The Battle of Cowpens
By: John Hampton
January 17th 2013, will mark the 232nd anniversary of the Battle of Cowpens. On that day the British Army, led by LtCol Banastre Tarleton, was dealt an unequivocal defeat by BGen Daniel Morgan and the American Revolutionary forces under his charge. This defeat by the Americans was a watershed moment in their efforts to wrest the territory of South Carolina back from the control of the British.
In October of 1780, George Washington appointed MGen Nathanael Greene as commander of the Southern Department of the Continental forces. Greene was to replace MGen Horatio Gates. In August of 1780, Gates and his forces were defeated by the British at Camden South Carolina. Gates’ personal retreat during this battle was certainly a factor in the decision to replace him.
In December of 1780, Daniel Morgan reported for duty to General Greene’s headquarters in Charlotte NC. Morgan, already a seasoned veteran, had gained military experience during the French and Indian War. He was later captured by the British during the Battle of Quebec. Morgan was released in January 1777 and continued the fight. He was placed in command of a 500 man force by George Washington. Morgan and his men helped Americans to victory at Saratoga in October 1777.
General Greene placed Morgan in command of a force of men numbering approximately 600. He was to join his men at an area west of the Catawba River. In a letter to Morgan, General Greene gave a detailed explanation of what he expected. Among other things, Morgan was to “give protection to that part of the country and spirit up the people and annoy the enemy in that quarter”.
In the lead up to the battle, Tarleton’s men had been in pursuit of Morgan and his forces. Morgan, being aware of the proximity of his opponent decided to make a stand and engage Tarleton at Cowpens. Theorizing that Tarleton would attack head on, Morgan deployed his men in three separate lines. The front line was made up of skirmishers, the second line was militia and the final line contained his veteran Continental infantry.
The British had marched hard over difficult terrain in their attempt to overtake the Americans. In addition, they had run short on provisions. So as the battle drew near, Tarleton’s men were tired and hungry. Based on reports from his scouts regarding the composition and deployment of the Americans, Tarleton felt that victory was at hand and continued to push his men.
His plan was straightforward. He would mass his infantry in linear formation and move directly on Morgan’s forces. Tarleton would cover his flanks with dragoon units. He had reserves standing by, as well as a contingent of cavalry.
General Morgan knew his opponent well, and on the morning of the battle, the frontal attack came as anticipated. Fully expecting victory, the British collided with the Americans. Part of Morgan’s plan involved the withdrawal of his first two lines at predetermined intervals. Prior to withdrawal, these lines would of course, deliver both physical and psychological punishment to the enemy. They would then reform behind the Continental line and prepare to reengage.
As planned, Morgan’s first two lines fired into the British onslaught, and then withdrew. War cries and battle exhortations filled the air as the fighting raged. Interpreting the withdrawal as a retreat, the British continued forward into the waiting Continental line. At one point, the enemy attempted a flanking maneuver. Col John Howard (commander of Continental line) attempted to counter this with a nearby militia force. But in the din of battle, his orders were misunderstood and the militia began to pull back. Again the British interpreted this movement as a retreat and charged ahead.
After receiving clarifying orders, the militia force halted, regrouped and fired into the oncoming enemy. This action was enough to stop the British forward movement. Col Howard then ordered a bayonet charge. This action left Tarleton’s men stunned and demoralized. As a result, many were killed, wounded, captured or forced to surrender.
American forces seized British cannon as many of the remaining enemy fled the field. In the meantime, a myriad of other Continental and militia forces had emerged from behind the third line to encircle the enemy, who by this time was losing its will to fight.
With victory all but lost, Tarleton rode back to his final intact unit – the Legion Cavalry. He ordered these men to charge, but they refused, and instead fled the battlefield. With only remnants of his original army, Tarleton attempted to retake his cannon, but was unsuccessful.
About 110 men under Tarleton’s command were killed and approximately 700 were taken prisoner. Many of these soldiers were considered to be of Lord Cornwallis’ best. It can be theorized that Tarleton’s obsession with overtaking and engaging Morgan caused him to lose sight of the fact that attacking with attenuated forces would greatly reduce his chance at victory.
Although Tarleton escaped with his life, he and the men under his command had been soundly defeated by an American force employing superior tactics, proper planning and a “refusal to be defeated” attitude. In addition, the ability of the British to effectively wage war had been greatly diminished.
Cowpens was a marquee victory for Morgan and his men. Americans were inspired and emboldened while the British were left disconcerted and demoralized. After Cowpens, General Greene engaged Cornwallis’ troops in a series of hit and run battles. This process degraded the British army causing it to withdraw to Yorktown Virginia for rest and recuperation. This eventually set up the Battle of Yorktown in which George Washington defeated Cornwallis and finally realized the ultimate goal for which America had been fighting.
Freedom and Independence are never easy to achieve. They are equally as difficult to sustain, and they must be forever guarded. Throughout history, few nations and peoples have existed under such banners. Our Founding Fathers and countless fellow Patriots understood that the cost in blood and sacrifice would be quite steep. But they were willing to pay that price in order to build a Free and Independent America. Let us always remember their heroic and selfless accomplishments.
John Hampton lives in Tehachapi CA and is quite concerned about the policies and motives of the current Administration. He believes in a system that holds our freedoms sacred, promotes personal responsibility, prudence and high moral standards.