By 1779-80, with stalemate in the North, British strategists again looked to the South. They came south for a number of reasons, primarily to assist the Loyalists, help them regain control of colonial governments, and then push north to crush the rebellion. They estimated that many of the south's population would rally to the British cause. The British spread out across South Carolina and Georgia, setting up a chain of forts.
Gen. George Washington knew that if Cornwallis continued moving north unchecked, the Americans would be crushed between two giant British pincer arms, with Lt. Gen. Charles Cornwallis from the south and Lt. Gen. Henry Clinton from the north. Washington ordered Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene to take command of the Southern Army along with key commanders and units. Washington also transferred Lt. Col. Henry Lee and his 350-man cavalry corps to the Carolinas. Greene decided to split his army to better harass the British over a wider region. He stayed with the American wing operating around the Camden area, and sent Brig. Gen. Daniel Morgan to command the second wing southwest of the Catawba River to cut the British supply lines and hamper British operations in the Ninety-Six area. Between these two American wings were Cornwallis and 4,000 British troops at Winnsboro.
Cornwallis learned in early January that Morgan was operating in the western part of the state. When he learned about Morgan's potentially exposed position, he dispatched Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton to find and defeat Morgan’s force. Tarleton's was hated, especially for his actions at the Battle of Waxhaws (Massacre). He was said to have continued the fight against remnants of the Continental Army trying to surrender. His refusal of offering no quarter, led to the derisive term "Tarleton’s Quarter".
On January 12, Tarleton's scouts located Morgan’s army at Grindal’s Shoals on the Pacolet River and began an aggressive pursuit. Tarleton, worrying about the heavy rains and flooded rivers, gained ground as his army proceeded toward the flood-swollen river. As he got closer, Morgan retreated north to Burr’s Mill on the Thicketty Creek.
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On January 13, Lt. Col. William Washington's cavalry was patrolling the Fair Forest area. They rode up on a large group of Tories and captured 40 of them. Washington learned that British troops were operating nearby at Musgrove's Mill. Morgan moved his forces away from the British until he arrived at Cowpens some 3 days later. The annihilation of a Tory regiment by Morgan's cavalry some 50 miles north of his headquarters decided the issue for Cornwallis. He ordered Tarleton to swing west while he took the main army north to King's Mountain. Tarleton would either drive Morgan into a trap at King's Mountain, or engage and destroy Morgan's force, himself.
On January 16, Tarleton was reported to have crossed the Pacolet River and was much closer than expected. Soon, Morgan intersected with and traveled west on the Green River Road. Here, with the flood-swollen Broad River 6 miles to his back, he decided to make a stand against the British at Cowpens.
Cowpens was a well-known crossroads and frontier pasturing ground. Cowpens was located 28 miles due west of Kings Mountain. The field there was 1/2 mile wide and 1 mile long. It was dotted with trees, but devoid of undergrowth. Thickety Mountain was to the southeast and the Blue Ridge Mountains was to the north. Cowpens offered advantageous terrain for the type of combat he intended to wage against Tarleton.
Morgan learned of Tarleton’s pursuit, and had spread the word for militia units to rendezvous at the Cowpens. Camp was made in a swale between two small hills, and through the night, Col. Andrew Pickens’ militia drifted into camp. Across the border in Winnsboro, a British force of over 3,000 troops were awaiting the end of winter to resume the offensive.
Morgan had with him 1,000 soldiers (533 militiamen, 237 Continentals, 80 cavalrymen, and about 200 independent riflemen). He began to arrange his command into a clever deployment. Some 150 militia were placed in front as a skirmish line, commanded by Majs. John McDowell and John Cunningham. Morgan asked that they fire two volleys and retire back to the second line 150 yards to their rear. The second line had 300 militia, commanded by Pickens. Morgan asked them to wait until the British were within easy range, aim at the officers, and then fire two volleys before retiring 150 yards uphill to the third line, where they would then reform. The third line would have 450 mostly Continental troops, commanded by Lt. Col. John Howard. This formation was flanked on both sides by 200 Virginia independent riflemen. Washington's cavalry were placed in the rear as a reserve force.
