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  • Writer's pictureGeorge Castrioti

January 17th, 1781 - The Battle of Cowpens

Conflict: American Revolution

Combatants: Americans vs. British

Location: South Carolina (USA)

Outcome: American victory


In December of 1780, General Nathaniel Greene assumed command of American forces in the colonial South. He promptly divided his army in two. Greene took roughly half his troops to Cheraw Hill, South Carolina, while sending Brigadier General Daniel Morgan with 1,000 men to the west. The British commander in the South, Lord Charles Cornwallis, was initially baffled by Greene's decision to divide his small force. But, Cornwallis chose to counter by dividing his own forces, sending the hated Colonel Banastre Tarleton to destroy Morgan's troops.


Battle of Cowpens by William Ranney

On January 17th of 1781, Morgan and Tarleton met at Cowpens in the Piedmont region of South Carolina. While the two armies were of nearly equal size, but most of Morgan's troops were mostly militia prone to rout if too heavily pressed by a professional army. Morgan therefore placed 150 trained American soldiers in the front line and the main force of Continentals in the rear with the militia between. Cavalry led by Colonel William Washington, second cousin to George Washington, was held in reserve.


William Washington at Battle of Cowpens by S. H. Gimber

When the British appeared on the field, Tarleton, confident of a easy victory, immediately charged the American lines. The American riflemen fired and fell back. Then, as planned, the second line fired also withdrew. When the British dragoons spurred forward against the "retreating" enemy, the horsemen under William Washington's suddenly burst forth and routed the startled Redcoats.


Battle of Cowpens 17th of January1781 by Frederick Kemmelmeyer

Still convinced that the Americans retreated, Tarleton pushed forward to outflank the enemy lines and excited British soldiers rushed forward in broken formation. The flanking American units wheeled around the British and Washington's cavalry hit them from the rear. Washington briefly engaged the British commander one on one, but, seeing the battle lost, Tarleton fled the field. The British lost over 200 men killed or wounded and another 600 as prisoners-of-war. The Americans had lost 12 killed and 60 wounded.


The Battle of Cowpens by Don Troiani

Points of Interest:

  • Daniel Morgan, nicknamed the "Old Wagoneer", had worked as a teamster for the British army during the French and Indian War. In 1757, a British officer struck Morgan with the flat of a sword and Morgan angrily knocked him down in response. Morgan was court-martialed and given 500 lashes.

  • Morgan was first cousin to Daniel Boone.

  • Morgan retired after the Battle of Cowpens due to ill health, but served again in the Whiskey Rebellion in 1794.

  • In an action at Waxhaws in 1780, Tarleton's men bayoneted Americans attempting to surrender. Tarleton was afterwards nicknamed "Bloody Ban" or "Tarleton's Quarter" and despised by Americans.

  • In the Harper Encyclopedia of Military History, historians R. Ernest and Trevor N. Dupuy refer to Morgan's victory at Cowpens as "one of the most brilliant tactical operations ever fought on American soil".

Brigadier General Daniel Morgan by Charles Wilson Peale

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Sources:


Dupuy, Trevor N., Johnson, Curt, & Bongard, David L. (1992). The Harper's Encyclopedia of Military Biography. New York: Castle Books (HarperCollins).


Dupuy, R. Ernest & Dupuy, Trevor N. (1993). The Harper's Encyclopedia of Military History. New York: HarperCollins.


Eggenberger, David (1985). An Encyclopedia of Battles: Accounts of Over 1,560 Battles from 1479 B.C. to the Present. New York: Dover Publications, Inc.


Leckie, Robert (1992). George Washington's War. New York: HarperCollins.


McDowell, Bart (1967). The Revolutionary War. Washington D.C., National Geographic Society.



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