Battle of Cowpens
The Battle of Cowpens (January 17, 1781) was a decisive victory by Continental Army forces under Brigadier General Daniel Morgan in South Carolina over the British Army led by Colonel Banastre Tarleton, during the Southern campaign of the American Revolutionary War. It was a turning point in the rebel reconquest of South Carolina from British control. It took place in northwestern Cherokee County, South Carolina, north of the town of Cowpens.
On October 14, 1780, George Washington chose Nathanael Greene to be commander of the Southern Department of the Continental forces. Greene's task was not an easy one. The Carolinas had been the scene of a long string of disasters for the Continental Army in 1780, the worst being the capture of one American army at the Siege of Charleston and the destruction of another at the Battle of Camden. A victory of Patriot militia over their Loyalist counterparts at the Battle of Kings Mountain in October had bought time, but most of South Carolina was still occupied by the British. When Greene took command, the southern army numbered only 2307 men (on paper, 1482 present), of whom just 949 were Continental regulars.
On December 3, Brigadier General Daniel Morgan reported for duty to Greene's headquarters at Charlotte, North Carolina. At the start of the Revolution, Morgan, whose military experience dated to the French and Indian War, had served at the Siege of Boston. Later he participated in the 1775 invasion of Canada and its climactic battle, the Battle of Quebec. That battle, on December 31, 1775, ended in defeat and Morgan's capture by the British.
Morgan was exchanged in January 1777 and placed by George Washington in command of a picked force of 500 trained riflemen, known as Morgan's Riflemen. Morgan and his men played a key role in the victory at Saratoga, which proved to be a turning point of the entire war. Bitter after being passed over for promotion and plagued by severe attacks of sciatica, Morgan left the army in 1779. A year later he was promoted to Brigadier General and returned to service in the Southern Department.
Greene decided that his weak army was unable to meet the British in a standup fight. He made the unconventional decision to divide his army, sending a detachment west of the Catawba River to raise the morale of the locals and find supplies beyond the limited amounts available around Charlotte. Greene gave Morgan command of this wing and instructed him to join with the militia west of the Big Catawba and take command of them. Morgan headed west on December 21, charged with taking position between the Broad and Pacolet Rivers, and protecting the civilians in that area. He had 600 men, some 400 of which were Continentals, the rest being Virginia militia with experience as Continentals. By Christmas Day Morgan had reached the Pacolet River. He was joined by 60 South Carolina militia led by the experienced partisan Andrew Pickens. Other militia from Georgia and the Carolinas joined Morgan's camp.
Meanwhile, Lord Cornwallis was planning to return to North Carolina and conduct the invasion that he had postponed after the defeat at Kings Mountain. Morgan's force represented a threat to his left. Additionally, Cornwallis received incorrect intelligence claiming that Morgan was going to attack the important British fort at Ninety Six, in western South Carolina. Seeking to save the fort and defeat Morgan's command, Cornwallis on January 2 ordered Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton to the west.
Tarleton was 26 years old and had enjoyed a spectacular career in his service with the British in the colonies. In December 1776, he and a small party surprised and captured Patriot Gen. Charles Lee in New Jersey. He served with distinction at the Siege of Charleston and the Battle of Camden. Commanding the British Legion, a mixed infantry/cavalry force composed of American Loyalists who constituted some of the best British troops in the Carolinas, Tarleton won decisive victories at Monck's Corner and Fishing Creek. He became infamous among Patriots after his victory at the Battle of Waxhaws. His men had killed American soldiers after they had surrendered. In Tarleton's account published in 1781, he stated that his horse had been shot from under him during the initial charge and his men, thinking him dead, engaged in "a vindictive asperity not easily restrained."
Tarleton and the Legion marched to Ninety Six, learning Morgan was not there, but Tarleton decided to pursue his forces. Tarleton asked for reinforcements of British regulars, which Cornwallis sent. Tarleton set out with his enlarged command to drive Morgan across the Broad River. On January 12 he received accurate news of Morgan's location and continued with hard marching, building boats to cross rivers that were flooding with winter rains. Receiving word that Tarleton was in hot pursuit, Morgan retreated north, to avoid being trapped between Tarleton and Cornwallis.
