Cowpens, South Carolina

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Cowpens, South Carolina

COWPENS, SOUTH CAROLINA. 17 January 1781. Earl Cornwallis learned in late December 1780 that Brigadier General Daniel Morgan was operating against Ninety Six with a force of dragoons and light infantry. In response, he dispatched Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton to protect Ninety Six and then drive Morgan from South Carolina. Morgan already had a well-deserved reputation for his audacity at Quebec and for leading riflemen at Saratoga. His presence in the main British force's rear with sizeable force presented a very real threat to British plans for a winter advance into North Carolina. Cornwallis could not start north until Morgan's threat was eliminated.

Cornwallis knew that the Continental Southern Army, under Major General Nathanael Greene, was at least one hundred miles away from Morgan, and that his own British force lay between them. With a numerical superiority of two to one located between Greene and Morgan, Cornwallis saw an opportunity to destroy Morgan. Tarleton proposed moving toward Ninety Six with his legion and other troops. He would protect the post and either destroy Morgan or drive him toward Kings Mountain. At the same time, Cornwallis was to move from Winnsboro and cut off Morgan's escape route in case he eluded Tarleton.

After five days' rapid march, Tarleton made a surprise river crossing that caused Morgan to evacuate his temporary Burr's Mill camp early on 16 January. Morgan had already ordered South Carolina militia under Colonel Andrew Pickens to withdraw to the northwest toward a road junction called the Cowpens. As they did so, they cleared readily available supplies from the route that Tarleton's pursuing British had to follow.

Morgan had officers with him who lived nearby and knew the country intimately. The Cowpens road junction was utilized repeatedly by both sides during the last seven months' campaigning because it provided access to river fords and a good campsite and was well-known to any arriving reinforcements.

By midafternoon on 16 January 1781, Morgan reached the crossroads and conducted a reconnaissance. He first planned for a battle in case he was attacked, but later opted to force a fight on Tarleton. The Cowpens had the obvious advantages of forage and of being easy for the militia reinforcements to find. Morgan sent word to Pickens and other militia leaders to meet at the Cowpens. Morgan also ordered an available cattle herd slaughtered to feed his men.


Approaching the crossroads from the south, the British would follow the Green River Road through a tree-dotted flat area clear of underbrush that rose gradually for about five hundred yards to a "military crest." About seventy yards farther north was a geographical (or true) crest some seventy feet in total elevation. About five hundred yards behind this, across a grassy swale, was another crest just south of the intersecting road leading southwest toward the Pacolet River and northeast toward the Broad River. As the British proceeded up the road, tree cover increased slightly, but there was very little underbrush, the result of innumerable campfires since the preceding August. There were at least three springs on each side of the road. These fed into boggy ground where thick stands of cane grew; these constricted the battlefields and, later, protected American flanks.

Morgan's troops included three hundred Continental infantry from Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia under Lieutenant Colonel John Eager Howard of Maryland. Lieutenant Colonel William Washington of Virginia led some seventy-two Continental light dragoons. There were state troops from South Carolina and Virginia, some of whom arrived just before the fighting began. There were also Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia militia, many of whom were riflemen.

Over the night of 16-17 January, Morgan spent a great deal of time telling his officers what was expected of them. As more troops came in, he decided he would fight and went through the process again. Morgan carefully instructed the officers where to position their men when final deployments were made. A forward skirmish line with over 150 picked riflemen from both Carolinas and Georgia would take position on the southernmost rising ground. On the American right, the terrain was steeper and faced low, boggy ground. Major Charles McDowell of North Carolina commanded at least five militia companies from that state on this (western) side. On the left, Captain Samuel Hammond commanded South Carolina state troops and three small companies of Georgia militia. All these skirmishers were to fire and withdraw after forcing the British to deploy. Hopefully, they would then take up positions in the main militia line.

The second line, comprising most of the South Carolina militia and reinforced by the skirmishers, was commanded by Colonel Andrew Pickens of South Carolina. His men were placed north of the military crest and slightly below it, some 150 yards behind the skirmish line. This reverse slope defense offered some concealment. Pickens's militia brigade contained four battalions and numbered well over eight hundred men; Tarleton later claimed some one thousand men were positioned here. The militiamen were told to fire twice at close range, aiming for British officers and sergeants. When the enemy got close enough for a bayonet charge, the second line was to withdraw through the third line. Here they could reassemble behind the third line's bayonets.

