Revolutionary War Historical Article

The Battle of Cowpens, South Carolina

By Charles R. Lampman

Editor's Note: This article was reprinted from the Winter 2006 Edition of the SAR Magazine

After the disastrous Battle at Camden, American Major General Horatio Gates retreated into North Carolina where he attempted to consolidate what forces he had left. Shortly after that battle he had been relieved as Commander of the Southern Department by Major General Nathanael Greene. Prior to being relieved, he requested an old friend of his, Daniel Morgan, to return to active duty and support him in the Campaign in the South. Morgan agreed on the premise that he would be promoted to Brigadier General. Upon receiving his promotion, Morgan arrived in North Carolina and found Major General Nathanael Greene in command.

As Greene rallied his forces and headed south back into South Carolina, he did what military commanders seldom do - he split his forces with Morgan in charge of the western group while Greene maintained command of the eastern group. Greene's basic orders to Morgan were to harass the British whenever possible. As Morgan headed south, Lt. General Charles, Lord Cornwallis learned that the Patriots had split their forces.

Cornwallis then split his own forces in an attempt to block Greene and Morgan and to not allow them to move freely into South Carolina. He put Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton in charge of approximately 1,100 cavalry and light infantry, known as the British Legion, to attack Morgan and his forces wherever and whenever possible. The main goal was to annihilate Morgan after which time Tarleton would proceed eastward and join with Cornwallis. Cornwallis with now all of his forces then planned to attack and defeat Greene, thus clearing the Carolinas of all Patriot forces.

As Morgan learned that a British Legion was heading to cut off his advances deep into South Carolina, he commenced a retreat northward in an attempt to find a site for a battle where he would have a tactical advantage. Early in the morning of January 16, 1781, he knew that Tarleton's scouts were approximately five miles behind him. That afternoon he approached the Cowpens and decided, while not the ideal place for a battle, it would have to do.

The Cowpens was a meadow with scattered trees on both the left and right flanks of a main road. Back towards the Broad River was a knoll high enough that he would be able to watch as the battle ensued and also high enough to hide Lieutenant Colonel William Washington's cavalry.


Morgan surveyed the area in and around Cowpens as his forces were making camp for the night. In the evening Morgan personally talked to all his troops and commanders and made sure they succinctly understood his battle plan. The first line would be made up of all militia and his orders to them were to allow the British to come within killing distance and fire two volleys, aiming for the British officers and sergeants. They would then go to their left and right and retreat back and join the second line of militia, commanded by militia Colonel Andrew Pickens. The second line would fire three rounds and then fall back while reloading. Then both the first and second lines would combine their firepower with the third line of Colonel John Howard's battle­hardened Continentals. Lieutenant Colonel Washington and his cavalry would be out of sight behind the knoll. At Morgan's command sometime after the first line had retreated and the second line was about to fire, he would dispatch the cavalry to come around on the left and the right flanks of the British. Thus the British would be forced to not only defend their front, but also their flanks. Morgan told all the men to get a good night's rest and have a good meal for the next day they would do battle with Tarleton's British Legion.


Brigadier General Daniel Morgan (1736-1802) - At age 17 he left his birthplace in Bucks County, Pennsylvania and moved to the Shenandoah where he became a farm laborer and a teamster. At age 19 he joined the forces of General Braddock as a teamster and was at the Battle of the Wilderness in 1755. In 1775 he was commissioned Captain of one of the two Virginia rifle companies and headed to join the forces that had surrounded Boston. In September he was assigned to Colonel Benedict Arnold's unit for the march to Quebec. During the Battle of Quebec when Arnold was wounded, he took command of Arnold's remaining forces and he was captured by the British. He remained a prisoner until the summer of 1776 and then returned to join Washington's main army. He was promoted to Colonel and organized a company of sharpshooters. He was ordered by General Washington to join Major General Horatio Gates at Saratoga. After the important victory at Saratoga, he rejoined Washington and wintered at Valley Forge. Because of ill health, he resigned his commission in July of 1778 and returned to his home in Virginia.

Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton (1753-1833) - Tarleton was born in Liverpool to a wealthy family of high social standing. He was educated at the University of Liverpool in Oxford. He purchased a cornet's commission in the spring of 1775. After training he volunteered for service in the American Revolution. His first action was in the Charlestown (today Charleston, South Carolina) expedition commanded by General Sir Henry Clinton that ended in failure. He returned to South Carolina again with Clinton's expedition to capture Charlestown in 1780. He was now a Lieutenant Colonel and put in charge of a unit that combined mounted and on foot and became the forward eyes and ears of Lord Cornwallis after the surrender of Charlestown. He became infamous with the battle at Waxsaws that has become known as "Buford's Massacre". His nickname to Patriot forces was "Bloody Tarl" for in that massacre he allowed no quarter.


Tarleton knew that Morgan was camped approximately five miles away. About 3:00 a.m. on the 17th he loaded his wagons and his Legion commenced marching towards Morgan's position. He ran up against the same obstacles that Morgan had encountered, i.e. the dirt roads were a quagmire. Furthermore, the deep ruts left by Morgan's wagons hampered the British wagons. Morgan's scouts returned to the Patriot campsite and announced that Tarleton was en route. Morgan again called his leaders together and reemphasized the battle plan. The American forces were in position when Tarleton's troops appeared in front of them at approximately 7:00 a.m.