By the afternoon of the 16th, Morgan was approaching the Broad River, which was high with flood waters and reported difficult to cross. He knew Tarleton was close behind. By nightfall he had reached a place called the Cowpens, a well-known grazing area for local cattle. Pickens, who had been patrolling, arrived that night with a large body of militia. Morgan decided to stand and fight rather than continue to retreat and risk being caught by Tarleton while fording the Broad River. Learning of Morgan's location, Tarleton pushed his troops, marching at 3 a.m. instead of camping for the night.
The size of the American force at Cowpens remains in dispute. Morgan claimed in his official report to have had few more than 800 men at Cowpens, which is substantially supported by historian John Buchanan, whose estimate is between 800 and 1000 men. In contrast historian Lawrence E. Babits, in his detailed study of the battle, estimates the strength of Morgan's command on the day of the battle was closer to 1,900, composed of:
- A battalion of Continental infantry under Lt-Col John Eager Howard, with one company from Delaware, one from Virginia and three from Maryland; each with a strength of sixty men (300)
- A company of Virginia State troops under Captain John Lawson (75)
- A company of South Carolina State troops under Captain Joseph Pickens(60)
- A small company of North Carolina State troops under Captain Henry Connelly (number not given)
- A Virginia Militia battalion under Frank Triplett (160)
- Three companies of Virginia Militia under Major David Campbell (50)
- A battalion of North Carolina Militia under Colonel Joseph McDowell (260–285)
- A brigade of four battalions of South Carolina Militia under Colonel Andrew Pickens, comprising a three-company battalion of the Spartan Regiment under Lt-Col Benjamin Roebuck; a four-company battalion of the Spartan Regiment under Col John Thomas; five companies of the Little River Regiment under Lt-Col Joseph Hayes and seven companies of the Fair Forest Regiment under Col Thomas Brandon. Babits states that this battalion "ranged in size from 120 to more than 250 men". If Roebuck’s three companies numbered 120 and Brandon’s seven companies numbered 250, then Thomas’s four companies probably numbered about 160 and Hayes’s five companies about 200, for a total of (730)
- Three small companies of Georgia Militia commanded by Major Cunningham who numbered (55)
- A detachment of the 1st and 3rd Continental Light Dragoons under Lt-Col William Washington (82). Washington was second cousin to Gen. George Washington.
- Detachments of state dragoons from North Carolina and Virginia (30)
- A detachment of South Carolina State Dragoons, with a few mounted Georgians, commanded by Major James McCall (25)
- A company of newly raised volunteers from the local South Carolina Militia commanded by Major Benjamin Jolly (45)
Babits' figures can be summarized as: 82 Continental light dragoons; 55 state dragoons; 45 militia dragoons; 300 Continental infantry; about 150 state infantry and 1,255-1,280 militia infantry, for a total of 1,887–1,912 officers and men. Broken down by state, there were about 855 South Carolinians; 442 Virginians; 290–315 North Carolinians; 180 Marylanders; 60 Georgians and 60 Delawareans.
Morgan's forces were strengthened due to core elements of relatively seasoned troops and his own brilliance in leadership. His Continentals were veterans, and many of his militia, which included some Overmountain Men, had fought at the Battle of Musgrove Mill and the Battle of Kings Mountain. The experienced British forces (and particularly their relatively young commander) were accustomed, especially in the Southern Theater, to easily routing often 'green' militia, and thus could have underestimated the opposition.
Tarleton's force included:
- The British Legion: 250 cavalry and 200 infantry,
- A troop of the 17th Light Dragoons (50),
- A battery of the Royal Artillery (24) with two 3-pounder cannons
- The 7th Royal Fusiliers Regiment (177)
- The light infantry company of the 16th Regiment (42)
- The 71st (Fraser's Highlanders) Regiment under Major Arthur MacArthur (334)
- The light company of the Loyalist Prince of Wales' American Regiment (31)
- A company of Loyalist guides (50)
A total of over 1,150 officers and men.