The third, or main, battle line was 125 yards forward of the northern geographical crest and 150 yards down the slight grade behind the second line. Commanded by Howard, about 300 Continental infantrymen formed the main opposition for Tarleton. Four Delaware and Maryland Continental companies were in the center. Three companies of Virginia militiamen formed a battalion to their left under Major Francis Triplett. On the right, another Virginia battalion was posted under Major Edmund Tate. This battalion was an odd composition because, from right to left, there was a Virginia Continental company, a Virginia state troops company, and an Augusta County militia. Attached to each flank were small companies (about twenty-five men in each) of North Carolina militiamen. The third line had approximately 550 to 600 men covering a front of 220 yards.

The reserve consisted of Washington's 72 Continental light dragoons, Georgia major James McCall's 45 mounted South Carolina state troops dragoons, another 45 horsemen armed only with sabers, and some volunteer dragoons. The mounted men were posted about 150 yards behind the third line slightly behind the high ground.

Long after the battle, many men related that Morgan had challenged his militiamen to fire two shots. He reminded them of what the British and Tories had done to their property and their kinfolk. He may have shown the scars of the famous flogging he had taken from the British years ago, but no one mentioned him doing so. Less dramatic, but probably more important, Morgan sent his men into battle fed and rested. Long before the British completed their exhausting twelve-mile march to the battlefield, the Americans were in position and waiting.


Giving his men little sleep, Tarleton beat reveille at 2 a.m. and left camp at 3 a.m. The British marched northward led by three light infantry companies. Behind them came the British Legion infantry, the Seventh Regiment of Foot, the Seventy-first Regiment (Fraser's Highlanders), a Royal Artillery detachment with two 3-pounder cannon, 50 troopers of the Seventeenth Light Dragoons, and the British Legion cavalry. A company of about 25 men under a local Tory, Captain John Chesney, was also present, serving as guides. Total strength was over 1,150. The 250 infantry and over 250 dragoons of his British Legion, the 50 men of the Seventeenth Light Dragoons, 25 artillerymen, and over 249 Highlanders of the Seventy-first Regiment's First Battalion, and a light infantry battalion of over 135 men were veteran troops. The Seventh Regiment's 177 enlisted men were recruits originally destined to garrison Ninety Six. The guarded baggage wagons followed as rapidly as they could.

Many authors have accepted uncritically Morgan's figure of eight hundred men, claiming that Tarleton had numerical superiority. To explain the victory, these partisans have suggested that Morgan's men were better than the British forces because the militiamen were veterans of partisan, backcountry warfare and superb shots. More recent research, using pension records, suggests that Tarleton's statement that the Americans had more men than he is supported.

Feeling their way cautiously for over two hours, the advance guard still reached Thicketty Creek an hour before dawn, sunrise on 17 January coming at about 7:36 a.m. Tarleton sent forward a cavalry that soon made contact with an American patrol commanded by Captain Joshua Inman. At least one prisoner was taken, a Continental dragoon sergeant whose horse had been shot down. Learning Morgan's camp was within three miles, Tarleton sent Captain David Ogilvie forward with two troops to reinforce the advance guard and feel out the American position. At about 6:45 a.m., Ogilvie rode out of the woods bordering the southern extremity of the Cowpens. The noise of moving men trying to be quiet alerted the troopers that a sizeable force was immediately ahead. Meanwhile, Tarleton interviewed the prisoner and learned in no uncertain terms that Morgan was intending to fight. Ogilivie's report, coupled with the new intelligence, forced a dilemma on Tarleton. Was the force ahead only a rear guard covering a retreat or was it Morgan's whole force? The situation was critical for Tarleton because he knew American reinforcements were coming to Morgan while his own force would get no larger.

Although his troops had just marched some twelve miles over difficult, wet terrain in darkness, Tarleton wasted no time getting ready to attack. Chesney's guides briefed him accurately on this well-known spot. He shifted his leading troops into a line east of the road about four hundred yards in front of the first American position. Then, with orders to drive in the skirmishers, the men advanced about three hundred yards and began forcing the riflemen back. After passing the boggy ground in front of McDowell's position, he deployed for a frontal assault.

From left to right he placed the Seventh Regiment west of the road. East of the road, he posted the Legion infantry and the light infantry. One three-pounder went into action in the road, the other in the middle of the Seventh Regiment. On each flank, Tarleton posted fifty horsemen, the Seventeenth Light Dragoons troop was on the right, Ogilivie's Troop on the left. A scattering fire among the Seventh Regiment broke out, probably because its commander, Major Timothy Newmarsh, was wounded, but with this exception the line moved forward with good discipline. Waiting as a reserve in the left rear of the Seventh Regiment were Fraser's Highlanders. The British Legion dragoons took a position on the road to take advantage of any opportunities.

