Sunday, July 23, 2023

ARP277 Cowpens

We last left the war in the south back in Episode 274 when General Nathanael Greene took command of the southern army at the end of 1780.  Greene promptly divided his army.  He moved his forces southeast of Charlotte, North Carolina across the South Carolina border to Cheraw.  He sent the other part of his army under General Daniel Morgan to the southwest, also into South Carolina.

Deployment of Forces

The main British army under General Charles Cornwallis sat in between these two forces, at Winnsboro, South Carolina.  Cornwallis had been forced out of North Carolina following the loss of his loyalist militia army at King’s Mountain.  Much of the British army also fell ill with malaria, forcing them to take several months to recuperate.

Battle of Cowpens
Cornwallis was awaiting the arrival of General Alexander Leslie with an army of regulars.  Leslie had been deployed to the Chesapeake Bay region of Virginia, but Cornwallis requested he bring his troops by ship to Charleston, then support his efforts to make another offensive into North Carolina.  Leslie’s army arrived at Charleston in December, but spent weeks trying to make its way inland to link up with Cornwallis at Winnsboro.  Heavy rains made travel slow and difficult, especially crossing the many rivers and streams throughout South Carolina.

By remaining inland, Cornwallis could not get supplies from British ships easily.  He complained throughout the winter about his inability to get sufficient food and supplies for his army.  A lack of wagons hampered his efforts.  It would have been easier if he had pulled his army back to Charleston for the winter.  But that would have meant either ceding most of South Carolina back to the rebel partisans, or leaving his outposts at Camden and Fort Ninety-Six vulnerable to attack.

Instead, Cornwallis remained at Winnsboro throughout the winter, keeping close tabs on the Continental armies now encamped to his east and to his west.  The garrison at Camden under Lord Rawdon was about a day’s march to his east.  Fort Ninety-Six sat about two days’ march to Cornwallis’ west.  That fort was under the command of loyalist Lieutenant Colonel John Harris Cruger.

On New Year’s Day 1781, Cornwallis received intelligence that General Morgan was leading an army of 3000 against the outpost at Fort Ninety-Six.  Two days earlier, Morgan’s cavalry, under the Command of Colonel William Washington, had attacked and decimated a large loyalist force near the fort.  Cornwallis now feared that Fort Ninety-six could fall unless he sent a relief force.

Cornwallis had his main focus on destroying Greene’s Army and then moving into North Carolina. But he could not leave Morgan’s army to do mischief in the western part of South Carolina.  He had to snuff out that threat first.  To do that, he turned to the ever reliable Colonel Banastre Tarleton.

Tarleton Advances

By January 2, Tarleton was already on the move.  He had with him his own British legion, which consisted of 250 cavalry and 200 infantry.  He also took two companies of British regulars, an additional troop of mounted light dragoons, an artillery battery with two cannons and some assorted loyalist companies and guides.  In total, Tarleton had nearly 1200 men under his command.

Banastre Tarleton

Cornwallis and Tarleton both suspected that the British intelligence estimates of Morgan commanding an army of 3000 were exaggerated.  They were correct.  There is some dispute over how many men Morgan had with him.  Morgan later reported that he commanded about 800 men.  Most historians, however, believe this is a low number.  Some estimates believe Morgan’s account was close, putting the numbers at 800-1000 men.  Other estimates put the American army at 1900.

Part of the problem in determining the exact numbers was that various local militia groups kept coming and going.  The core of Morgan’s force consisted of about 300 Continentals from Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia, as well as less than 100 Continental Dragoons under Colonel William Washington.  There were probably a few hundred more Virginia militia, many of whom were former Continental soldiers.  So, while they were serving as militia at the moment, these were experienced combat soldiers.

Supplementing these forces were hundreds of North Carolina and South Carolina militia, along with a few dozen Georgia militia.  Many of the militia served under Colonel Andrew Pickens, who was a proven combat officer.  Many of these men had fought under General Thomas Sumter, who was still recovering from his battlefield injuries.  Sumter was also peeved that Greene had given command of the western army to Morgan rather than himself.  Sumter understandably remained out of the field given his injuries. But he was still issuing orders to the militia which made it difficult for Morgan to keep his army supplied.  This tension between the Continental Army and the militia, remained an ongoing problem.

The total militia numbers who joined Morgan are very soft, and subject to dispute by experts who have examined this question much more thoroughly than I can.  The estimates of Carolina militia range from a few hundred to more than a thousand.