Broken down by troop classification, there were 300 cavalry, 553 regulars, 24 artillerymen and 281 militia. Tarleton’s men from the Royal Artillery, 17th Light Dragoons, 7th Regiment (Royal Fusliers), 16th Regiment and 71st Regiment were reliable and good soldiers: . Tarleton's own unit, the British Legion were formidable "in a pursuit situation" but had an uncertain reputation "when faced with determined opposition".
Daniel Morgan used the landscape of Cowpens, the varying reliability of his troops, his opponent’s expectations, and the time available before Tarleton's arrival to his advantage. He knew untrained militiamen, which composed a large portion of his force, were generally unreliable in battle, and in the past had routed at the first hint of battle and abandoned the regulars. (The Battle of Camden had ended in disaster when the militia, which was half of the American force, broke and ran as soon as the shooting started.) To eliminate that possibility, he defied convention by placing his army between the Broad and Pacolet Rivers, thus making escape impossible if the army was routed.
Selecting a low hill as the center of his position, he placed his Continental infantry on it, deliberately leaving his flanks exposed to his opponent. With a ravine on their right flank and a creek on their left flank, Morgan reasoned his forces were protected against British flanking maneuvers at the beginning of the battle.
Morgan reasoned that Tarleton would be highly confident and attack him head on. He arranged his troops to encourage this. He set up three lines of soldiers: one of skirmishers (sharpshooters); one of militia; and a main one. The first was 150 select skirmishers were from North Carolina (Major McDowell) and Georgia (Major Cunningham). The second line, behind the skirmishers but in front of the third line of Continentals, consisted of 300 militiamen under the command of Andrew Pickens. The effect was the conspicuous placement of weak militia in the center front, which would be taken as a fatal weakness and encourage the British to attack there. The skirmishers and militia would screen the strongest Continental troops, while inflicting damage as the British advanced.
Morgan asked the militia to fire two volleys, something they could achieve, and then withdraw to the left, to re-form in the rear, behind the third line, under cover of the reserve light dragoons(mounted infantry) commanded by William Washington and James McCall. The militia commander, Colonel A. Pickens, would execute, in effect, a feigned rout which would further embolden the British.
The third line, on the hill, was manned by his best troops: about 550 men consisting of Continentals from Delaware and Maryland, and experienced militiamen from Georgia and Virginia. Colonel John Eager Howard commanded the Continentals and Colonels Tate and Triplett commanded the experienced militia. The third line could be expected to stand and hold against the British force. Morgan expected that the British advancing uphill would be disorganized, and weakened both physically and psychologically by the first two lines, before engaging the third. The third line would also withdraw a short distance to add to the appearance of rout.
In developing his tactics at Cowpens, as historian John Buchanan wrote, Morgan may have been "the only general in the American Revolution, on either side, to produce a significant original tactical thought."
At 2:00 a.m. on January 17, 1781, Tarleton roused his troops and continued his march to Cowpens. Lawrence Babits states that, "in the five days before Cowpens, the British were subjected to stress that could only be alleviated by rest and proper diet". He points out that "in the forty-eight hours before the battle, the British ran out of food and had less than four hours’ sleep". Over the whole period, Tarleton’s brigade did a great deal of rapid marching across difficult terrain. Babits concludes that they reached the battlefield exhausted and malnourished. Tarleton sensed victory and nothing would persuade him to delay. His Tory scouts had told him of the countryside Morgan was fighting on, and he was certain of success because Morgan's soldiers, mostly militiamen, seemed to be caught between mostly experienced British troops and a flooding river. As soon as he reached the spot, Tarleton formed a battle line, which consisted of dragoons on his flanks, with his two grasshopper cannons in between the British Regulars and American Loyalists.
Tarleton’s plan was simple and direct. Most of his infantry (including that of the Legion) would be assembled in linear formation and move directly upon Morgan. The right and left flanks of this line would be protected by dragoon units. In reserve were the 250-man battalion of Scottish Highlanders (71st Regiment of Foot), commanded by Major Arthur MacArthur, a professional soldier of long experience who had served in the Dutch Scotch Brigade. Finally, Tarleton kept the 200-man cavalry contingent of his Legion ready to be unleashed when the Americans broke and ran.
