Battle of Cowpens- Key Facts & Brief Summary

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The Battle of Cowpens is one of the battles which occurred during the American Revolutionary War. It took place on January 17, 1781. It was fought between the Continental Army under Brigadier General Daniel Morgan and the British forces under Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton. During the battle, the Patriots inflicted heavy damage upon the British forces and consequently, this battle marked a turning point in the war’s southern campaign.

Read about the Battle of Cowpens- Key Facts and Brief Summary

1) Battle of Cowpens- Background

The Continental Army was facing a string of disasters in the Carolinas, from the siege of Charleston to the Battle of Camden. Post which, Horatio Gates was replaced by Nathanael Greene as the Commander of the Continental Army. In December 1780, Greene made an unconventional decision to split his army. He chose to send a detachment west from Charlotte to raise the morale of the troops, find supplies and hamper British operations. Subsequently, he chose Brig. Gen. Daniel Morgan to lead the troops.

A picture of Brig. Gen. Daniel Morgan 
Brig. Gen. Daniel Morgan

2) The British forces sensed a threat

General Lord Charles Cornwallis, the commander of the British forces was alarmed by Morgan’s movement and considered him a threat to his left. Subsequently, he sent one of his able subordinates Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton to pursue and counter Morgan. Accompanying Tarleton was the British Legion, the 7th Regiment of Foot, the first battalion of the 71st Regiment (Fraser’s Highlanders), the fearsome 17th Light Dragoons and a group of light infantry. Tarleton aggressively pursued Morgan and caught up with him at the south of Broad River.

A picture of Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton
Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton

3) The night before the battle

The night before the Battle of Cowpens, Morgan roamed and walked around the encampment. He offered words of encouragement to the troops and spoke of battle plans and past battles; in this way, motivating his troops to fight. One soldier even observed that Morgan hardly slept that night.

4) Location and date of the Battle of Cowpens

On the morning of January 17, 1781, Morgan decided to encounter Tarleton in open pastureland ‘Cowpens’. Which is located in present-day Spartanburg County and north of Ninety-Six.

A picture of the map of the Battle of Cowpens
The map of the Battle of Cowpens

5) The location of the battle was perfect for Morgan’s battle plan and he decided to position his men in 3 successive lines. The first line consisted of sharpshooters from Georgia and the Carolinas. The second line consisted of militiamen under Andrew Pickens. The third line consisted of Continental Regulars from Maryland and Delaware under the command of Lt. Col. John Eager Howard.

A picture of American Sharpshooters
American Riflemen (c: William Ranney)

6)The Battle of Cowpens

Tarleton charged to attack by sending the 17th Light Dragoons in first, however, they were quickly driven back by the American shooters. Tarleton then formed a battle line from right to left consisting of the 17th Light Dragoons, the light infantry, the British Legion, the 7th Regiment and the British Legion Dragoons. He then kept the 71st Regiment in reserve. As the British forces advanced, the American sharpshooters fell back with the militiamen.

The militia then fired a couple of volleys and withdrew to the 3rd line. Seeing this, Tarleton sent his feared dragoons after them. The militia subsequently took cover behind the trees. Watching the British dragoons advance, Morgan sent in his own dragoons under the command of Lt. Col. William Washington. As a result, the British dragoons were overwhelmed and fled the field. Undeterred by this Tarleton commanded his 71st Regiment in reserve to charge ahead at the Continental line.

A picture of the Battle of Cowpens
(c: William Ranney)

7) A misunderstanding leads to a win

Amid the battle, Howard ordered the right flank to face slightly right to counter a charge from that direction. However due to the noise in the battle his order was mistaken for a call for retreat.  Morgan subsequently rode up to Howard and asked if this was the case. Howard reassured him that he was not retreating. Morgan then spurred his horse to the retreating troops and commanded them to reform and then fire on call. The British thought the Americans had withdrawn and subsequently broke formation and ran into a wild bayonet charge.

Morgan then yelled at the troops to fire and the ensuing volley destroyed the British forces. In a double envelopment, the reformed militia and cavalry slammed in Tarleton’s centre while Pickens and Washington struck the British troops simultaneously. As Tarleton’s line crumbled, he saw the futility of the battle and fled the field.

A picture of an American Dragoon
American Dragoon

8) A noteworthy instance in the battle

In one noteworthy instance in the Battle of Cowpens, Washington raced ahead of his unit and duelled hand to hand with Tarleton and two of his officers. It would have ended badly if it wasn’t for his bugler who saved his life by firing at an Englishman with a saber. Subsequently, Tarleton escaped to Cornwallis’ camp to relay the news of the defeat.

A picture of the Battle of Cowpens
(C: Henry Granger)

9) The Battle of Cowpens was a complete win for the Continental Army. Even though the battle was over in less than an hour, the British forces suffered more than 800 casualties while the Americans suffered less than 100 casualties.

A picture of the Battle of Cowpens
(C: Charles McBarron)

10) The Battle of Cowpens was very important for boosting the morale of the Patriots. Moreover, later that year the Patriots would gain victory in the Battle of Yorktown, the last major land Revolutionary War battle.

Enjoyed the above article? You may also enjoy Siege of Boston- Key Facts and Brief Summary

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