Even if the higher estimates are correct, both the British and the American military leaders gave the edge to the British under Tarleton.  The conventional wisdom was that militia would not stand and fight in a pitched battle.  They tended to run when faced with a bayonet charge and abandon the field.  This is what happened at Camden a few months earlier.  So, in terms of reliable combat soldiers, it seemed as if the British had the advantage.

Tarleton set out in pursuit of Morgan almost immediately after receiving Cornwallis’ orders on January 2.  At the time, he only had about half of his force with him.  He wrote to Cornwallis on January 4, telling his commander that he did not think the Americans were going to attack Fort Ninety-Six, but that he had an opportunity to take out the threat of Morgan's force.  Tarleton requested the two regiments of regulars, which Cornwallis provided.  He also requested a company of Hessian Jaegers, which Cornwallis did not provide.

Daniel Morgan

Morgan, in fact, was moving north, back toward the North Carolina border.  He had been warned to avoid a major battle with the British, and agreed that it probably would not go well for him if he had to fight.  Travel along this frontier country was slow-going for both armies.  This was made worse by torrential rains that made river crossings almost impossible.

Morgan tried to keep a river between his army and Tarleton’s.  Pickens’ South Carolina militia guarded all the fords along the Pacelot river. On the night of January 15, Tarleton was determined to cross and attack the rebels before they could retreat back into North Carolina.  His army moved up the river, followed by militia on the opposite bank, prepared to contest any river crossing.  

Finally, a frustrated Tarleton made camp for the night.  The militia kept an eye on his camp from across the river. But they did not watch closely enough.  While Tarleton’s men appeared to settle in for the night, the bulk of his force rode six miles back downstream and crossed the river at an unguarded ford.

Tarleton immediately sent out scouts to locate Morgan’s camp.  They found the enemy was only six miles away.  Tarleton’s soldiers reached the American camp shortly after dawn on the 16th.  They found the camp empty.  Morgan had received warning a few hours earlier, and managed to get his army on the march before the enemy arrived.  He left in such a hurry though that the British found campfires with breakfast still cooking.  The British ate the breakfast prepared by their now-departed hosts.

Andrew Pickens

Morgan hoped to cross the Broad River before Tarleton could catch him.  But he had to travel on back trails that made his movement slow.  By the time he reached the river it was dark, and attempting a night crossing was too dangerous.  If he tried cross in the morning, Tarleton would likely attack while the army was still crossing, which would be devastating.

As much as he wanted to avoid a battle, Morgan decided that battle was his best option. By evening, the army had reached the Cowpens.  This was an open field where cowboys herded cattle before driving them to the coast for sale.  It was a well known gathering point in the backcountry.  It’s where the Overmountain men gathered and assembled before marching to King’s Mountain a few months earlier.  Morgan set up camp for the night, allowed his men to rest, and prepared for battle the following morning.  

Looking at the situation as it stood, the British under Tarleton had several advantages.  Although Morgan probably had more men, most of them were militia.  Tarleton’s legion had a long reputation for tearing apart militia with bold strikes and brutal tactics.  Of even greater concern the position that Morgan chose, had the Broad River behind his troops.  If his men broke and ran, they would have nowhere to retreat.  The British could cut them down and turn the battle into a massacre.

Morgan had also only been in command for a few months.  The troops under him were not the trusty riflemen that he commanded earlier in the war.  So he had real questions: would the men stand and fight as needed?

John Eager Howard
Conventional wisdom at the time would be to put your best troops in front, and hope that the militia would be inspired by their stand against an assault to stick with them.  Morgan decided to try something different.  He placed his Continental troops in the back.  The Continental line came under the direct command of Colonel John Eager Howard.

Morgan next planned to deploy about 300 militia from Georgia and the Carolinas about 150 yards in front of the Continentals.  These were the men who had been acting as scouts and skirmishers during the march.  Some were still returning to camp late into the night.  They did not know how many they would have the following morning.  This militia line fell under the command of Colonel Andrew Pickens.

One serious danger for militia was a flanking attack, something Tarleton employed frequently.  To protect against this, Morgan deployed about 100 Virginia riflemen on the militia’s right flank. In front of the militia, Morgan deployed another 120 riflemen from Georgia and North Carolina to act as skirmishers.  

Colonel Washington’s Continental cavalry would be held in reserve behind the Continental line, ready to charge into any weak points that developed.