Morgan's stratagem worked perfectly. The British drove in successive lines, anticipating victory only to encounter another, stronger line after exerting themselves and suffering casualties. The depth of the American lines gradually soaked up the shock of the British advance.
A few minutes before sunrise, Tarleton's van emerged from the woods in front of the American position. Tarleton ordered his dragoons to attack the first line of skirmishers, who opened fire and shot fifteen dragoons. The dragoons promptly retreated, whereupon Tarleton immediately ordered an infantry charge, without pausing to study the American deployment or to allow the rest of his infantry and his cavalry reserve to make it out of the woods. Tarleton attacked the skirmish line without pausing, deploying his main body and his two grasshopper cannons. The American skirmishers kept firing as they withdrew to join the second line manned by Pickens' militia. The British attacked again, this time reaching the militiamen, who (as ordered) poured two volleys into the enemy. The British—with 40% of their casualties being officers—were astonished and confused. They reformed and continued to advance. Tarleton ordered one of his officers, Ogilvie, to charge with some dragoons into the "defeated" Americans. His men moved forward in regular formation and were momentarily checked by the militia musket fire but continued to advance. Pickens' militia filed around the American left to the rear as planned after getting off their second volley.
Taking the withdrawal of the first two lines as a full blown retreat, the British advanced headlong into the third and final line of disciplined regulars which awaited them on the hill. The 71st Highlanders were ordered to flank the American right. John Eager Howard spotted the flanking movement and ordered the Virginia militiamen manning the American right to turn and face the Scots. However, in the noise of battle Howard's order was misunderstood and the militiamen began to withdraw. It was now 7:45 am and the British had been fighting for nearly an hour. They were tired and disorganized, but they saw the militia withdrawing and believed the Americans were on the run. They charged, breaking formation and advancing in a chaotic mass. Morgan ordered a volley. Howard's militia stopped their withdrawal and made an about-face. The Virginians fired into the British at a range of no more than thirty yards, with deadly effect, causing the confused British to lurch to a halt. John Eager Howard shouted, "Charge bayonets!"
The Continentals, as ordered, mounted a bayonet charge. Tarleton's force, faced with a terrible surprise, began to collapse; some men surrendering on the spot, while others turned and ran. Howard's men charged forward and seized the British cannons. William Washington's cavalry came around from behind the American left to hit the British on their right flank and rear. Pickens' militia, having re-formed, charged out from behind the hill—completing a 360-degree circle around the American position—to hit the 71st Highlander Scots on the British left flank and rear. Howard ordered the Virginia militia, whose withdrawal had brought on the British charge, to turn about and attack the Scots from the other direction.
The shock of the sudden charge, coupled with the reappearance of the American militiamen on the left flank where Tarleton's exhausted men expected to see their own cavalry, proved too much for the British. Nearly half of the British and Loyalist infantrymen fell to the ground whether they were wounded or not. Their will to fight was gone. Historian Lawrence Babits diagnoses "combat shock" as the cause for this abrupt British collapse—the effects of exhaustion, hunger and demoralization suddenly catching up with them. Caught in a clever double envelopment that has been compared with the Battle of Cannae, many of the British surrendered.
With Tarleton's right flank and center line collapsed, only a minority of the 71st Highlanders were putting up a fight against part of Howard's line. Tarleton, realizing the desperate nature of what was occurring, rode back to his one unit that was whole, the Legion Cavalry. He ordered them to charge, but they refused and fled the field. The Highlanders, surrounded by militia and Continentals, surrendered. Desperate to save something, Tarleton found about forty cavalrymen and with them tried to save the two cannons his forces had brought, but they had been taken. With a few remaining horsemen Tarleton rode back into the fight, but after clashing with Washington’s men, he too retreated from the field. He was stopped by Washington, who attacked him with his saber, calling out, "Where is now the boasting Tarleton?". A cornet of the 17th, Thomas Patterson, rode up to strike Washington but was shot by Washington's orderly trumpeter. Tarleton shot Washington's horse from under him and fled, ending the battle. It was 8 a.m. and the Battle of Cowpens had lasted approximately one hour.
