The Battle of Cowpens 17 January 1781
In continuing our discussion about the Southern Campaign of 1780-81, this blog provides a vignette about one of the most significant tactical victories during America’s War for Independence – the Battle of Cowpens.
The Loyalist militia’s crushing defeat at the hands of the Patriot militia at Kings Mountain in October 1780 convinced the often-cautious British Commander General Lord Charles Cornwallis to postpone his movement into the Colony of North Carolina.
In addition to controlling the port of Charleston and securing the South Carolina backcountry, Cornwallis was convinced that he had to bring the Colony of North Carolina under military control to set the conditions for a complete British military victory in the Southern Theater.
In his book The Road to Guilford Courthouse, John Buchanan opines, “the great militia victory forced Lord Cornwallis to retreat to South Carolina and delayed his re-entry into North Carolina… and by then he faced an American general who had much to teach him about the art of War.” Cornwallis established his winter headquarters at Winnsboro, South Carolina on 29 October 1780.
General Nathanel Greene
Though General Greene is not the primary subject of this vignette, it is worthwhile noting that he was both a student of grand strategy and is considered to have been a master of geography, supply, and transport. Unlike his predecessor, Greene understood that he did not have the forces and logistical support to defeat Cornwallis in the field. Therefore, he set out on a course of gaining a keen understanding of the North Carolina terrain and its river systems as a way of skillfully avoiding a decisive engagement against a superior force. Greene sought to assess, rest, resupply and deploy his forces in such a manner as to influence Cornwallis to react to Greene’s movements.
Due to Greene’s risky but innovative deployment of his limited forces, Cornwallis decided to allocate one of his most competent and determined leaders to deal with an unexpected threat… the deployment of Patriot General Daniel Morgan and his “Flying” army.
Coming out of retirement as a newly promoted Brigadier General, Daniel Morgan arrived at Greene’s headquarters in Charlotte on 3 December 1780. While Greene was encouraged by some to prepare for an attack on British forces, he decided not to take an offensive posture against Cornwallis. To sustain his army in the field, he divided his forces to enhance his troop’s ability to forage for supplies; and present a visible threat to British outposts spread throughout the South Carolina backcountry.
Brigadier General Daniel Morgan
A Sequence of Events
20 - 21 Dec 1780: Greene deployed the forces under his command to Cheraw, SC by the Pee Dee River while Morgan and his element headed for Grindal Shoals near the Pacelot River. By the time the Battle of Cowpens took place on 17 January 1781, Greene, and Morgan… commanding two inferior-sized forces were about 140 miles apart.
Greene’s orders to Morgan were simple, he could conduct operations “either offensively or defensively as your own prudence and discretion may direct.”
25 Dec 1780 - 15 Jan 1781: Morgan remained in the Grindal Shoals area. To improve his soldier’s ability to forage for supplies, his mix of Continental and militia forces were further dispersed throughout the surrounding area.
Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton
28 Dec 1780: Cornwallis decided to begin his movement into North Carolina and once again the security of his left flank was paramount. This time he chose his tenacious 24-year-old cavalry leader Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton to both cover his left flank and to seek out Morgan’s forces and, in his words, “push him to the utmost.” Tarleton’s reputation preceded him. Tarleton’s destruction of 350 Virginia Continentals under the command of Colonel Abraham Buford at the Battle of Waxhaws earned him the moniker of Bloody Ban.
12 Jan 1781: General Morgan learned that Tarleton was in pursuit of him. Concerned about an engagement with Tarleton, Morgan began moving his forces northwest with the intent of crossing the Broad River and seeking refuge in the area of Kings Mountain.
Swollen rivers, streams and washed-out roads continued to impede troop movements on both sides. Fearful of being attacked by a superior military force, Morgan sent a message to Greene on 15 January requesting permission to withdraw with his Continentals and leave the local militia forces to roam the backcountry. That message arrived at General Greene’s headquarters on 18 January… the day after Morgan’s victory at Cowpens.
15 - 16 Jan 1781: Tarleton was closing in on Morgan’s location on the Pacelot River.
During the early morning of the 16th, Tarleton successfully crossed the Pacelot River. Patriot militia scouts warned Morgan of Tarleton’s approach. Morgan decided to move his forces to a well-known location in the South Carolina backcountry - The Cowpens… an area used by cattle herders to stage their cows prior to moving them to market.
In the afternoon of the 16th, Morgan walked the terrain of the Cowpens and although he would have preferred to cross the Broad River to safer ground, he feared being caught by Tarleton in the midst of river crossing operations… he decided to set up his defense in depth at Cowpens.
To orient yourself to the area, view the 1785 Terrain Map of South Carolina (7)
A view of the Battlefield
The battle was fought as a series of semi-independent engagements. Morgan’s precise use of his militia forces and Colonel William Washington’s cavalry allowed Morgan to maintain constant pressure on Tarleton’s forces. Tarleton was never able to gain a true picture of the American defensive lines. The following series of pictures provide different views of the battlefield as it stands today.
