January 17, 1781
New research has drastically revised the traditional story of the Battle of Cowpens. The book "A Devil of a Whipping: The Battle of Cowpens" by Dr. Lawrence Babits, using Dr. Bobby Moss's studies of pension statements and other new sources, reflects these changes,and the virtual tour below is intended to reflect this new version and incorporates some suggestions from John Robertson, who works at the site.
The South was spared the ravages of war for much of the Revolution. A Tory rising was quashed at Moore's Creek, and the British attempt to capture Charleston in 1776 also failed. The British captured Savannah in 1778, and in 1779 a combined American and French force failed to retake the city by storm. Charleston was taken in 1780 and most of the Virginia Continental Line was captured there. Gen. Gates was sent South but was soundly defeated at Camden in August. Only the mountain men's destruction of Ferguson's column at King's Mountain in October prevented Cornwallis from invading North Carolina in late 1780. Stanley Carpenter, in "Southern Gambit" argues that the British "clear and hold" strategy was built on faulty assumptions of Loyalist support, that Loyalists would occupy that territory cleared of the enemy by regulars. Nevertheless, the strategy had a chance to succeed with patient, conservative leadership. Cornwallis, however, was impetuous by nature, and supply difficulties made it difficult to keep an army in one location. British policy was based on the successful suppression of Jacobite rebellions, but in the American South this failed to attract Loyalists because they perceived it as too lenient while it pushed paroled patriots back into the war because they perceived it as too harsh. Eventually it also alienated neutrals. Seeing that patriot irregulars were supported by the colonies further north, Cornwallis was eager to advance into North Carolina and Virginia before South Carolina was fully secure.
Gen. Nathaniel Greene was appointed by George Washington to command the Southern Army. Greene joined his army in Charlotte on December 2, 1780. Greene had only about 2,400 men to face Cornwallis' 4,000 men. Stopping Cornwallis with conventional methods would be impossible, and feeding the entire army at one location was impractical, so Greene adopted a hybrid conventional/irregular strategy that would exploit Cornwallis's personality. Greene detached Gen. Morgan with 600 men into the direction of Ninety-Six while Greene himself moved to Cheraw with 1,100 men. Lt. Col. Henry Lee was sent to assist Francis Marion in raiding British lines of communication in eastern South Carolina. Although Greene had divided his already weak force, it was positioned so that Cornwallis could not advance into North Carolina without exposing his flanks and rear, and it allowed Morgan to rally militia in the backcountry.
In response Cornwallis detached Lt.Col. Banastre Tarleton with 1,100 men to deal with Morgan. Tarleton's force, a light strike force, included his Legion with 250 cavalry and no more than 271 infantry, about 50 men of the 17th Lt. Dragoons, 263 men of the 71st Regiment, 177 men of the 7th Regiment, several companies of Light Infantry amounting to no more than 160 men, and two 3 pounders. Morgan withdrew in the face of Tarleton's advance and stripped the country of forage. On January 16th, Morgan stopped five miles short of the Broad River to make a stand. He had 300 Continentals and other reliable troops. Under William Washington, a cousin of George, were 82 Continental cavalrymen, no more than 45 state cavalrymen, and additional militia for a total of no more than 150 men. Militia units had been arriving, and it is now thought that Morgan's force totaled around 2,000 men, which is roughly the number that Tarleton thought that he had faced.
The night before the battle, Morgan went to the soldiers' camps and told his men about the battle plan, and he reminded them of Tarleton's massacres and that if they ran, they would be trapped at the Broad River. On the morning of January 17, 1781, Morgan's men had a hearty breakfast and awaited the enemy. Tarleton feared that Morgan would slip away, so he awakened his men at two o'clock in the morning to begin the four mile march to Cowpens. At 6:45, Tarleton's cavalry screen reached the clearing at Cowpens.
Books on the battle often include schematic maps that do not accurately represent the terrain. The NPS visitors center includes this great relief map. The round green dots represent woods that protected both American flanks. The other green symbols are canebreaks, a native form of bamboo.
British Deploy and Attack
| Tarleton and his men reached this
clearing and saw an
American force deployed in front of them. This is a view from
side of the clearing called Hannah's Cowpens. In the flat
the foreground there was low swampy ground known as 'the
an area which is now more firm. American
riflemen from Georgia and the Carolinas served as a skirmish
it further uphill, but also extended toward the woods on their right.