Tarleton formed his command for battle with the 7th Regiment of Foot on the left and 3 light infantry companies extending the line to the right across the road. Two detachments of dragoons, about 50 men in each, were posted to the flanks, one on each side. Tarleton formed his 280 light cavalry behind the main line, and on the left center unlimbered his pair of guns, one on either side of the Legion infantry. In his rear was the 71st Highlander Regiment.
While Greene had all of North Carolina to protect, Cornwallis had his own vulnerabilities: his army's supply lines, and the large number of British sympathizers in South Carolina. To move against Morgan would allow Greene take his main supply base at Charleston. Converging on Greene would let Morgan travel south to pick off Fort Ninety-Six and take control of the largest concentration of loyalists in South Carolina, as well as one of its most productive farming areas.
On January 17, at dawn, Morgan looked south from the top of a gently sloping hill toward Tarleton and his British Legion. For the last 3 days, Tarleton had pursued Morgan across the rivers of western South Carolina.
Morgan's scouts brought news of Tarleton’s approach. Tarleton, having marched since 2:00 A.M., ordered formation on the Green River Road for the attack.
Morgan put his militia in front to wear down the British before they got to the main line. He urged them before the battle to fire two volleys and then withdraw behind the Continentals, where they would reform and go back into battle. The skirmishers who were to be posted farthest forward, the best shots among the militiamen, were urged to concentrate on British officers before retreating to the main line of resistance.
At 7:00 A.M., Tarleton ordered his men to charge the American lines. His lead cavalry moved out of the surrounding woods and into the sights of Morgan's skirmishers, drawing their fire. The first line of militia opened fire on the advancing British troops. They fired two volleys and withdrew to the second line as planned. During this time, the British artillery ignored the fighting and fired instead on the third Continental line on the hill. The rounds overshot, landing among Washington's cavalry behind the hill, and causing nothing more serious than their move to a quieter position behind the American left.
At about 100 yards, Pickens ordered the second line to open fire. The Virginia riflemen posted on the flanks cut apart the British dragoons and drove them back. The second line then withdrew back to the third line as planned. The 17th Dragoons on Tarleton's right thought the the withdrawing Patriots were retreating. The dragoons enthusiastically rode forward, thinking that they would easily cut apart the militia. They were soon fired upon by Washington's cavalry and Virginia riflemen and was forced back in great confusion.
The British then marched within range of Howard's third line, which opened fire on the British. Tarleton ordered up the Highlanders to crush Morgan's right flank. Howard ordered his right side of the line to not advance to meet the British which resulted in some confusion. The right side steadied themselves and fired into the advancing British at close range. Howard sensed that the British was wavering and ordered his ment to follow it up with a bayonet charge. The British infantry started to charge over the hill. Just as the British passed the crest of the hill, ready to bayonet the Americans, Howard's ordered his troops to wheel about and they fired with every musket at a distance of less than 30 yards. Then, they leveled their bayonets and charged. At the same instant, Washington's cavalry slammed into the surprised British from behind. It was more than enough to break both the British line. They troops threw their weapons away and took off down the Green River Road, but many asked for quarter. Within a few minutes, the British retreat on Tarleton's left turned into a complete rout. The panic quickly spread to the British reserve.
In one last desperate effort to save the day, Tarleton ordered the cavalry command to charge the American riflemen. The 200 dragoons refused his order and rode off the field. With only about 55 cavalrymen, Tarleton launched a final charge. Washington's cavalrymen countercharged and a short fight began. The fight only lasted a few minutes, but became one of the most dramatic cavalry fights in the war. Abandoned by the army, the British artillerymen fought to the last man in a futile attempt to save their guns. They would soon be forced to surrender.
At 7:50 A.M., and the battle was, for all practical purposes, over. With the British troops fleeing the battlefield, Tarleton had no choice but to admit defeat, and with a handful of his men, fled down the Green River Road. With Cornwallis's command only 20 miles away and closing in on him, Morgan paroled the British officers, left the care of the wounded men to the local citizens, and withdrew his force northward. In one of the most dramatic moments of the battle, Washington, racing ahead of his cavalry, dueled hand-to-hand with Tarleton and two of his officers. Tarleton and his remaining forces galloped away to Cornwallis’ camp.
