The Battle of Cowpens: Summary & Facts

Instructor: Christina Boggs

Chrissy has taught secondary English and history and writes online curriculum. She has an M.S.Ed. in Social Studies Education.

In early 1781, the American troops were exhausted. Thanks to the efforts of Brigadier General Daniel Morgan, the Patriots won an astounding victory at the Battle of Cowpens that boosted American morale.

After Nearly Six Years of War...

The Continental Army and the colonial militias were exhausted. Imagine having to leave your home, your family, and your business to go fight a war. Not just any war. A war against a very large, and very professional army. It's no wonder the Americans were worn out! In the late winter of 1780, the British won several military victories in the South. As a result, Patriot morale was low and their chances of defeating the British looked increasingly slim. In January of 1781, a battle fought in a small cow pasture helped give the Americans just the boost they were looking for.

Major General Nathanael Greene

In December of 1780, a man named Major General Nathanael Greene took control of the American army in the southern colonies. Greene only had a limited number of men but had two major goals. His troops needed valuable supplies located in the town of Cheraw, South Carolina. At the same time, Greene knew that something had to be done about British supply lines in the area. To accomplish both goals, Greene decided to divide and conquer.

Nathanael Greene
Nathanael Greene

Greene split his troops into two separate forces. He would lead his half to Cheraw. Meanwhile, the second half, under Brigadier General Daniel Morgan, would attack British supply lines and their Fort Ninety-Six. In total, Morgan's troops numbered just over 1,000 men.

The British Respond

When British General Cornwallis learned of Greene's plan to divide his troops, he knew this was his golden opportunity. The Americans were tired and they weren't nearly as well-trained as his own troops. Surely his British soldiers could smash Morgan's small force, and further damage the Patriots' campaign in the South.

Cornwallis decided to send Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton after Morgan and his men. Tarleton was a ruthless commander, notorious for the brutal antics he and his troops reportedly engaged in during previous battles. In Cornwallis's mind, there was no way Morgan's rag-tag bunch of Continentals, militia, and cavalry could stand a chance against Tarleton's well-trained cavalry and infantry.

Banastre Tarleton
Banastre Tarleton

Morgan's Plan

Unfortunately for the British, Daniel Morgan was a skilled and daring leader. He knew what his troops were capable of and how to position them for success. As Tarleton and his men pursued the Patriots, Morgan concocted a brilliant battle plan. Morgan carefully selected a place to meet the British in battle; a small cow pasture between the Broad River and the Pacolet River in South Carolina.

Daniel Morgan
Daniel Morgan

At this point you may be wondering, 'Why would he want to fight in a cow pasture?' This tiny piece of farm land was situated in such a way that it was almost impossible for Morgan's men to retreat. With nowhere to run, the Americans would have to fight the British using their very best effort.

As mentioned earlier, Morgan's troops were a mixture of Continentals (members of the American army), militia (army volunteers), and cavalry (soldiers on horseback). Morgan carefully arranged each of these groups before meeting Tarleton in battle. First, Morgan placed the Continentals under the leadership of Colonel John Eager Howard. The Continentals would wait on the side of a hill in the cow pasture. The hill was located between a very narrow gorge and a small creek. This meant that Tarleton would not have the option to move his men around the Continentals; the British would have to attack them head-on.

Next, Morgan ordered Colonel Andrew Pickens to lead the militia in front of the Continentals. When the British attacked, the militia was instructed to fire two rounds then retreat up to the top of the hill. This retreat would confuse the British and let them think that they were winning the battle. In front of the militia, Morgan directed about 150 skirmishers in front of the militia. The skirmishers were charged with harassing Tarleton's troops before they met the militia.

Finally, Morgan hid the cavalry, led by Lieutenant Colonel William Washington, behind the Continentals on the other side of the hill. There, they would lay in wait as the British made their way up the hill after the retreating militia and Continentals.

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