The southern theater of the American Revolution featured several significant battles, including the famous engagement at Cowpens. Just what was the historical significance of the Battle of Cowpens and how did it impact the American cause?
After fighting to a virtual stalemate in the northern colonies, the British shifted their strategy and focus towards the southern colonies in 1778. British command relied upon reports that loyalist (Tory) support was stronger in the south and aimed to utilize this support to eliminate rebel forces in the southern colonies.
The British also knew that commander George Washington could not maintain two separate major armies in the north and south. The combination of British regulars plus strong Tory support would spell doom for the weaker colonial forces in the region.
Within two years the British scored major victories, bringing the coastal cities of Savannah, Georgia and Charleston, South Carolina under their control, as well as humiliating numerically-superior colonial forces under Horatio Gates at the Battle of Camden in 1780.
British Commander Lord Cornwallis sought next to advance into North Carolina to engage the remaining significant colonial force under newly-appointed commander Nathaniel Greene.
However, by this time the British realized that reports of significant Tory support in the south had been greatly exaggerated. The southern colonies were greatly divided and the rebel cause also garnered significant support, particularly outside the cities.
Heavy-handed British tactics in the south and widely reported atrocities against colonists aided the colonial cause by driving up recruitment numbers for those seeking revenge.
When Greene decided to take the unconventional tactic of splitting his forces, the resulting detachment would lead to the pivotal Battle of Cowpens in 1781.
Where was the Battle of Cowpens Fought?
On January 17, 1781, the British and Americans fought the Battle of Cowpens on an open field near modern-day Cowpens, South Carolina. The area is located in the northwest of the state and close to the North Carolina border.
When splitting his forces, Nathaniel Greene chose Brigadier General Daniel Morgan to lead the detachment. Greene’s decision was unconventional at the time as it went against traditional military doctrine of not splitting one’s forces when pitted against a superior foe (the British).
Nevertheless, in mid-December 1780, Greene dispatched Morgan to the west of Charlotte, North Carolina into the backcountry near the Catawba River. Morgan’s broad instructions were to collect provisions, forage for supplies, drum up patriot support, and harass the British and Tory militias whenever possible.1
British Commander Lord Cornwallis initially ignored Morgan’s detachment when planning his invasion of North Carolina. However, he soon realized that leaving Morgan to the west exposed his left flank and put his supply line at risk.2
When Cornwallis received incorrect reports that Morgan aimed to attack the vital British fort at Ninety-Six in western South Carolina, he responded by sending Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton to counter Morgan.
Tarleton made haste to Ninety-Six only to realize that Morgan was not there. Upon discovering his approximate location Tarleton rapidly gained ground on Morgan’s slower forces as they retreated north.
Morgan was aware of Tarleton’s approaching forces and called for a rallying point at a place known as the Cowpens for local militia to swell his forces.
Early on the morning of January 16, 1781 Morgan interrupted his men’s breakfast with a march north to this chosen battle site at Cowpens. With his back to the Broad River, his men would have nowhere to flee and the rolling hills offered cover for some of his forces.1
Leaders at Cowpens
The primary leaders at the Battle of Cowpens were Daniel Morgan for the Americans and Banastre Tarleton for the British.
Morgan’s extensive service record throughout the war gained him respect among the troops and leadership. He saw action at the Battles of Lexington and Concord, the failed invasion of Quebec, the significant 1777 Battle of Saratoga, and countless others.
Morgan made a name for himself after recruiting a contingent of Virginia sharpshooters known as “Morgan’s Riflemen” who played a pivotal role throughout the war.
The man extensively studied his opponents to anticipate their battlefield tactics and was well-prepared to face Tarleton at Cowpens. Even more important, he knew his forces extremely well and accounted for the strengths and weaknesses of each unit.
Traditionally, militia units were less reliable to stand their ground when British forces charged with bayonets. Morgan thus relied upon a defense in depth approach to allow his militia units to fire on the British at close range, then fall back to regroup behind other more experienced units.
Opposing Morgan was the young, brash British commander Banastre Tarleton. Tarleton made a name for himself as a ruthless leader who favored harsh repression of the civilian population.
He is reported to have said that “severity alone could effect the establishment of regal authority in America,” and his unit was one of the most disliked in the British Army.1
After his men slaughtered colonial soldiers that had thrown down their arms at the Battle of Waxhaws, Americans used the phrase “Tarleton’s Quarter” to describe the inhumane British tactics.