Morgan had been in enough fights that did not expect the militia to stand and fight.  Instead, he asked that they fire two or three shots at close range before retreating.  The men would then pull back to the left flank of the Continental line and reform as a reserve corps once the Continentals engaged.

After informing his officers, Morgan spent the rest of the night walking among the soldiers in camp, joking with them and talking about their homes and girlfriends.  According to at least one account, Morgan lifted his shirt and showed some men the scars from when he was given 500 lashes for striking an officer during the French and Indian War.  Morgan liked to tell the story that he counted only 499 lashes and thought they still owed him one more.  But what he was really doing was making  clear what he expected of them: three shots, then retreat.

About two hours before dawn, scouts informed Morgan that Tarleton was riding hard and on his way.  With that, Morgan took his position and prepared for battle.

The Battle

As usual, Tarleton had ridden his men hard and fast, and without much sleep.  Just before dawn on the morning of January 17, the head of the British column came into the sites of the front of the American lines.  The Carolina and Georgia riflemen in the front line began trying to pick off British officers as they struggled to form their lines.

Americans Advance on Highlanders
Tarleton ordered fifty of his mounted legionnaires to charge the American lines and disperse the riflemen.  The horsemen charged the Americans, but took significant casualties before they turned and retreated.  Next Tarleton formed a line of infantry to form a line of battle and advance.  Because of the harassing fire, Tarleton really had no time to get a good sense of the field or the enemy’s deployment.

The British regulars advanced to a point about 300 yards from the enemy, with Tarleton’s provincial infantry providing support.  Tarleton then ordered the line forward even before some of the field officers had all of their men in position.  Tarleton also deployed his two small field cannons to fire grapeshot at the enemy lines.

As planned, after getting off several shots, the riflemen retreated back to the line of militia commanded by Pickens and prepared for the British assault.  The American officers struggled to prevent their men from firing until the British were close enough for a shot to do damage.  Eventually, the Americans fired a staggered volley, while the British returned fire.  The American lines, which still included many riflemen, did considerable damage to the British line, while the British muskets seemed to do little harm.  Some experts attribute this to the fact that the regulars were a relatively new regiment and not experienced at firing from a range.

As the British line charged forward with bayonets, the American militia began to retreat.  Tarleton ordered his mounted troops to run down the Americans. Morgan, however, ordered Colonel Washington to charge into the fray and disrupt the British horsemen.  As the mounted troops engaged in fierce hand to hand combat, Tarleton ordered his infantry forward, now against the main Continental line.

Despite taking some losses, Tarleton felt pretty optimistic at this point.  It was only 15 minutes into the battle and he had dispersed the American skirmishers and the first line of soldiers.  His men were already moving to engage what he thought was the reserve force.  Tarleton rode back to order his reserve force of about 250 Highlanders into the fight, along the left flank where they could enter the battle.

At the same time Morgan had ridden back to help rally the retreating militia to hold the flank of the Continental line.  As the British focused on the relatively small Continental line that continued to hold.

Then, as often happens in battle, confusion took hold.  Colonel Howard saw the British Highlanders advancing on his right, and ordered his right flank to turn and face their attack.  The commanding officer on the right flank misunderstood the command and thought Howard was ordering him to fall back. So he ordered his men to about face, and march off the field.

The British saw this and thought the American line was crumbling.  The British infantry charged the lines but ran into a solid defense and heavy hand to hand fighting.  By this time Morgan had reached the retreating right flank and got them to turn around again and face the enemy.  When the charging British were only a few yards from their lines, the Americans fired a devastating volley, followed by Howard’s command to the Continentals to charge bayonets.

At that point the British line did something that almost never happened. The soldiers dropped their guns and surrendered.  Not ready to stop, Howard then ordered a portion of his Continentals to charge the British field cannon and capture them.  

Tarleton ordered his British legion reserves to enter the battle and support the Highlanders, but the men did not move.  As Tarleton rode across the field to see about the delay, the Americans shot his horse out from under him.  A British doctor then gave Tarleton his own horse, before surrendering to the Americans so that he could treat the wounded.

Finally, the Americans swarmed the Highlanders.  After killing most of their officers, Howard called for their surrender.  The outnumbered Highlanders grounded their weapons as well.

Tarleton had been unable to get his infantry reserves to enter what appeared to be a lost battle.  In frustration Tarleton led a company of light cavalry in an attempt, at least, to recapture his field cannon.  Washington saw this and led a troop of Continental cavalry to engage with Tarleton.  During this melee, Washington’s sword broke while fighting with an enemy officer.  His aides came to his defense, but Tarleton himself attempted to kill Washington, first with his sword, then drawing his pistol to fire. The pistol shot missed Washington, but hit his horse.