A view from Morgan’s Hill. Morgan and his cavalry commander Colonel Washington (a second cousin of Gen Washington) viewed, commanded, and reacted to distinct phases of the battle from this location. The battlefield is about 500 yards long and 500 yards wide. The Green River Road runs along the left side of the picture and was the center line of battlefield. At the time of the battle, the terrain was undulating and sparsely covered with trees. Cane breaks lined the low side of the Cowpens.
Lieutenant Colonel John Eager Howard’s Delaware and Maryland Continentals and the Virginia State troops under the command of Major Francis Triplett occupied positions behind a ridge line in a long swale. Howard’s Continentals remained out of view of Tarleton’s forces until later in the third and decisive phase of the battle. This is a view down the Green River Road toward the enemy.
Militia units under the command of Colonel Pickens of South Carolina occupied a line about 150 yards to the front of Lieutenant Colonel Howard’s Continentals. Their mission was to use effective rifle fire to disrupt Tarleton’s attack but not become decisively engaged. After firing one or two volleys, their directive was to pass through Howard’s Continentals and rally in the rear on Morgan’s Hill and function as a mobile reserve.
The most forward line of Morgan’s defense was the Skirmish line. This line consisted of handpicked sharpshooters from North Carolina and Georgia personally placed in position by General Morgan. Their task was to direct accurate rifle fire at officers and sergeants as the British attempted to form up in battle formation. This line was approximately 100 yards to the front of Colonel Pickens’ militia line. Their actions caused Tarleton to hastily deploy his forces for combat. After completing their mission, they rejoined Col Pickens’ militia line for the next phase of the battle.
American rifle fire was so effective that by the time Colonel Pickens’ Militia line conducted an orderly withdrawal, Lt. MacKenzie of the 71st Highland Infantry asserted, “Two-thirds of the British infantry officers had already fallen, and nearly the same proportion of privates.“
Tarleton’s initial view of the Battlefield as his forces exited the wood line. The Patriot sharpshooters were set on a line that was located near the crop of trees in the center of the picture. The sharpshooters used trees to protect themselves from enemy fire. Tarleton, in his usual fashion, conducted a quick assessment of the battlefield, recognized militia to the front and assumed it was going to be an easy victory. Without allowing his forces to properly deploy for battle, Tarleton rashly ordered an element of his Legion Cavalry to disperse the skirmishers… 15 of his troopers were shot from their horses, the rest of the dragoons fled the field, and the skirmish line continued laying fire on British Infantry.
An Overview of the Battle
Morgan’s camp was buzzing with activity throughout the night of the 16th as men and militia units were converging on Cowpens very eager to take the fight to Tarleton. Morgan personally visited his soldiers… unit by unit to both motivate them and ensure that they understood their battle tasks for the next day.
Due to his aggressive reconnaissance operations on the 16th and the capture of a Patriot Militia Colonel, Tarleton was keenly aware of Morgan’s location and his intent to withdraw to the Broad River. When in pursuit of the enemy, Tarleton knew no fatigue and as Buchanan states, Tarleton’s “prey was near.” With little rest, Tarleton’s forces began their grueling three-hour march toward Cowpens at around 3:00 a.m. on 17 January 1781.
From a force-on-force perspective, the number of soldiers on both sides was about the same 971 under Morgan and 1050 under Tarleton. From a quality standpoint, at least on paper, Tarleton’s forces, predominantly British Regulars had the advantage. However, Colonel John Eager Howard’s Maryland and Delaware Continentals were amongst the most battle-hardened units in the Continental Army. The question would be… how would Morgan’s militia perform?
Sketch of the Cowpens Battlefield.
Phase 1: With his scouts reporting Tarleton’s lead elements approaching around 5:30 a.m., Morgan began setting his forces in place. His orders to the skirmish line were to focus accurate rifle fire at the British forces as they moved into battle formation… take out officers and sergeants with the hope of disrupting Tarleton’s deployment and hinder effective command and control of Tarleton’s infantry units.
It is important to highlight that from Tarleton’s experience in the southern theater, once Patriot militia elements came under fire and a bayonet charge from British Regulars, they usually collapsed and fled the battlefield. So, at around 6:45 a.m. when Tarleton recognized local militia elements strung out along a line immediately to his front, he assumed that he could easily disperse them causing chaos amongst the Patriot forces.
After the militia sharpshooters quickly repelled the attack by his Legion cavalry, Tarleton, before accurately assessing Morgan’s defenses, unwisely set his infantry in motion.
Holding the battalion of the 71st Highlanders in reserve, Tarleton began his hasty attack leading with elements of the 7th Fusiliers, the 16th Light Infantry flanked by troops of the 17th Light Dragoons. With their mission complete, the sharpshooters moved back to Colonel Pickens’ militia line.
Phase 2: After setting Colonel Pickens’ militia line, Morgan’s intent was clear… do not fire until the enemy was at about 50 yards to their front, fire one or two volleys and then in an orderly fashion withdraw through Howard’s Continentals to form up as a mobile reserve. Do not become decisively engaged.
