The Southern Revolution:
The Battle of Cowpens

by J. M. Pressley
First published: September 19, 2008

The Battle of Cowpens marked the successful beginning of an unconventional but effective campaign against the British in the southern colonies.

Background

On the heels of the militia victory at King's Mountain, Major General Nathanael Greene arrived in Charlotte, North Carolina, on December 2, 1780 to take command of the southern theater. He had a cordial meeting with the outgoing general, Horatio Gates, and immediately began taking stock of his troops. The situation was critical for the Continental army. The costly defeat at Camden had left Greene with a dispirited, hungry group of men, less than half of whom were considered fit for duty.

Greene, however, had several experienced subordinates and a core of battle-tested Continental troops at his disposal. And, thanks to his duties as both a military commander and quartermaster general, he grasped the inherent problems in his command within short order—and in a way that had completely eluded his predecessor. He also had help on the way. General Washington had dispatched Henry Lee's cavalry to the Carolinas and coaxed Daniel Morgan out of retirement with a long-overdue promotion to brigadier general.

It was assumed that Greene would incorporate the much-needed reinforcements into his army. Instead, Greene went against one of the oldest military dictums: never divide a force in the presence of a superior enemy. After sending Henry Lee off to fight alongside Francis Marion's partisans, Greene ordered Morgan to form up a small, mobile force designed to harass the British in western South Carolina. Meanwhile, Greene would travel with his remaining troops to the Cheraw region, where the foraging and morale might improve. The move was also designed to make Cornwallis think twice before moving en masse on either Greene or Morgan.

Greene's reasoning was unconventional but sound. If Cornwallis went after Morgan with his full force, he potentially left Greene with an open path to Charleston. If Cornwallis did the same with Greene, then Morgan threatened his entire supply chain. Cornwallis, realizing this, played into Greene's strategy by detaching cavalry and troops under Banastre Tarleton to pursue Morgan.

The Battle

By early 1781, Cornwallis had been reinforced with over 2,000 fresh British troops from New York, courtesy of General Clinton. As Tarleton neared Morgan's force, Cornwallis maneuvered part of his army northwest from Winnsboro as a potential anvil against Tarleton's hammer to trap and destroy the rebels. Morgan, meanwhile, had decided that he needed to make a stand with Tarleton only six miles away. On January 16, Morgan made camp along the rolling meadow of Hannah's Cowpens (so named for the cattle that were often grazed and rested there).

It was a tactically curious choice. The cavalry-friendly landscape favored the British, and the stretch of Broad River some five miles in back of Morgan's camp was unfordable. Morgan, who knew of the militia's tendency to break and run, was later said to have chosen Cowpens precisely because it offered no convenient path of retreat. Whatever his reasons, Morgan set about using both his troops and the terrain to great effect.

Morgan deployed his troops in three lines. The first line was composed of 150 militia riflemen; Morgan told them to let loose with two volleys and fall back to support the second line. The second line consisted of 300 militia under command of Colonel Andrew Pickens. They were also told to fire two volleys—specifically targeting British officers—before falling back to the third line. Lieutenant Colonel John Howard commanded the third line, Morgan's veteran Continentals flanked by Virginia riflemen, atop a low hill overlooking the field. In the rear, beyond a lower hill, Morgan held William Washington's cavalry in reserve.

Following an overnight march, Tarleton reached Cowpens in the early morning of January 17. The British launched their attack around 7:00 a.m.; the front line of skirmishers waited for them to get in range, fired their volleys, and fell back as planned. The second line let the British advance within 100 yards before letting loose with a withering pair of volleys. As they fell back, Tarleton interpreted the move as a full retreat and ordered his entire line forward in a charge.

As they crested the hill, the British were greeted with yet another set of volleys from Howard's troops. Then, giving the British a taste of their own tactics, the Continentals roared forward in a bayonet charge. Caught between the infantry and Washington's cavalry, the British troops either fled the field or surrendered on the spot. Tarleton himself led a last, desperate counterattack; Washington met him head on in a brief, furious cavalry clash that drove the last remnants from the field. The British force had been decimated.

Impact

The rebels had scored an impressive victory, suffering only 72 casualties against British losses of 110 dead, 200 wounded, and 529 captured. It also brought them badly needed stores of arms and supplies. Morgan would not linger long in Cowpens, however. He gathered his men and immediately struck out for North Carolina to regroup with Greene's army. Within a week's time, he led his force across the Catawba River 100 miles to the northeast.

He had good reason to run. Cornwallis learned of Tarleton's defeat the day after it happened, and he was determined to put an end to Morgan's force. When he realized that Morgan had eluded him, Cornwallis made one of the more fateful decisions of the campaign. His wagon train, excess baggage, surplus equipment—anything that slowed his advance—he ordered burned. With this stripped-down army, Cornwallis hoped to overtake and destroy Greene before he could retreat across the Dan River into Virginia. The ensuing cat-and-mouse game between the two generals would instead lead to a confrontation at Guilford Courthouse.

Bibliography

Lancaster, Bruce. The American Revolution (American Heritage Library). New York, NY: American Heritage Pub. Co., 1971.

Middlekauff, Robert. The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763-1789. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1982.

Savas, Theodore P. and J. David Dameron. Guide to the Battles of the American Revolution. New York, NY: Savas Beatie LLC, 2006.