Tarleton surveyed the deployed formation of the Patriots and the lay of the land and made his first approach with his mounted cavalry with him in the lead. As they charged the Patriot's first line of skirmishers, they got within 50 yards before the skirmishers opened fire.As balls whizzed by Tarleton, the sharpshooters emptied no less than 15 saddles, which caused Tarleton to halt the advance and reevaluate the situation. The cavalry moved to the side and allowed the foot soldiers to advance. After firing the second volley the skirmishers ran to their left to join Colonel Pickens' second line. The British soldiers thinking this retreat meant that the militia had been routed, began a pursuit that disregarded any disciplined formation. As they charged to within killing distance, Pickens' militia fired three rounds that Morgan had ordered to cause many casualties among the charging British and brought them to a temporary halt. After the third round when Pickens ordered a retreat to their left, the British again took this as a rout and their cheers caused confusion amongst Colonel Howard's Continentals. They assumed that their retreat had been ordered and they turned and marched further up the hill until Morgan and Howard regained control.

The Continentals then did an about face and fired another devastating volley into the British. At this point William Washington's cavalry charged around the left side of the hill and engaged the British right flank. Then Tarleton tried to outflank the Continentals. Pickens' militia had reformed behind the knoll and now came out on the British left flank and opened fire. Tarleton attempted to call in his reserve cavalry of which many refused to respond. Tarleton and what was left of his cavalry were in the heat of battle with William Washington's cavalry. At the same time Pickens' militia who had fired a deadly blast into Tarleton's remaining force, staggered them to a halt. Now there was confusion on both sides. Howard's line supported Pickens' militia as the British units started to fall back. Tarleton tried one more attack with 14 officers and 40 horsemen and made a quick decision to make a stand against Washington's advancing cavalry. As Washington's cavalry cut into the British, Tarleton turned his horse and swiftly retreated with what was left of his troops, finally realizing the battle was over.

Washington's cavalry chased after the enemy to add to the British confusion and casualty list. When Tarleton and what remained of his 1,100 men reached their baggage wagons, they found they were being sacked by a party of Tories. To prevent further looting and/or the capture of his wagons, he set them afire and hurried to rejoin Cornwallis who was about 25 miles away at Turkey Creek. The whole battle lasted a little over one hour. American losses were twelve killed and 60 wounded while the British suffered 100 killed, 229 wounded who were all captured along with 600 more British in the custody of Morgan and his troops. Many of the wounded on both sides later died making uncertain the final casualty count of those killed. Morgan had just defeated one of the British elite units.

Morgan, realizing that Tarleton was headed back to join forces with Cornwallis, collected his forces and the prisoners and headed to join up with Major General Greene. When they met, they headed north to the Dan River which separated Virginia and North Carolina where they knew that food and supplies could be obtained. The story of that retreat and Cornwallis' pursuit became known as the March to the Dan.

With the defeats at Kings Mountain and Cowpens, it was not very long before Cornwallis would go on the defensive, leaving the South and heading north where he would end up at Yorktown.


Morgan's bad health and arthritis were bothering him so much upon reaching Greene that he could not sit upon a horse. Upon reaching Virginia, he returned to his home that he had named "Saratoga" in Winchester, Virginia. Morgan did not see any more action during the American Revolution.

Tarleton, surprisingly enough, was not blamed by Cornwallis for the loss at Cowpens. He was captured with Cornwallis at Yorktown some nine months later. Upon returning to England, he was viewed as a gallant soldier and retired from the British Army as a full General.

For the victory at Cowpens, Congress awarded Morgan a gold medal. Silver medals were awarded to Howard and William Washington.


Bearss, Edwin C, Battle of Cowpens, A Documented Narrative and Troop Movement Maps, The Overmountain Press, Johnson City, TN, 1967

Boatner, Mark M. III, Encyclopedia of the American Revolution, Stackpole Books, Mechanicsburg, PA, 1994

Buchanan, John, The Road to Guilford Courthouse, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., New York, 1997

Fleming, Thomas J., Cowpens, Downright Fighting - National Park Service Handbook 135, US Government Printing Office, Washington, DC, 1988

Higginbotham, Don, Daniel Morgan, Revolutionary Rifleman, University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, NC, 1961

Karapalides, Harry J., Dates of the American Revolution, Burd Street Press, Shippensburg, PA, 1998

Lee, Robert E., Editor, The Revolutionary War Memoirs of General Henry Lee, DaCapo Press, New York, 1998

Morrill, Dan L., Southern Campaigns of the American Revolution, the Nautical & Aviation Publishing Company of America, Baltimore, MD

Ripley, Warren, Battleground, South Carolina in the Revolution, A Post Courier Book, Charleston, SC, 1983

Roberts, Kenneth, The Battle of Cowpens, The Great Morale-Builder, The American Reprint Company, Mattituck, NY, 1956

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