“A Devil of a Whipping”
The Battle of Cowpens took place on January 17, 1781, in the back country of South Carolina. It was there that Gen. Daniel Morgan turned the tide of the American Revolution and started the British down a road that would lead to their surrender at Yorktown, Virginia.
The battle took place as everything was going wrong in America’s fight for independence. George Washington’s army was bogged down in the North. The British had taken Charleston and then handed the Americans a devastating defeat at Camden, South Carolina.
Banastre Tarleton and his dragoons rode rough-shod over South Carolina, massacring a force of defenseless American soldiers at the Waxhaws. Patriots called him “Bloody Ban” for his willingness to slaughter Americans who surrendered to his command.
The Continental Congress sent Gen. Nathaniel Greene to salvage this situation in the South and he decided to put “the Old Wagoner” Gen. Daniel Morgan to use in stopping the British onslaught. Counter to the accepted rules of warfare, Greene divided his already outnumbered army and sent Morgan into South Carolina at the head of a “flying army” with orders to delay the British.
Morgan performed his duties better than Greene could have imagine. He tantalizingly approached Tarleton’s legion with the flying army and then fell back. Tarleton pursued but Morgan would not commit to major battle. As he continued to back away, Tarleton’s supply lines stretched longer and longer and his men became more and more frustrated. The extra time, however, game Gen. Morgan a chance to recruit his army and bring extra militia troops and volunteers into his ranks.
Finally, with his back to a river and cold weather setting in, Morgan turned to fight on January 17, 1781.
Aware of Tarleton’s reputation for rashness and the American militia’s reputation for running under fire, the American general devised an ingenious plan. He formed his men in a series of lines, riflemen in the front, militia in the middle and seasoned troops in the rear. By doing so, he hoped to draw the British into attacking on ground of his choosing.
Moving from campfire to campfire that night, Morgan spoke with his men about his plan. He promised the riflemen and militia that they would only be called upon to fire a couple of times. Once they had done so, they could head for the rear. The idea sounded reasonable to the militia and untrained soldiers and they agreed to the plan.
The strategy worked. Morgan’s riflemen weakened the oncoming British by sniping at officers as the legion approached and then withdrawing as Tarleton formed his lines for battle.
The fate of the battle now fell to the American militia. They fired by battalions as the British closed in, inflicting heavy casualties while receiving few of their own. Then, as Tarleton’s men maneuvered into their battle positions, the militia now broke and ran for the rear. The plan worked perfectly for the British suddenly surged forward in a disorganized charge, believing that the Americans were on the run.
The charging British were stunned, however, when they topped a low rise and fought Morgan’s seasoned troops in battle formation and waiting for them. A fierce firefight erupted with American soldiers standing toe to toe with their enemies while officers including Col. Andrew Pickens reformed the militia to the rear.
The critical moment came when part of Morgan’s main line confused orders and began an organized retreat. The British pursued, once again believing that the Patriot lines were breaking. Morgan, however, saw that his men were marching in perfect formation. Rushing forward, he ordered them to wheel and fire a volley directly into the faces of the British attackers.
The soldiers did as ordered and suddenly turned, firing at short range into Tarleton’s oncoming troops. The British attack collapsed.
Sensing the moment of victory, Morgan’s militia suddenly came from the rear and rejoined the battle. Now it was the British who panicked and began to fall back. Their retreat became a disaster when the Americans charged. All order disappeared in Tarleton’s ranks.
One of the most remarkable moments of the day took place at this stage of the battle. As the British army collapsed and the Patriot soldiers waded into their lines, two of the American officers focused on the small British cannon. In a remarkable maneuver, Captain Anderson of Maryland used his spontoon (a lance carried by some officers) to “pole vault” onto one of the guns.
The outnumbered American cavalry charged after the retreating Tarleton and there was a brief but deadly clash between the American and Legion horsemen. Tarleton himself became involved in hand to hand combat and was almost killed but two of his officers came to his aid and “Bloody Ban” escaped.
Hannah’s Cowpens became a killing field. By the time the gunfire and bayonet thrusts ended, Tarleton’s legion had been destroyed. The once feared British commander lost 110 killed, 200 wounded and another 630 captured. American losses were around 25 killed and 125 wounded.
The Battle of Cowpens inspired the American armies with new hope. Daniel Morgan became a hero by defeating the most feared British force in the south and achieving the only successful double envelopment of the American Revolution.
Morgan knew that he had achieved a significant victory and he now moved to make sure that the results were not lost in a second engagement with British reinforcements. He began a rapid withdrawal into North Carolina, knowing that Lord Cornwallis would be desperate to recapture his 630 prisoners. The flying army drove north as fast as it could move and soon rejoined with Greene’s main command. So began the famed “Race to the Dan,” that became one of the most notable achievements of the Revolutionary War.
Cornwallis did pursue, but Greene managed to get his troops through North Carolina and across the Dan River to safety before the massive British army could close on them.
The battlefield at Cowpens is beautifully preserved and interpreted. Paths lead through key areas of the site and a driving tour allows visitors to explore the far reaches of the field. The museum features artifacts, a film, historic weapons and more.
Cowpens National Battlefield is at 4001 Chesnee Highway, Gaffney, South Carolina. The park is free to visit and is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.