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Kate Barry and the Battle of Cowpens

January 1, 2007

On a very warm day last summer, I stood on the big flat rocks in the North Tyger River with Sheila and John Ingle. Sheila had just written a book about the life of Catherine Moore Barry. Tom Moore Craig and Susan Murphy are direct descendents of Charles Moore, the Scots-Irish immigrant who settled on a land grant in the Upstate at what became the Walnut Grove Plantation. Tom and Susan had given Sheila access to family papers and stories about Kate Barry. There by the North Tyger River, I learned much about Kate Barry’s life and times.

Kate Barry, daughter of Charles Moore, was a heroine of the American Revolutionary War. The British army intended to crush a group of Patriots commanded by Brigadier General Daniel Morgan. Kate Barry was a spy and message bearer for the Patriots. She knew the shortcuts, the Indian trails, where fellow Patriots lived, and how to contact them.

According to legend, before the Battle of Cowpens, she tied her toddler to a bedpost to keep her from harm. Then, Kate rode out to tell her husband, Captain Andrew Barry, and his militiamen that the British soldiers were fast approaching. Kate spread the word of the British advance urging local Patriots to join General Morgan’s troops.

The Battle of Cowpens was fought on January 17, 1781. It was a pivotal battle during the American Revolutionary War. Historians often refer to the Battle of Cowpens as the turning point of the war in the south. Most agree that this overwhelming victory won by American revolutionary forces under Daniel Morgan was the great American tactical masterpiece of the war.

The Battle of Cowpens was one of more than thirty engagements between Upstate Patriots and the British Tories during the Southern campaign of the American Revolution. Daniel Morgan was commander of 700 militiamen, including some Over Mountain Men and cavalry, and 300 Continentals. British Colonel Banastre Tarleton headed a legion of 1,100 dragoons, 17th Lancers, regulars, Tory loyalists, and Highlanders.

Tarleton and his legion had been successful at battles in Camden and Waxhaw. His ruthlessness earned him the name Bloody Tarleton. General Cornwallis instructed the young colonel to destroy Morgan’s command.

American commander Nathanael Greene had taken the daring step of dividing his army, detaching Morgan away from the main Patriot force. Morgan called Americans to gather at Hannah’s cow pens, a familiar landmark.

Morgan placed his Continental infantry on a hill as the center of his position. Morgan reasoned that Tarleton would attack him head on. He set up three lines of soldiers: one of skirmishers or sharpshooters, one of untrained militia, and a third of highly trained soldiers. The 150 select skirmishers were from North Carolina and Georgia. Behind these men were 300 militiamen under the command of Andrew Pickens. Included in that group were the Spartan Rifles under Colonel John Thomas, Jr. Also in the militia was Captain Andrew Barry, Kate’s husband.

By placing his men down hill from the advancing British lines, Morgan exploited the British tendency to fire too high in battle. The down hill position of his first two lines allowed the British forces to be silhouetted against the morning sunlight, providing easy targets for Patriot sharpshooters.

Morgan directed the first and second lines to fire two shots each and then retreat to regroup under cover of the cavalry positioned behind the third, more experienced line of militia and Continentals. The movement of the militia in the second line to the rear unmasked the third line to the British. Weakened and disorganized, Tarleton’s forces were now attacking up hill. The Continentals were able to stand and hold, especially since the first and second lines had inflicted both physical and psychological damage on the advancing British.

Though his troops were fatigued, Tarleton attacked with his customary boldness. Morgan’s strategy worked. Only Tarleton and about 260 British troops escaped. The Americans suffered only 73 casualties, 12 dead and 61 wounded.

Coming in the wake of the American defeat at Camden, Cowpens was a surprising victory and a turning point that changed the psychology of the entire war. Patriots in the backcountry of the Carolinas and those in all the Southern colonies were encouraged. Along with the defeat of the British at the Battle of King’s Mountain, Cowpens was a decisive blow to Cornwallis. Kate Barry’s heroics helped the colonial forces to defeat the British, driving them north.

Sheila Ingle’s account of Kate Barry has been published by the Hub City Writers Project. Courageous Kate: A Daughter of the American Revolution is available through Hub City. It can also be purchased in local bookstores. The book is illustrated by Sheila’s husband John.

January 17th is the anniversary of the Battle of Cowpens. It is a good time to visit the battlefield. Sheila’s book makes a good gift and a good read. Clare and I have given copies to our children and grandchildren and other elementary-age relatives and friends. We want to keep alive the memory of a woman who was a patriot no less than her male counterparts.

            I highly recommend Courageous Kate to you.

Kirk H. Neely

© H-J Weekly, January 2007

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