Morgan's army took 712 prisoners, which included 200 wounded. Even worse for the British, the forces lost (especially the British Legion and the dragoons) constituted the cream of Cornwallis' army. Additionally, 110 British soldiers were killed in action. Tarleton suffered an 86 percent casualty rate, and his brigade had been all but wiped out as a fighting force. John Eager Howard quoted Maj. McArthur of the 71st Highlanders, now a prisoner of the Americans, as saying that "he was an officer before Tarleton was born; that the best troops in the service were put under 'that boy' to be sacrificed." An American prisoner later told that when Tarleton reached Cornwallis and reported the disaster, Cornwallis placed his sword tip on the ground and leaned on it until the blade snapped.
Historian Lawrence E. Babits has demonstrated that Morgan's official report of 73 casualties appears to have only included his Continental troops. From surviving records, he has been able to identify by name 128 Patriot soldiers who were either killed or wounded at Cowpens. He also presents an entry in the North Carolina State Records that shows 68 Continental and 80 Militia casualties. It would appear that both the number of Morgan's casualties and the total strength of his force were about double what he officially reported.
Tarleton's apparent recklessness in pushing his command so hard in pursuit of Morgan that they reached the battlefield in desperate need of rest and food may be explained by the fact that, up until Cowpens, every battle that he and his British Legion had fought in the South had been a relatively easy victory. He appears to have been so concerned with pursuing Morgan that he quite forgot that it was necessary for his men to be in a fit condition to fight a battle once they caught him, though Cornwallis himself did press Tarleton to take aggressive action.
Nevertheless, Daniel Morgan, known affectionately as "The Old Waggoner" to his men, had fought a masterly battle. His tactical decisions and personal leadership had allowed a force consisting mainly of militia to fight according to their strengths to win one of the most complete victories of the war.
Coming in the wake of the American debacle at Camden, Cowpens was a surprising victory and a turning point that changed the psychology of the entire war—"spiriting up the people", not only those of the backcountry Carolinas, but those in all the Southern states. As it was, the Americans were encouraged to fight further, and the Loyalists and British were demoralized. Furthermore, its strategic result—the destruction of an important part of the British army in the South—was incalculable toward ending the war. Along with the British defeat at the Battle of Kings Mountain, Cowpens was a serious blow to Cornwallis, who might have defeated much of the remaining resistance in South Carolina had Tarleton won at Cowpens. Instead, the battle set in motion a series of events leading to the end of the war. Cornwallis abandoned his pacification efforts in South Carolina, stripped his army of its excess baggage, and pursued Greene's force into North Carolina. Skirmishes occurred at the Catawba River (February 1, 1781) and other fords. Yet, after a long chase Cornwallis met Greene at Guilford Court House, winning a pyrrhic victory that so damaged his army that he withdrew to Yorktown, Virginia, to rest and refit. Washington seized this opportunity to trap and defeat Cornwallis at the Battle of Yorktown, which caused the British to give up their efforts to defeat the Americans.
In the opinion of John Marshall, "Seldom has a battle, in which greater numbers were not engaged, been so important in its consequences as that of Cowpens." It gave General Nathanael Greene his chance to conduct a campaign of "dazzling shiftiness" that led Cornwallis by "an unbroken chain of consequences to the catastrophe at Yorktown which finally separated America from the British crown."
- The battle site is preserved at Cowpens National Battlefield.
- Two ships of the U.S. Navy have been named USS Cowpens in honor of the battle.
- Three current Army National Guard units (116th Inf, 175th Inf and 198th Sig Bn) are derived from American units that participated in the Battle of Cowpens. There are only thirty Army National Guard and active Regular Army units with lineages that go back to the colonial era.
The battle in film
- The final battle at the end of the 2000 film The Patriot drew its inspiration from two specific battles from the American Revolution: Cowpens and Guilford Courthouse. The Americans used the same basic tactics in both battles. The name of the battle, as well as the winning side, were taken from the Cowpens battle. The size of the armies, as well as the presence of Generals Nathanael Greene and Lord Cornwallis, come from the Guilford Courthouse battle.
