Battle of Cowpens, 17 January 1781

Battle during American War of Independence that ended the run of victories of Tarletons' British Legion. Nathaneal Greene, commanding the American forces in the Carolinas, was faced by serious supply problems. He thus decided to detachment two forces from his main army. One, under Daniel Morgan, was sent west, in part to forage and in part to threaten the British at Augusta. This American force of around 1000 men was well balanced, with a core of experienced Continental Infantry, Maryland and Virginia Militia, and a Continental Cavalry force under Colonel William Washington.

To Cornwallis, this force was a threat to the left flank of his planned advance into North Carolina and he sent a force commanded by Tarleton to catch it. The British force of 1,100 was composed of Tarleton's own British Legion, supported by regular infantry.

Tarleton's plan, such as it was, was quite simple. His men were to catch Morgan and immediately attack, expecting the militia to break, leaving the Continentals outnumbered. However, Morgan anticipated this, and deployed his men well. On 17 February 1781 he formed up in three lines at Hannah's Cowpens. First was a skirmishing line of about 150 sharpshooters. Next came the Carolina militia, whose orders were to fire two volleys and then withdraw behind the third line, of Continental Infantry and the Virginia Militia, placed on top of a hill. Once the British were engaged against this third line, the South Carolina militia on one flank and the Continental Cavalry on the other were to outflank them.

Tarleton fell into the trap. On arrival at Hannah's Cowpens, he barely paused for long enough to form up his men before ordering the charge. The American plan worked as expected. The riflemen and militia inflicted heavy casualties on the British, and then pulled back behind the line. The British were further surprised when the third line of American regulars did not retreat, as they had so often done in the past, but instead held their ground and fired on the advancing British. Tarleton was forced to call on his reserve, a battalion from the 71st Highland regiment. The Highlands threatened to outflank the main American line, and the commander of the American line ordered the militia unit at the right of the line to wheel to face the new attack. This was too much for them, and they started to move back, soon followed by the rest of the line. The British were convinced that the Americans were about the break, and their own formations started to lose their integrity as they moved to chase what they thought was a broken enemy.

However, the American movement was not a retreat, and Morgan was able to form them up behind the hill. The British in pursuit crested the hill to find not a retreating rabble, but an intact force that now turned and fired on the British. The units exposed to this fire broke almost instantly. Washington's cavalry and the militia now attacked the rest of the British force. The battle was lost within minutes. Tarleton managed to escape with forty cavalry, but the majority of his men surrendered.

At a cost of 12 dead and 60 wounded, Morgan had largely destroyed Tarleton's force. With 525 prisoners, 100 dead and 229 wounded (also captured), Tarleton had suffered losses of over 75%. The reputation of Tarleton's Legion was permanently lost, and the British losses were hard to replace, weakening Cornwallis in the campaign that was to lead to Guilford Courthouse.

See Also
Books on the American War of Independence
Subject Index: American War of Independence

Books with Amazon

American Hannibal, Jim Stempel. A look at one of the key battles of the American War of Independence, a British defeat that began the series of events that ended with the surrender at Yorktown. Structured around the two main leaders at Cowpens, Daniel Morgan and Banastre Tarleton, tracing how they got to the battlefield, their respective military experiences and how that played into the eventual American victory (Read Full Review)
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War for America Black, Jeremy, War For America: The Fight for Independence 1775-1783. Provides a clear narrative of the war, taken year by year, with good chapters on some of the later years that are often skipped over. Also contains a good selection of quotes from participents in the conflict.
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The Glorious Cause Middlekauff, Robert, The Glorious Cause, The American Revolution 1763-1789. A very well researched book that is especially strong on the events that led up to the Revolution, which take up the first third of the book. Unlike many similar books it also covers the years immediately after the war and up to the ratification of the U.S. Constitution.
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A Devil of a Whipping: The Battle of Cowpens , Lawrence E. Babits. A very detailed re-examination of the relatively unknown American victory at the battle of Cowpens, based heavily on a detailed examination of original eyewitness accounts.
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How to cite this article Rickard, J. (21 May 2003) Battle of Cowpens,

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