The reputation of Tarleton's Legion was permanently lost, and the British loses were hard to replace. When the news of the battle reached London, a member of the House of Commons said, "Another such victory would ruin the British army". The battle became known as the turning point of the war in the South.
The Colonial force
The Colonial forces were commanded by Brigadier-General Daniel Morgan. Although Morgan claimed in his official report to have had only a few over 800 men at Cowpens, historian Lawrence Babits, in his detailed study of the Battle, estimates the real numbers as:
A battalion of Continental infantry under Lt-Col John Eager Howard, with one company from Delaware, one from Virginia and three from Maryland; each with a strength of sixty men (300)
A company of Virginia State troops under Captain John Lawson (75)
A company of South Carolina State troops under Captain Joseph Pickens (60)
A small company of North Carolina State troops under Captain Henry Connelly (number not given)
A Virginia Militia battalion under Major Frank Triplett (160)
Two companies of Virginia Militia under Major David Campbell (50)
A battalion of North Carolina Militia under Colonel Joseph McDowell (260-285)
A brigade of four battalions of South Carolina Militia under Colonel Andrew Pickens, comprising a three-company battalion of the Spartanburg Regiment under Lt-Col Benjamin Roebuck; a four-company battalion of the Spartanburg Regiment under Col John Thomas; five companies of the Little River Regiment under Lt-Col Joseph Hayes and seven companies of the Fair Forest Regiment under Col Thomas Brandon. Babits states that these battalion “ranged in size from 120 to more than 250 men”. If Roebuck’s three companies numbered 120 and Brandon’s seven companies numbered 250, then Thomas’s four companies probably numbered about 160 and Hayes’s five companies about 200, for a total of (730)
Three small companies of Georgia Militia commander by Major Cunningham who numbered (55)
Detachments of the 1st and 3rd Continental Light Dragoon (both recruited mainly in Virginia) under Lt-Col William Washington (82)
Detachments of State Dragoons from North Carolina and Virginia (30)
A detachment of South Carolina State Dragoons, with a few mounted Georgians, commanded by Major James McCall (25)
A company of newly-raised volunteers from the local South Carolina Militia commanded by Major Benjamin Jolly (45)
The figures given by Laurence E. Babits total 82 Continental Light Dragoons; 55 State Dragoons; 45 Militia Dragoons; 300 Continental infantry; about 150 State infantry and 1,255-1,280 Militia infantry, for a total of 1,887-1,912 officers and men.
Broken down by state, there were about 855 South Carolinians; 442 Virginians; 290-315 North Carolinians; 180 Marylanders; 60 Georgians and 60 Delawarans.
Morgan's Continentals were veterans, and many of his militia, which included some Overmountain Men, had seen service at the Battle of Musgrove Mill and the Battle of Kings Mountain.
The British force
The British were commanded by Colonel Banastre Tarleton, who headed his own Loyalist British Legion (250 cavalry and 200 infantry, a troop of the 17th Light Dragoons (50), a battery of the Royal Artillery (24) with two 3-pounder cannons, the 7th (Royal Fusiliers) Regiment (177), the light infantry company of the 16th Regiment (42), the 71st (Fraser's Highlanders) Regiment (334), the light company of the Loyalist Prince of Wales's American Regiment (31) and a company of about 50 Loyalist guides: a total of over 1,150 officers and men.
Tarleton’s men from the Royal Artillery, 17th Light Dragoons, 16th Regiment and 71st Regiment were reliable veterans: but the detachment of the 7th Regiment were raw recruits who had been intended to reinforce the garrison of Fort Ninety-Six where they could receive further training rather than go straight into action. Tarleton's own unit, the British Legion were formidable "in a pursuit situation" but had an uncertain reputation “when faced with determined opposition”.
General Cornwallis instructed Tarleton and his Legion, who had been successful at battles such as Camden and Waxhaw in the past, to destroy Morgan's command. Tarleton's previous victories had been won by bold attacks, often despite being outnumbered. American commander Nathanael Greene had taken the daring step of dividing his army, detaching Morgan away from the main Patriot force. Morgan called Americans to gather at the cow pens (a grazing area), which were a familiar landmark. Tarleton attacked with his customary boldness but without regard for the fact Morgan had much more time to prepare. He was consequently caught in a double envelopment. Only Tarleton and about 260 British troops escaped.