As the British advanced and then deployed, the first-line skirmishers drifted rearward, taking positions on Pickens's flanks. They continued firing as the British advanced at a trot. When the range closed within fifty yards, ten-man groups of sharpshooters slightly in advance opened fire on the British leaders and then ran back to the ranks. This was not just an attempt at attrition; these men were tempting the British to fire while still beyond effective range. After the British advanced another ten yards, the militia battalions began firing volleys. Reinforced by the riflemen from the first line, the aimed rifle fire was devastating. Over half the British casualties occurred during this phase of the action, and about 40 percent of the officers went down. The four militia battalions got off five volleys but only one had time to fire twice. The disciplined British infantry kept coming because they had been trained to assault militia riflemen immediately rather than engage in a gun fight. The militia broke ranks and ran back, passing through the main line where openings had been left for their passage; then the main line closed up to present a solid front.

After driving back the militia line, Tarleton reformed his infantry and resumed the attack. Howard's line opened up with steady volley fire once the British infantry was in range. The British were checked but not stopped. Firing volleys at a distance well under forty yards, Tarleton commented that "the fire on both sides was well supported and produced much slaughter." This firefight lasted less than ten minutes.

Trying to break the stalemate after only a minute or two of volley firing, Tarleton ordered up the Seventy-first and sent the flanking dragoons to envelop the Americans. The Seventeeth Light Dragoons charged past the American left, passing through the flankers and falling upon the reforming militia. The surprise was so total that one man later reported the fifty or so men as four hundred. They were counterattacked by Washington and McCall, who outnumbered them four to one at the point of contact. The British dragoons fled after one-third were struck down.

Major Arthur McArthur was already moving the Seventy-first Regiment forward to envelop the American right, following behind Ogilivie's dragoons. They were delayed by McDowell's North Carolina militia, who slowed them for perhaps three minutes. As the Highlanders overran the militia, Howard ordered his right company, Captain Andrew Wallace's Virginia Continentals, to change front to meet the new threat—a tactic known as "refusing a flank." Wallace's company started the maneuver but did not complete the evolution. They were ordered rearward to sort themselves out. Further confusion ensued because the Highlanders fired a volley at precisely the right time, killing the commander of the next company on the third line. His replacement did not know what had been ordered and so ordered the company off the line. Each adjacent unit then withdrew, and the entire Continental line started rearwards, but in good order, reloading as it went. To make the best of a movement that could not be stopped, and seeing that it might be a good idea, after all, to extricate his entire line from a bad situation, Howard decided to continue withdrawing to a new position.

Morgan rode up in alarm but Howard reassured him, and Morgan went off to mark a spot where the Continentals would halt, turn about, and fire. The Scots rushed forward in a loose formation, followed by the other British units. As the American infantry moved back, Washington, reforming after dispatching the Seventeenth Light Dragoons, now ordered his men against Ogilivie on the American right. Wheeling about, he rode back through the British, scattering the legion dragoons. Washington sent word to Morgan that the British had lost unit cohesion and that they were running like a mob.

As the first Continental companies reached their new position; Howard ordered them to face about and fire. The British, charging in pursuit, were within fifteen yards when the Continentals turned, fired from the hip, and charged with the bayonet. At about the same time, Washington and McCall hit the Highlanders' left flank and rear. The surprise fire and bayonet charge proved too much for troops who had lived the last week on low rations and little sleep, had then completed a four hour march over wet roads, had attacked a good half mile, and now supposed victory was at hand. Suddenly hit by the surprise volley of buck and ball at less than fifteen yards, those men still on their feet were splattered with blood and gore. The Scots were seized with an "unaccountable panic" and fled. The Highlanders tried to rally after a short distance but Pickens's militia appeared on their flank and rear, firing at long range. With most officers killed or wounded, the Highlanders gave up. The Americans continued the pursuit and those infantrymen who tried to stand were over-whelmed. The American leadership acted quickly to keep their men from exacting "Tarleton's Quarter."

Tarleton did not quit. He rode back and ordered the British Legion dragoons forward in a counterattack he thought might win the day, or at least save the artillery. The dragoons rode off and left a frustrated Tarleton behind. The handful of British artillerymen went down fighting as they were overwhelmed by Howard's infantrymen. All were killed or wounded defending the guns.

