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American Revolution: Battle of Cowpens

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American Revolution: Battle of Cowpens

The Battle of Cowpens by William Ranney

Photograph Source: Public Domain

Battle of Cowpens - Conflict:

The Battle of Cowpens was fought during the American Revolution (1775-1783).

Armies & Commanders:

Battle of Cowpens - Date:

Morgan and Tarleton clashed on January 17, 1781.

Battle of Cowpens - Background:

After taking command of the battered American army in the South, Major General Nathanael Greene divided his forces in December 1780. While Greene led one wing of the army towards supplies at Cheraw, SC, the other, commanded by Brigadier General Daniel Morgan, moved to attack the British supply lines and stir up support in the back country. Aware the Greene had split his forces, Lieutenant General Lord Charles Cornwallis dispatched an 1,100-man force under Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton to destroy Morgan's command. A bold leader, Tarleton was notorious for atrocities committed by his men at earlier battles.

Riding out with a mixed force of cavalry and infantry, Tarleton pursued Morgan into northwestern South Carolina. A veteran of the war's early Canadian campaigns and a hero of the Battle of Saratoga, Morgan was a gifted leader who knew how to obtain the best from his men. Rallying his command in a pastureland known as the Cowpens, Morgan devised a cunning plan to defeat Tarleton. Possessing a varied force of Continentals, militia, and cavalry, Morgan chose Cowpens as it was between the Broad and Pacolet Rivers which cut off his lines of retreat.

Battle of Cowpens - Morgan's Plan:

While opposite to traditional military thinking, the Morgan knew his militia would fight harder and be less inclined to flee if their lines of retreat were removed. For the battle, Morgan placed his reliable Continental infantry, led by Colonel John Eager Howard, on the slope of a hill. This position was between a ravine and a stream which would prevent Tarleton from moving around his flanks. In front of the Continentals, Morgan formed a line of militia under Colonel Andrew Pickens. Forward of these two lines was a select group of 150 skirmishers.

Lieutenant Colonel William Washington's cavalry (around 110 men) was placed out of sight behind the hill. Morgan's plan for the battle called for the skirmishers to engage Tarleton's men before falling back. Knowing that the militia was unreliable in combat, he asked that they fire two volleys before retreating behind the hill. Having been engaged by the first two lines, Tarleton would be forced to attack uphill against Howard's veteran troops. Once Tarleton was sufficiently weakened, the Americans would switch over to the attack.

Battle of Cowpens - Tarleton Attacks:

Breaking camp at 2:00 AM on January 17, Tarleton pressed on to the Cowpens. Spotting Morgan's troops, he immediately formed his men for battle. Placing his infantry in the center, with cavalry on the flanks, Tarleton ordered his men forward. Encountering the American skirmishers, the British began taking casualties but were able to force them back. Pressing on, they engaged Pickens' militia who fired their two volleys and promptly withdrew back around the hill. Believing the Americans were in full retreat, Tarleton ordered his men forward against the Continentals.

Battle of Cowpens - Morgan's Victory:

Striking the flank of the American line, the British compelled Howard to retreat further up the hill. Charging after them, they were surprised when the Americans promptly stopped, turned, and opened fire on them. Their volley complete, Howard's men charged the British supported by rifle fire from Virginia and Georgia militia. Their advance stopped,the British were stunned when Washington's cavalry rode round the hill and struck their right flank. While this was occurring, Pickens' militia re-entered the fray from the left, completing a 360-degree march around the hill.

Caught in a classic double envelopment and stunned by their circumstances, nearly half of Tarleton's command ceased fighting and fell to the ground. With his right and center collapsing, Tarleton gathered his cavalry reserve, his British Legion, and rode into the fray against the American horsemen. Unable to have any effect, he began withdrawing with what forces he could gather. During this effort, he was personally attacked by Washington. As the two fought, Washington's orderly saved his life when a British dragoon moved to strike him. Following this incident, Tarleton shot Washington's horse from under him and fled the field.

Battle of Cowpens - Aftermath

Coupled with the victory at Kings Mountain three months before, the Battle of Cowpens aided in blunting the British initiative in the South and regaining some momentum for the Patriot cause. In addition, Morgan's triumph effectively removed a small British army from the field and relieved pressure on Greene's command. In the fighting, Morgan's command sustained between 120-170 casualties, while Tarleton suffered approximately 300-400 dead and wounded as well as around 600 captured. Though the Battle of Cowpens was relatively small in regard to numbers involved, it played a key role in the conflict as it deprived the British of desperately needed troops and altered Cornwallis' future plans.

Selected Sources

  1. About.com
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  3. Military History
  4. Conflicts & Battles
  5. Battles & Wars: 1601-1800
  6. American Revolution
  7. American Revolution - 1778-1783
  8. American Revolution: Battle of Cowpens (1781)

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