Cowpens National Battlefield | THE BATTLE OF COWPENS

Cowpens Battle Map

Cowpens Battle Map

By late 1778, the war in the northern colonies had come to a standstill. The British had lost to the Americans at Saratoga, New York, in late 1777, and France was threatening to enter the war on the side of the Americans (doing so by March of 1779). This prompted England to focus its efforts on subduing the rebellion in the southern colonies. Agriculture was the dominate industry in the south and much of the goods were sold back to England, so the wealthy southern colonists had good reason to keep friendly business relations with their best customers. Of course, anyone else who worked for the wealthy plantation owners had their jobs at stake too. Knowing this, the British felt they could recruit many southern Loyalists—as the colonists loyal to England were known—to help fight the rebels and persuade those who were teetering between Patriot or Loyalist to remain loyal to the Crown. Once the rebellion was stopped in the south, the plan was for the British soldiers and hoards of Loyalist militiamen to march north and rekindle the war against George Washington, the commander of the Patriot army in the northern colonies.

From the outset of the southern campaign, things went well for the British. They captured Savannah, Georgia, by the end of 1778. When they took Augusta, Georgia, on January 31, 1779, 1,400 men came to Augusta to join the Loyalist militia. Charleston, South Carolina, the largest city in the south and the wealthiest city in the colonies, fell to the British in May of 1780, and 5,000 Patriot soldiers surrendered and became prisoners of war. The states of Georgia and South Carolina were now firmly under British control.

After suffering defeat after defeat, the Patriots finally scored a significant victory at Kings Mountain on October 7, 1780. Shortly afterwards, in December, General Nathanael Greene became the commander of the American army in the south. Stationed in North Carolina, one of his first decisions was to send General Daniel Morgan and 600 men—400 professional Continental soldiers and the rest non-professional Virginia militia—into western South Carolina to stir up trouble for the British in the backcountry (the rural inland areas of the state) and to boost the morale of the local Patriots. Battles in the backcountry were mainly between Patriots and Loyalists, and the fighting could be termed a civil war. Family fought against family. Men took up arms against each other for no other reasons than old grudges.

To counter this, British General Charles Cornwalis, who was in charge of the southern campaign for England, sent Banastre Tarleton and the British Legion (mainly Loyalists) to find Morgan and defeat him. On January 12, 1781, Tarleton’s scouts located Morgan and his men and began pursuit. By the 16th, Morgan was about six miles from the Broad River. At the time, the river was flooding and there was no way that he and his men could cross. It was at Cow Pens (as Cowpens was once spelled), a well known cattle pasture, that he decided to stand and fight.

Before the inevitable battle, knowing that he was outnumbered, Morgan sent men into the surrounding area to try and drum up some of the local militia to help in the fight. The “Cow Pens” was a known landmark, being a cow pasture where farmers would bring their cattle for the winter. Local militia would all know the place. Historians estimate that by battle time, Morgan had as many as 1,200 militia men from the surrounding area, though Morgan claims he only had about 800 men in total.

The Cow Pens had plenty of trees, but was still a fairly open area. A road ran through the middle of it. Morgan’s plan was to form three defensive lines that straddled the road. The first line would be comprised of sharpshooters whose job was to get off a shot at the British to slow them down, then retreat to the rear. The second line, 90 yards farther back and formed of militiamen, was to get off two shots before retreating behind the third line about 150 yards farther back. The third line was made of the Continental soldiers and experienced Virginia militiamen and would be, in effect, Morgan’s last stand. They were stationed on a small hill, so after taking fire from the first two lines, Tarleton’s men would have to charge uphill to fight the trained Continental soldiers. Finally, behind the Continentals were 150 cavalry men who were ready to join the fight when ordered. The second line of militia and the sharpshooters were only asked to get off a shot or two instead of standing up to a fight because militiamen were well known to take off running as soon as the fighting began. Morgan figured that asking them to contribute only minimum effort would keep them in the battle.

The fighting began around dawn on January 17, 1781. Tarleton began the fight by pitting his cavalry against the first line of sharpshooters. Once the sharpshooters got off a shot and dispersed, he then formed a line of infantry with fifty dragoons on either side. In reserve where 250 Scottish Highlanders (infantry) and 200 cavalry. (Dragoons were mounted infantry, men who would ride into battle, dismount and fight, then leave on their horses. Cavalry were soldiers who actually fought on horseback with sword, lances, etc.)

When the British encountered the second line of militia, two-thirds of their officers were killed or wounded after the militia opened fire. After they got off a second shot and turned to fall back, Tarleton sent his dragoons after them, but the American cavalry men came to their rescue and drove off the dragoons. All this while, Tarleton thought the Americans were retreating in defeat, so without really assessing the situation, he drove his men onward.

During the attack on the third line, an American mistake actually lead to a sudden and decisive British defeat. Believing the Americans were on the run, Tarleton marched his infantry uphill to confront the Continental soldiers head on. He sent his Scottish Highlanders around to flank the right side of the American line. The commander of the Continentals, Colonel John Eager Howard, spotted the Highlanders and ordered the Virginia militiamen to turn and face them. However, the order was misunderstood, and the militiamen turned around and retreated. Upon seeing this, the British broke into a charge. Morgan caught up to the retreating militiamen and had them suddenly turn around, only about thirty feet from the charging British soldiers. The militiamen opened fire at close range with devastating effect. Howard then ordered a bayonet charge and the British line began to collapse; many men surrendered on the spot. British cannons were seized. Patriot militiamen came out from behind a hill and the British soon found themselves enveloped by the American forces on both sides, and tactic known as a Double Envelopment. All Tarleton had left was his reserve cavalry and they refused to attack, instead riding off in retreat. Tarleton and a few men reentered the fight, but soon found it fruitless and rode off as well.

The battle took only one hour. When it was over, 712 British troops had surrendered and 110 had been killed. Morgan reported 73 casualties, but historians believe that was only to his Continental soldiers. From historical records it is believed that 128 Patriots were killed or wounded.

Coming only three months after the defeat at Kings Mountain, the defeat at Cowpens lead Cornwallis to abandoned his plans to pacify the backcounty of South Carolina and instead turn his focus to defeating Nathanael Greene and his men in North Carolina. The battle also helped the morale of the Patriots, not only in the south, but in all of the colonies, while it demoralized the British and Loyalists. Like the Battle of Kings Mountain before it, the Battle of Cowpens is also considered a turning point in the war.

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Last updated on November 1, 2022
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