With the British infantry closing quickly on Pickens’ line, Morgan gave the order to fire. In contrast to British musket fire which crackled through the trees above the Patriot’s heads, Pickens’ men fired with overwhelming accuracy. Picken’s militia initially stunned the attacking British infantry. However, they were resilient. They readjusted their lines and pressed the attack.
Tarleton dispatched elements of the 17th Light Dragoons to attack what appeared to be a collapsing line of defense. Troopers from Col Washington’s 3rd Continental Dragoons quickly responded and after having initial success, Washington’s troops repelled the attacking cavalry. Washington’s quick actions throughout the battle played a key role in Morgan’s success.
Phase 3: The battle went on for about 40 minutes and the Patriot Militia performed admirably. After passing through Howard’s Continentals, with some persistence on the part of Morgan and Pickens, the remainder of the militia formed up on Morgan’s Hill.
*At around 7:40 a.m., the main and decisive part of the battle took place.
Once again, British infantry misread the orderly withdrawal of the militia and with a breakdown in company-level leadership, the British Infantry continued their somewhat uncoordinated attack. The 71st Highlanders had joined the attack and were pressing the American right flank. As they crested the ridge line, they came into contact with determined Continentals of Colonel Howard’s line who had been positioned by Morgan on the reverse slope of a ridgeline outside of Tarleton’s site in a long swale.
The Continental’s initial volley was so stunning that it temporarily caused the attacking infantry to falter. However, with his right flank under pressure from the 71st Highlanders, Colonel Howard ordered an adjustment in his line which gave the appearance of a complete withdrawal. Morgan, observing this action, immediately rode to Howard. Although Howard’s orders appeared to have been misunderstood, he quickly retained control of the movement.
The 71st believing it was a withdrawal, conducted an assault albeit chaotic. Colonel Washington, observing from Morgan’s Hill instantly sent a rider to Howard informing him that the 71st was attacking like a “mob” and that Colonel Howard should turn his force about, fire and he would assist by conducting a mounted attack on the flank of the Highlanders. Morgan yelled, “Give them one fire and the day is ours.”
With the 71st Highlanders some 30 yards away from the Continentals screaming as they continued the assault on the Patriot forces, Colonel Howard gave the order to halt, turnabout and fire. The Continental volley fire was so devastating that many of the Highlanders fell to the ground to surrender while others attempted to flee the battlefield.
Sensing victory, Howard gave the order to conduct a Bayonet Charge. The collapse of the 71st Highlanders ensued while Col Pickens quickly moved his mobile reserve around Howard’s right flank completing a double envelopment of the surrendering British forces.
In a final effort to save himself from utter defeat, Tarleton ordered 200 of his Legion cavalry to charge… they refused the order. Elements of the 17th Light Dragoons followed Tarleton into battle, but they were quickly cut off by Colonel Washington and his 3rd Continental Dragoons in a counterattack.
Within approximately one hour, the supposed easy victory for Tarleton turned into a complete disaster.
Of the 1050 soldiers under Tarleton’s command, 110 were killed, 229 wounded and 600 were captured. Of Morgan’s 970 soldiers in the field, 24 were killed with 104 wounded.
Although Tarleton escaped, he lost more than 80 percent of his unit. From a strategic perspective, once more Cornwallis’ effort to enter North Carolina was thwarted by Patriot forces. Operationally, Tarleton’s defeat had a direct impact on Cornwallis’ light forces as Tarleton’s Legion had played a key role as Cornwallis’s lead reconnaissance element.
For his victory at Cowpens, Morgan was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal. Colonels Washington and Howard received Congressional Silver medals and Colonel Pickens received a sword.
Though Morgan once again went into retirement due to ill health soon after his victory at Cowpens, it was his victory over Tarleton that allowed General Greene to conduct retrograde operations through North Carolina over the ensuing months with Cornwallis in pursuit… it would be known as the Race to the Dan River.
In the end, due to an inability to sustain his army in the field, Cornwallis decided to head to the port of Yorktown, Virginia where his army could be resupplied. Rather than reconstituting his army, Cornwallis’ forces were placed under siege and attack by a combined French/American force under the command of General Washington. On 19 October 1781, Cornwallis’ Army surrendered to General Washington.
When assessing the importance of Cowpens, Andrew Waters quotes historian David Ramsay, “Tarleton’s defeat was the first link, in a grand chain of causes, which finally drew down ruin, both in North and South Carolina, on the royal interest.”
1 Buchanan, John, The Road to Guilford Courthouse, The American Revolution in the Carolinas, New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 1997, p. 241.
2 Babits, Lawrence E., A Devil of a Whipping, The Battle of Cowpens, Chapel Hill & London: The University of North Carolina Press, 1998, p. 6-7.
3 Buchanan, op. cit., p. 296.
4 Buchanan, op. cit., p. 306.
5 Buchanan, op. cit., p. 312.
6 Babits, op. cit., p. 53.
7 Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/resource/g3913s.ct009932
8 Babits, op. cit., p. 92.
9 Buchanan, op. cit., p. 314.
10 Museum Facts.UK; https://museumfacts.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/Map-BOC
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