The Battle of Cowpens

The Battle of Cowpens The Battle of Cowpens was an engagement during the American Revolutionary War fought on January 17, 1781 near a clearing called “the Cowpens”, in South Carolina.

Moreover this battle was a turning point in the American reconquest of South Carolina from the British. Furthermore, a stunning example of American military prowess and skilled leadership. This engagement further weakened British attempts to wrest the southern colonies from American control.

After the Revolutionary War had reached a stalemate in the North, it took a turn for the better in the South. 

Continental Army Brigadier General Daniel Morgan commanded a small force that marched to the west of the Catawba River, in order to forage for supplies and raise the morale of local Colonial sympathizers, some of whom were longing for peaceful days under British control.

Brig. Gen. Daniel Morgan

He commanded the only experienced Continental troops on hand: one company from Delaware, another from Virginia, and three from Maryland. 

Maryland’s John Eager Howard was a key player in the battle. Many say it was Howard’s sudden order of “Charge, bayonets!” that caused the enemy’s collapse. 

British forces were led by Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton. 

“Lieutenant-Colonel Banastre Tarleton” by Sir Joshua Reynolds

British forces were heavily outnumbered and incredibly tired from a march to the battle. Furthermore, unlike the Colonial troops were not well fed and rested. And were outnumbered considerably at 1,800-2000 Colonial troops to to about 1,000 British troops. Cornwallis had commanded Tarleton to deal with Morgan’s forces on his left flank, but misjudged their size.

The Colonial forces at Cowpens conducted the only double envelopment of Tarleton’s forces, or any enemy forces during the entire war.

Tarleton was outnumbered by Morgan’s troops, but Tarleton was arrogant, and charged ahead anyway.

Tarleton’s force was almost completely eliminated with almost 30% casualties and 55% of his force captured or missing, with Tarleton himself and only about 200 British troops managing to escape.

Tarleton did not employ a battle plan beyond hubris. He charged a weakened force dead ahead into a thick force that could surround him. Hannibal demonstrated at the Battle of Cannae how even a smaller force could beat a larger force if they could surround their opponents. The British essentially ran to their deaths. Nearly 40% of Tarleton’s men were seriously injured or dead.

Battle of Cowpens January 17, 1781. Right flank (cavalry) of Lt. Col. William Washington and (left flank) of the militia returned to enfilade
The Battle of Cannae; destruction of the Roman army (red color) by Hannibal’s forces (blue)

“We look in vain for any redeeming trait in his character” said the 19th century historian C.L Hunter of Tarleton. In addition, the historian Christopher Ward described Tarleton as “cold hearted, vindictive and utterly ruthless.”

Any battlefield is just land, unless you can walk the ground and understand the physical layout. This battle occurred in a small cattle pasture on a warm winter day in upstate South Carolina!

Battle of Cowpens Reenactment, 225th anniversary, January 14, 2006

There was no room for Tarleton to maneuver, nor were there any real tactics employed beyond yelling charge.

John Marshall spoke of the battle, “Seldom has a battle, in which greater numbers were not engaged, been so important in its consequences as that of Cowpens.”

Colonial forces routed British forces, and so launched a campaign that in ten months brought final victory at Yorktown, Va. 

Battlefield monument

The Battle of Cowpens