Cowpens, Battle of

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Cowpens, Battle of (1781).Daniel Morgan and his 1,100‐man American army defeated Banastre Tarleton and 1,100 British and loyalist troops at the Cowpens in northwestern South Carolina on 17 January 1781 in the tactical masterpiece of the Revolutionary War—a classic demonstration of a commander's ability to exploit the resources at hand. The Battle of King's Mountain on 7 October 1780 demonstrated that British and loyalist forces in the backcountry could be overwhelmed by temporary concentrations of Rebel militia. But the aggressive Tarleton had little interest in caution; when he crossed the trail of the last regular American force in the South, he worried only that it might escape, and pressed forward without knowing his enemy's number or location. On the morning of 17 January, he fell headlong into Daniel Morgan's trap.

Morgan had picked unpromising ground, a rolling tree‐dotted meadow used to winter cattle, which seemed to give Tarleton's cavalry the opportunity to outflank his force; the Broad River, five miles to the north, would impede any American withdrawal. But Morgan had planned to take advantage both of the impetuosity of Tarleton and the variable abilities of his own soldiers. Positioning his relatively untrained militia in the first two of three lines, he ordered them to shoot at British officers three times before withdrawing to the rear. This ensured that by the time the British reached his third line, made up of Maryland, Virginia, and Delaware Continentals, the enemy would be disorganized and leaderless. Lastly, behind a small ridge to his rear, Morgan stationed 100 horsemen under William Washington.

As Tarleton attacked, everything seemed to unfold as he expected. But when his troops encountered the third line, Washington's horsemen plowed into their right while the re‐formed militia struck their left. Tarleton's force disintegrated in the midst of a double envelopment; Tarleton fled to avoid capture. Together, King's Mountain and Cowpens stripped the British army in the South of its most mobile troops, and thus severely diminished its ability to defeat the Americans.


Robert D. Bass , The Green Dragoon: The Lives of Banastre Tarleton and Mary Robinson, 1957.
Don Higginbotham , Daniel Morgan: Revolutionary Rifleman, 1961.
Lawrence E. Babits , A Devil of a Whipping: The Battle of Cowpens, 1998.

Harold E. Selesky

Cowpens, Battle of

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COWPENS, BATTLE OF (17 January 1781), one of the most brilliant American victories in the Revolution. In December 1780, Gen. Nathanael Greene, commander of the American army in the South, sent Gen. Daniel Morgan with 600 men to threaten the British post at Ninety-Six, South Carolina. Lord Charles Cornwallis sent Col. Banastre Tarleton against Morgan while he himself marched northward, there by hoping to get between the two wings of the American army. Morgan, reinforced with several hundred more men, marched northward rapidly with Tarleton's army in pursuit. On 17 January, Morgan took position on the slope of a hill at Cowpens, South Carolina (formerly a cattle roundup center) and arranged his army in three lines. Morgan had 940 men, Tarleton 1,150. As the British approached, the first two lines of Morgan's army, as they had been instructed, fired and fell back. The British thought they had won an easy victory and advanced in disorder, only to be met by a deadly fire and bayonet attack from a third line of troops from Maryland, Virginia, and Georgia. At the same time the cavalry struck them on the right flank and the re-formed militia on the left. Finding themselves surrounded they surrendered. The British losses were 600 prisoners and over 200 killed and wounded; the American losses were 72 killed and wounded. On 4 March 1929, the one-acre battleground was designated a national battlefield site.


Fleming, Thomas. "The Cowpens." The Quarterly Journal of Military History 1, no. 4 (1989): 56–67.

Higginbotham, Don. Daniel Morgan, Revolutionary Rifleman. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1961.

Treacy, M. F. Prelude to Yorktown. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1963.

Hugh T.Lefler/a. r.

See alsoEutaw Springs, Battle of ; Revolution, American: Military History ; Southern Campaigns .

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