Some forty men of the Seventeenth Dragoons and fourteen officers rallied around Tarleton as he rushed to save the guns. Tarleton and his small force were driven back as Washington followed in hot pursuit. Washington was well in advance when three British officers turned back for a dramatic finale. In the first exchange, Washington's saber was broken. His opponent was shot by a "little waiter" (or orderly). An American sergeant major then wounded the third officer. This celebrated encounter was later romanticized by a fanciful painting; Howard summed it up by saying that one British officer was thought to be Tarleton. In retrospect, it is most likely the three officers were subordinates, including at least one from the Seventeenth Light Dragoons.

Retreating, Tarleton came upon his wagon train and found the guards had fled. American militia dragoons were already looting the wagons. Tarleton's men drove off the Americans, burned what little they could, and rode for the main British camp. After rounding up some two hundred dragoons, Tarleton crossed the Broad River and reached Cornwallis on 18 January.

Morgan wasted no time. Leaving local militia behind to take care of the dead and wounded, he gathered what booty he could use and marched the prisoners off the battlefield before noon. Reaching the north side of the Broad River six miles away, he crossed and then camped to allow his detachments and stragglers to catch up.


Less than an hour's fighting cost the British over 100 killed and 200 wounded. All those reported wounded were captured, and at least an additional 600 unwounded were taken prisoner. Officer casualties are confusing, but at least ten were killed and another 29 captured. Sixty african americans accompanying the baggage were also captured; they were distributed under receipt to various militia officers, including two to Morgan. The booty included 100 dragoon horses, 800 muskets, 35 wagons, the colors of the Seventh Regiment, a traveling forge, and the British music (the fifes, drums, and trumpets of the British were kept as trophies). American losses were 24 killed and 104 wounded.


The Battle of Cowpens destroyed Cornwallis's light infantry. To recapture them, he embarked on a pursuit of Morgan, and then Greene, that almost destroyed his main force. Another consequence was that it raised patriot morale, just as Greene had ordered when he sent Morgan west to "spirit up the people."

Tarleton's reputation did not suffer greatly. He was still a feared opponent until captured at Yorktown. Until then, he continued to conduct slashing raids against the Americans. Cornwallis officially exonerated Tarleton, but the Seventy-first refused to serve with him again.

Morgan's Cowpens victory is a classic, the best American tactical demonstration of the war. Morgan combined his own charismatic leadership skills with superb junior officers (Howard and Washington, in particular, but the captains under them were also outstanding, especially Delaware's Robert Kirkwood). He got the most out of a potentially disastrous mix of Continentals, state troops, and militia who had all suffered at British hands.

Morgan certainly used an unusual deployment to maximize his own men's weapons while taking advantage of a British tendency to fire high. By utilizing a reverse slope defense, Morgan placed the British against a lightening skyline and firing downhill, leaving them to overshoot. The reverse slope also concealed many Americans from Tarleton. The progressively stronger American lines depleted British morale and stamina as the Americans forced their opponents to attack them head-on, because each line was covered by springs, boggy ground, and canebrakes. Even with more men than Tarleton and with all his other advantages, Morgan was lucky, but winners tend to make their own breaks and take advantage of situations as they develop.

While Howard's infantrymen stood fast, exchanging volleys with the British, Washington obeyed his orders to take advantage of opportunities. The American dragoons achieved mass against each British flank attack in succession. They simply overwhelmed their opponents. Using shorter interior lines, the American dragoons were able to defeat both British mounted thrusts in detail, then attack down the battlefield to ensure the rout.

Like many other backcountry battles during 1780 and 1781, Cowpens was over fairly quickly. In some accounts, it could be interpreted as lasting less than thirty-five minutes. The rapidity of troop movements and the sudden collapse are reflected in the casualty totals. As with other short, vicious fights, the loser suffered greatly compared to the winner. While the Americans could replace most of their losses, the British could not. In order to retake his men, Cornwallis overstretched his supply lines and marched his army into the ground. As events played out, Cowpens was one step on the road to Yorktown.

SEE ALSO British Legion; Morgan, Daniel; Southern Campaigns of Nathanael Greene; Tarleton's Quarter.


Babits, Lawrence E. A Devil of a Whipping: The Battle of Cowpens. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998.

Fortescue, J. W. A History of the British Army. 13 vols. London: Macmillan, 1899–1930.

Lee, Henry. Memoirs of the War in the Southern Department of the United States. 2 vols. 1812. Reprint, New York: Burt Franklin, 1970.

Tarleton, Banastre. A History of the Campaigns of 1780 and 1781 in the Southern Provinces of North America. 1787. Spartanburg: Reprint Press, 1967.

                            revised by Lawrence E. Babits

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Cowpens, South Carolina

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