additional Resources

·        Narrative that discusses Morgan's plan of battle -

·        Narratives that discuss how Morgan's plan unfolded during the battle - and

·        Overview of the battle of Cowpens -

·        Cowpens Staff Ride and Battlefield Tour -


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Last updated: January 14, 2016