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The Battle of Cowpens

January 12, 2014

Several years ago I took a group of Boy Scouts who were working on the American Heritage merit badge to the Cowpens National Battlefield in northern Spartanburg County. For many it was their first visit to the site. For me it was a return trip to a place many in the Upstate of South Carolina take for granted, a place that proved to be the turning point of the American Revolutionary War. Many believe that the battle fought in the frozen red clay of Cowpens was the decisive engagement of the war.

Dramatic events led up to that fateful day – January 17, 1781.

By 1778-80, with a stalemate in the north, the British looked south with the goal of assisting Southern Loyalists in regaining control of colonial governments. They then planned to push north to crush the rebellion, estimating that many of the population would rally to the Crown.

The British captured Savannah on December 29, 1778, and then Charleston on May 12, 1780. General Cornwallis took command of the British campaign in the south. On August 16, 1780, he crushed the Southern Continental Army under General Horatio Gates at Camden in one of the bloodiest battles of the war. These victories bolstered British confidence, leading them to believe that they would soon control the entire south and that Loyalists would flock to their cause.

The British didn’t expect so much opposition in the backcountry. The Scots-Irish came to the American colonies with a chip on their shoulders, already despising the British for injustices done to them in Northern Ireland.  Many had been taken from their homes in Scotland and moved to Ireland to industrialize the country. When their products had proved superior to those made in England, they were heavily taxed. When they came to America, British colonists pushed these Scots-Irish to the frontier to serve as a buffer against the Indians. In the backwoods they learned to fire long rifles and to fight from ambush. Underestimating these people became an Achilles’ heel for the British.

Lord Cornwallis’ attempt to raise Loyalist support was thwarted when Patriot militia defeated a larger force of British Loyalists in the Battle of Kings Mountain on October 7, 1780. The men who had crossed the Appalachian Mountains to fight those British became known as the Overmountain Men.

The Scouts and I walked the trail through the battlefield, which was larger than five football fields. The terrain featured two hills dotted with trees. Since cattle grazed the land, it was devoid of undergrowth. The rutted Green River Road extended the length of the battlefield. It was there that for the first time in the war, a combined force of Patriot militia and Centennial Army soldiers defeated regular British Redcoats.

After Camden, General George Washington sent General Nathanael Greene to take command of the Southern army. Greene, just two weeks into his command, split his army, sending General Daniel Morgan southwest of the Catawba River to cut supply lines and hamper British operations in the backcountry. General Cornwallis countered Greene’s move by sending Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton to block Morgan’s actions.

Tarleton was a brash twenty-six-year-old officer with an infamous reputation. At the Siege of Charleston and at the Battle of Camden, he had proved ruthless. Tarleton won decisive victories at Monck’s Corner and at Fishing Creek. After his victory at the Battle of Waxhaws, he ordered the slaughter of American soldiers who had already surrendered. The nickname Bloody Tarleton was well deserved.

On Christmas Day 1780, General Daniel Morgan and his men were camped on the Pacolet River in the Upcountry of colonial South Carolina.

Lord Cornwallis thought that Morgan was planning to attack Star Fort at Ninety Six, South Carolina.

Tarleton and the legion marched in pursuit of Morgan, first to Ninety Six and then to the Broad River. Morgan received word that Tarleton was hot on his trail and moved north, attempting to avoid being trapped between Tarleton and Cornwallis.

By the afternoon of January 16, 1781, Morgan approached the Broad River, which was high with floodwaters. By nightfall he reached Hannah’s Cowpens, a grazing area for cattle. When General Andrew Pickens joined Morgan’s camp, Morgan decided to stand and fight.

Camp was made between two small hills. Through the night Morgan moved among the campfires and offered encouragement to his army.

Dawn at Hannah’s Cowpens on January 17, 1781, was clear and bitterly cold. Tarleton had marched his army since two in the morning. Hearing reports of Overmountain Men on the way, he urgently ordered formation on the Green River Road for the attack.

Tarleton pressed the attack, his line extending across the meadow, his artillery in the middle, and fifty dragoons on each side. Daniel Morgan formed his troops into three lines. Out front and hiding behind trees were sharpshooters. At the onset of battle they picked off numbers of Tarleton’s dragoons, shooting especially at officers. The sharpshooters retreated 150 yards to join the second line, the militia commanded by Andrew Pickens. Morgan asked them to get off two volleys, then retreat to the third line made up of John Eager Howard’s Continentals another 150 yards to the rear.

The militia got off two volleys as the British neared; but, as they retreated, Tarleton sent his feared dragoons after them. As the militia dodged behind trees, William Washington’s Patriot cavalry thundered onto the field of battle. The surprised British dragoons lost eighteen men in the clash.

The British regulars advanced in a trot, with beating drums and the shrill sounds of fifes. Morgan rode to the front and rallied the militia.

Now Tarleton’s Highlanders entered the charge toward the Continental line, their bagpipes adding to the confusion. John Eager Howard ordered the right flank to counter a charge from that direction. His orders were misunderstood as a call to retreat. Morgan spurred his horse on and ordered the retreating units to face about, and then, on order, fire in unison. The firing took a heavy toll on the British, who had sensed victory and broken ranks in a wild charge. This event and a fierce Patriot bayonet charge in return, broke the British attack and turned the tide of battle. The militia and cavalry reentered the battle, leading to the double envelopment of the British, who surrendered. Finally, Tarleton himself saw the futility of continuing. He and a handful of men fled back down the Green River Road. Tarleton escaped to tell the news to Cornwallis.

The battle, over in less than an hour, was a complete victory for the Patriot force. British losses were staggering: 110 dead, over 200 wounded, and 500 captured. Morgan’s losses were minimal: twelve killed and sixty wounded.

Cornwallis and his weary army left the Carolinas and moved on to Virginia. At Yorktown on October 18, 1781, the British army surrendered to General George Washington.

Cowpens was a surprising victory and a turning point that changed the outcome of the entire war.

This week marks the anniversary of the Battle of Cowpens. I encourage you to visit this historic place and learn more about our American heritage. We are all indebted to those who fought there for our freedom.

Kirk H. Neely
© January 2014
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