- The Alan Alda directed movie, Sweet Liberty, parodies how a film company takes great liberty with the depiction of the Battle of Cowpens.
- Buchanan, 319
- Edgar, Walter B., The South Carolina Encyclopedia, p. 235
- Babits, Lawrence E. (1998). A Devil of a Whipping: The Battle of Cowpens Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. ISBN 0-8078-2434-8, p. 142
- Buchanan, John. The Road to Guilford Courthouse: The American Revolution in the Carolinas. John Wiley and Sons, New York, 1997, ISBN 0-471-16402-X, p. 326
- Buchanan, 275
- Pratt, Fletcher (2007). Eleven generals: studies in American command. Kessinger. p. 12. ISBN 978-1-4325-7926-5.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
- Buchanan, 276
- Buchanan, 280
- Buchanan, 280-4
- Buchanan, 285
- Buchanan 287-8
- Buchanan, 292
- Buchanan, 293
- Buchanan, 296
- Buchanan 298-9
- Buchanan, 301-2
- Buchanan, 306-7
- A History of the Campaigns of 1780 and 1781, Banastre Tarleton, Dublin, 1787 (reprint 1781), p 32.
- Buchanan, 309
- Buchanan, 311
- Buchanan, 312
- Buchanan, 314-5
- Babits, 27–29.
- Babits, 28.
- Babits, 77.
- Babits, 73.
- Babits, 33.
- Babits, 104.
- Babits, 34.
- Babits, 35–36.
- Babits, 36.
- Babits, 40.
- Babits, 187, Note 14.
- Babits, 40–41.
- Babits, 175, Note 101.
- Babits, 41–42 and 175, Note 101.
- Babits, 41–42.
- Babits, 46, "British Legion Infantry strength at Cowpens was between 200 and 271 enlisted men". However, this statement is referenced to a note on 175–176, which says, "The British Legion infantry at Cowpens is usually considered to have had about 200–250 men, but returns for the 25 December 1780 muster show only 175. Totals obtained by Cornwallis, dated 15 January, show that the whole legion had 451 men, but approximately 250 were dragoons".
- Bearss, Edwin C., Battle of Cowpens, Originally published by Office of Archeology and Historic Preservation, National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, October 15, 1967, ISBN 1-57072-045-2. Reprinted 1996 by The Overmountain Press. Found at http://www.nps.gov/archive/cowp/bearss/chap1.htm .
- All unit strengths from Babits.
- "British Plans Tarleton Sent After Morgan". 70th Congress, 1st Session House Document No. 328: Historical Statements Concerning the Battle of King’s Mountain and the Battle of the Cowpens. Washington: United States Government Printing Office. 1928. p. 53.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
- Babits, 46.
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- Buchanan, 328
- Buchanan, 317
- Brooks, Victor; Robert Hohwald (1999). How America Fought Its Wars: Military Strategy from the American Revolution to the Civil War. Da Capo Press. p. 134. ISBN 1-58097-002-8.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
- Buchanan, 316
- Babits, 156.
- Buchanan, 320
- Buchanan, 320-22
- Buchanan, 324
- Babits discusses this phenomenon fully on pp. 155–159
- The Army Chaplaincy, Winter 1998
- Buchanan, 325
- Historical record of the 17th Light dragoons
- Buchanan, 327
- Buchanan, 332
- Babits, 150–152.
- Stevenson, 52
- Marshall, Volume I, 404.
- Trevelyan, Volume II, 141.
- Department of the Army, Lineage and Honors, 116th Infantry. Reproduced in Sawicki 1981, pp. 227–229.
- Department of the Army, Lineage and Honors, 175th Infantry. Reproduced in Sawicki 1982, pp. 343–345.
- Department of the Army, Lineage and Honors, 198th Signal Battalion.
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- Bearss, Edwin. C. (1996). The Battle of Cowpens: A Documented Narrative and Troop Movement Maps. Johnson City, Tennessee: Overmountain Press. ISBN 1-57072-045-2.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
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