By 8:00, one hour after the battle began, it was over.  The British suffered devastating casualties. 86% of Tarleton’s force was dead, wounded or prisoners.  The Americans captured the cannons, hundreds of muskets, and wagons full of supplies. American casualties were relatively light for such an intense battle, twenty-five killed and 124 wounded.

Tarleton was forced to retreat with the remnants of his legion.  He managed to link up with his supply wagons which were held far back from the battle with a guard of about 100 infantry. At that point, Tarleton ordered most of the wagons destroyed and moved quickly to return to the main army, still a day’s ride away.  Washington attempted to ride down Tarleton, but could not catch up with him in time.

Battle of Cowpens
Morgan, still concerned that Cornwallis might bring up the rest of the British Army against him, continued his retreat, getting his army and prisoners across the Broad River the following day.

Two days after the battle, Morgan wrote to General Greene telling him, “The troops I had the Honor to command have been so fortunate as to obtain a compleat Victory over a detachment from the British Army under Lt. Col. Tarelton”  To a friend, Morgan wrote more informally, “I have Given him a devil of a whipping, a more compleat victory never was obtained”

The American victory at Cowpens was met with great celebration in Philadelphia. Congress ordered a gold medal for General Morgan, and silver medals for Colonels Washington and Howard.  For the British, it meant another loss of a division that they simply could not afford to lose.

Next week: British General Benedict Arnold strikes into Virginia and raids the capital at Richmond.

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Next Episode 278 Arnold Raids Richmond 

Previous Episode 276 Mutiny in the Continental Army

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Further Reading


Battle of Cowpens:

Cowpens, Facts and Summary:


Lynch, Wayne “Eyewitnesses at Cowpens” Journal of the American Revolution, July 26, 2016.

Lynch, Wayne & Jim Piecuch “Debating Cowpens: How could Tarleton Lose?” Journal of the American Revolution, July 24, 2013.

Montross, Lynn  “America’s Most Imitated Battle” American Heritage Magazine, April 1956.

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

Bailey, J. D. Cowpens and Woffords Iron Works, 1908. 

Crow, Jeffrey (ed) The Southern Experience in the American Revolution, Univ. of NC Press, 1978. 

Fleming, Thomas J. Cowpens, Washington: National Park Service, 1988 (borrow only). 

Graham, James The Life of General Daniel Morgan, of the Virginia line of the army of the United States, with portions of his correspondence New York: Derby & Jackson, 1859. 

Landrum, John Belton O'Neall Colonial and Revolutionary History of Upper South Carolina, Greenville, S.C., Shannon & Co., 1897. 

McCrady, Edward The History of South Carolina in the Revolution, 1780-1783, New York: Macmillan Co. 1902. 

Roberts, Kenneth Lewis The Battle of Cowpens: The Great Morale-Builder, Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1958 (borrow only). 

Weigley, Russell Frank The Partisan War: the South Carolina Campaign of 1780-1782, Univ. of SC Press, 1970 (borrow only). 

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Babits, Lawrence E. A Devil of a Whipping: The Battle of Cowpens, Univ. of N.C. Press, 1998 (borrow on 

Brown, Robert W., Jr. Kings Mountain and Cowpens: Our Victory Was Complete, History Press Library, 2009. 

Buchanan, John The Road to Guilford Courthouse: The American Revolution in the Carolinas, Wiley, 1999. 

Davis, Burke The Cowpens-Guilford Courthouse Campaign, Lippincott, 1962 (borrow on 

Ferling, John Winning Independence: The Decisive Years of the Revolutionary War, 1778-1781, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2021. 

Lumpkin, Henry From Savannah to Yorktown: the American Revolution in the South, Univ of SC Press, 1981 (borrow on 

Stempel, Jim American Hannibal: The Extraordinary Account of Revolutionary Hero Daniel Morgan at the Battle of Cowpens, Penmore Press, 2018. 

Tonsetic, Robert L. 1781: The Decisive Year of the Revolutionary War, Casemate, 2011 (borrow on 

Waters, Andrew (ed) Battle of Cowpens: Primary & Contemporary Accounts, Regiment Press, 2019. 

Zambone, Albert Louis Daniel Morgan: A Revolutionary Life, Westholme Publishing, 2018.  

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

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