The Battle of Cowpens
Written by Peter Fitzgerald
American Wars - War of independence
The Battle of Cowpens was a battle that happened during the American Revolutionary War and marked a turning point for the American forces in regaining colonies from the British.
The battle occurred on the 17th January in the year 1781, some 6 years after the American Revolutionary War started, it was a major battle and had long lasting consequences for all involved.
Prior to the Battle of Cowpens
Three months before the Battle of Cowpens commenced George Washington nominated a new commander for his southern continental forces; this commander was Major General Nathanael Greene. Many did not envy Greene’s position because he was put in an awkward position. This position was having the British pretty much controlling South Carolina while Greene was only given 2,300 men, with only 949 being made up of Continental regulars.
In December Greene did have some good fortune as Brigadier General Daniel Morgan reported for duty in early December. Daniel Morgan was a man with alot of battle experience and was regarded as one of the best for tactics and strategy.
Greene took a decision to split his armed forces in two, the first half being given to Morgan and sent to the Catawba River to find supplies and show strength in front of the local people.
In early January the British sent an army of men under the leadership of Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton west and Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton went in pursuit of Morgan and his small army of men.
Morgan heard of the fact the British were in pursuit so made north, this was until his men reached the Broad River which was swollen and impassable. Morgan took his men to a cattle grazing area called Cowpens where his men made camp for the evening.
Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton marched his men throughout the early hours of the morning to reach Morgan in time to make battle, Morgan had already made the decision to stand and fight anyway so the Battle of Cowpens was afoot.
The Battle of Cowpens
Morgan had time to arrange his forces before the British arrived so positioned his men in what is seen as an unorthodox formation. This formation was created by placing his men between the Broad and Pacolet River, meaning they had no escape if the battle was starting to be lost and all men would perish. The decision to do this however was born out of experience as a great number of his men were militia and they tended to take flight from the battlefield when things didn’t look great, the position meant every man had to stand and fight.
With Morgan believing a head on battle would be the order of the day he set up his forces in three lines with sharpshooters at the front, militia men on the second row and his main forces making up the third line.
One of the most interesting moves in the battle formation was that Morgan had told the Militia men to fire two volleys then make their way to the rear of the third line; this was a ruse so the British did not see the third line and simply thought it was the militia.
The British arrived for battle around 6:45 am and straight away Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton sent a line of Dragoons against the sharp shooting skirmishes of Morgan’s first line. The sharp shooters managed to kill fifteen of the British Dragoons before they retreated back.
This move was followed by an infantry charge backed by two cannon; again this was repelled before the sharp shooters of the American line withdraw to the second line of militia. Another attack took place as the British again charged forward which managed to get to the second line of militia, who followed Morgans plan by firing two volleys and retreating to behind the third line.
The British thought the Americans were in retreat having seen two lines withdraw so went in with a full attack, the main body of the British were sent in a headlong advance while the Scottish contingent were sent in a flanking manoeuvre.
This part of the battle was crucial as the Americans saw what the Scots were doing and sent the militia to protect the flank; the militia however did not hear the orders correctly and started to withdraw. The British saw this as the final mark of retreat and broke ranks as they charged out of formation, the militia turned back from their withdrawal and all the Americans opened fire when the British were at a short distance.
The British were decimated and the troops halted immediately while the American fixed their bayonets and charged the British taking them by surprise and even managing to capture cannon in the process.
After this final act the British soldiers gave up and many of them simply lay on the ground in surrender, this finished the battle in a decisive American victory.
The battle started with the Americans having a force of just over 1,900 men of which they lost 25 men and 124 wounded. The British had a force of 1,150 men of which 110 were killed, 200 wounded and 712 were taken prisoner.