These are the faint gray woods in the background.
back, behind the small hill on the left of the
picture stood the South Carolina militiamen under Gen. Pickens.
the woods on the far left of the picture, the flank was protected by a
ravine with a stream and canebreaks. On the other
the woods, and protecting that flank,
were two heads of a stream also with canebreaks. The militia
anchored on each of these obstacles, and was positioned behind the hill
troops firing downhill tend to fire over the enemy's heads.
Behind the militiamen, not visible to the British, but on or beyond a slightly higher extension of the ridge near were it moves back, were the Continentals and Virginia militia under Lt. Col. John Howard. At the far end of the clearing, and hidden the hill was the cavalry under William Washington.
Tarleton deployed to attack with each flank protected by 50 cavalrymen. The infantry from right to left were the Lt. Infantry, the Legion Infantry, and the 7th Regiment. Two 3 pounders were deployed on either side of the 7th. Further to the left, and somewhat behind, was the 71st Regiment. In reserve were the 200 men of the Legion cavalry.
View From Skirmish Line
The British advanced toward the American skirmishers, who after firing a few shots withdrew. They would join the militia line.
Militia LineCanebrakes protected both flanks of the American militia line. Hayes' Bn., one of the four units of Pickens command, had advanced ahead of the militia line on the left side of the road. The skirmishers withdrew around this unit and to the flanks of Pickens' line, and Hayes fell back into line.
The British infantry continued the advance and were met with a volley at under 100 yards. Despite their high losses, the British kept coming, and the militiamen fell back in confusion behind the Continentals. The Virginia militia units flanking the Continentals had temporarily withdrawn en echelon to allow the passage of the first line militiamen.
View from Continental Line of John Eager Howard
Morgan moved to rally Pickens' men. Skirmishers from the front line had withdrawn to Howard's left flank. These men did not have bayonets, and as the British continued to advance, their cavalry rode over the skirmishers and into Pickens' militia. They came under fire from the Continental line. William Washington's cavalry had been stationed in a low area, probably in the area west of the trail from the visitors center. Their position had been concealed from the British, but cannonballs rolled into their position. Washington came out from hiding with half of his cavalry, smashed into Ogilvie's British cavalrymen, and forced them from the field.
Despite having his flanking cavalry routed, Tarleton continued the advance on the Continental line, possibly not seeing most or all the line and simply pursuing the militiamen. The British advanced and exchanged several volleys with the Continentals. On the British left, the 71st Regiment was brought up to flank the American right.
When the 71st Regiment moved against the American right, Howard ordered the flank refused. This created confusion, and the whole line began to retreat. Seeing this, Morgan selected a new line and had his troops face about and fire. Near the Washington Lt Infantry Monument is where the Continentals were positioned, possibly lying on the ground. As the British rushed toward them, the Continentals leveled a devastated fire on the disorganized British. Washington's cavalry had moved to the American right to protect the flank and rear of the militia from the 71st Regiment and now moved around the American right to attack the rear of the British line. While Washington smashed into the flanking British cavalry and moved into the British rear, Howard's line charged. Hundreds of British troops were encircled, and they threw down their weapons to surrender.
Tarleton rushed to his Legion cavalry and ordered them to attack and save the day, but they fled the field. Tarleton instead counterattacked with 54 officers and men, but after some success, he was repulsed. The Continentals continued the pursuit and captured the two 3 pounders, their crews fighting to the death.
The battle is a tactical masterpiece admired to this day. The American regulars suffered only 12 killed and 60 wounded, but also counting the militia would probably double the figure. The British suffered 100 killed, 229 wounded, and 600 captured. Only the 200 Legion cavalrymen escaped. Strategically, the British were significantly knocked down to size, making the conquest of the South much more difficult. Compounding the loss in numbers, those lost had been from the British light strike force, also used for reconnaisance. Cornwallis pursued Morgan but failed to cut off his retreat. He believed that if he didn't advance into North Carolina and Virginia, he couldn't hold South Carolina and Georgia. The British pursuit had been slow, covering only 22 miles in seven days compared to the patriots marching 100 miles in five days. Cornwallis decided that now was the time for drastic action, so he burned his baggage, resulting in 250 desertions, and recklessly pursued Morgan and Greene to the Dan River in Virginia. Hearing that Cornwallis had burned his baggage, Greene decalred, "He is ours!" As Cornwallis weakened, Greene got stronger. Down from 4,000 men to less than 2,000, Cornwallis fought at Guilford Courthouse, and after the battle Cornwallis was so weak he had no hope of holding on to North Carolina. Instead, he fell back to Wilmington, then advanced into Virginia. There, in October, he was forced to surrender at Yorktown.
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