Tarleton relentlessly pushed his men in pursuit of Morgan’s army leading up to the Battle of Cowpens. The young commander was ecstatic when he saw the broad open terrain that Morgan had chosen at Cowpens.
The open fields allowed plenty of room for his cavalry (dragoons) to maneuver and Morgan left his flanks exposed. Tarleton was confident that the Battle of Cowpens was as good as won.
Who Won the Battle of Cowpens?
In shocking fashion, Morgan and the American forces soundly defeated Tarleton’s British dragoons and won the Battle of Cowpens. Morgan’s troops completed a rare double envelopment of Tarleton’s troops, decimating them in the process.
As Tarleton deployed his troops, he wagered everything on a single rapid attack. For his part, this is exactly what Morgan anticipated and he prepared accordingly.3
As the British advanced upon the American lines, Morgan’s defense in depth absorbed the impact while inflicting high casualties, especially upon British officers. The Americans feigned a retreat, drawing Tarleton’s troops closer in.
Just when the British thought a rout was on, the Americans stopped and held their lines. What more, the militia troops reformed to attack the British left flank.
When American cavalry commander William Washington (second cousin to George Washington) simultaneously attacked the British right flank, Morgan’s army achieved the rare but significant double envelopment of Tarleton’s army.3
It was the only double envelopment of the entire American Revolution and has been compared to Hannibal’s legendary feat against the Romans at the Battle of Cannae.
As Tarleton’s troops were surrounded, many simply threw down their arms and surrendered. Aside from Tarleton and a few others that evaded capture by hard riding under close pursuit from Washington’s cavalry, the Americans either killed, wounded, or captured the remainder of the troops.3
Morgan had won a stunning victory at Cowpens. American losses were shockingly small and reported as only 12 killed and 60 wounded from a likely force of roughly 1,900 men (though Morgan claimed in his official report only 800 men).
British losses consisted of 110 killed, ~200 wounded, and 702 men captured out of a force number close to 1,150. The losses were staggering for the already small British army in the south.1
Immediately after the battle Morgan headed north to avoid being caught between Cornwallis and Greene. The British prisoners also traveled north to Richmond, VA under the guard of Virginia militia whose enlistments had expired.2
The Significance of the Battle of Cowpens
The historical significance of the Battle of Cowpens lies in the fact that it helped turn the tide of the war in the southern theater and lead the United States to victory over the British. The victory at Cowpens led directly to the fiasco at the 1781 Battle of Yorktown that effectively ended the war.
News of Tarleton’s defeat at Cowpens incensed Cornwallis. The disaster left the British severely lacking in the cavalry and light troops that Cornwallis needed to play a major role in the upcoming invasion of North Carolina.4
The Battle of Cowpens led directly to what is now referred to as the “Race to the Dan,” referring to the Dan River at the border of North Carolina and Virginia.2
This race included both Nathaniel Greene and Daniel Morgan racing north to link up, with Cornwallis in hot pursuit. Cornwallis was desperate for a decisive victory and even ordered his army to burn its baggage to move faster.
When Cornwallis finally got his wish of a pitched battle at Guilford Courthouse, the resulting pyrrhic victory forced him to abandon his plans to pacify the Carolinas and he withdrew to Yorktown.
The American victory at Cowpens served to revitalize American resistance in the south and demoralized the remaining British and their supporters. Many in Britain began to further question the viability of continuing the war in the Americas.
While the Battle of Cowpens is not nearly as well-known as other American Revolution battles, its significance to the overall war effort and independence cannot be understated.
To learn more about US history, check out this timeline of the history of the United States.
1) Rankin, Hugh F. “COWPENS: PRELUDE TO YORKTOWN.” The North Carolina Historical Review, vol. 31, no. 3, North Carolina Office of Archives and History, 1954, pp. 336–69, http://www.jstor.org/stable/23516825.
2) Heaton, Charles. “The Failure of Enlightenment Military Doctrine in Revolutionary America: The Piedmont Campaign and the Fate of the British Army in the Lower South.” The North Carolina Historical Review, vol. 87, no. 2, North Carolina Office of Archives and History, 2010, pp. 127–57, http://www.jstor.org/stable/23523891.
3) Pugh, Robert C. “The Revolutionary Militia in the Southern Campaign, 1780-1781.” The William and Mary Quarterly, vol. 14, no. 2, Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, 1957, pp. 154–75, https://doi.org/10.2307/1922108.
4) Jewett, Clayton E. The Florida Historical Quarterly, vol. 78, no. 3, Florida Historical Society, 2000, pp. 371–73, http://www.jstor.org/stable/30150582.