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Battle of Cowpens

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The Battle of Cowpens (1781) was an overwhelming victory by American revolutionary forces under Brigadier General Daniel Morgan. This battle is loosely depicted in the climax of the film The Patriot.


1 Overview
2 Preparation
3 Events
4 Results


The Battle of Cowpens was one of the many engagements between the Americans and the British during the Southern campaign during the American Revolution. The commanders specifically involved were American Brigadier General Daniel Morgan, commander of some 700 militia, including some Overmountainmen and cavalry, and 300 Continentals, and Englishman Colonel Banastre Tarleton, who headed a legion of 1,100 dragoons, regulars, Tory loyalists, and Highlanders.

General Cornwallis instructed Tarleton and his legion, who had been successful at battles such as Camden and Waxhaws in the past, to destroy Morgan’s command. Morgan called Americans to gather at the cow pens (a grazing area), which were a familiar landmark. Tarleton attacked without caution and regard for the fact Morgan had had much more time than himself to prepare, and was consequently caught in a double envelopment. Only about 160 British troops escaped, but the Americans suffered only 73 casualties (12 dead and 61 wounded).


Daniel Morgan knew that he should use the unique landscape of Cowpens and the time available before Tarleton’s arrival to his advantage, and so he set up three lines of soldiers: one of skirmishers (sharpshooters), one of militia, and a main one.

The 150 select skirmishers were from North Carolina (Major McDowell) and Georgia (Major Cunningham). Behind these men were 300 militiamen under the command of Andrew Pickens. Realizing that poorly trained milita were unreliable in battle, especially when they were under attack from cavalry, Morgan decided to ask the militia to fire two shots and then retreat have them reform under cover of the reserve (cavalry commanded by William Washington and James McCall) behind the third, more experienced line of militia and continentals. The third line, composed of the remainder of the forces (about 550 men) was composed of Continentals from Delaware and Maryland, and militiamen from Georgia and Virginia. Colonel Howard commanded the Continentals and Colonels Tate and Triplett the militia. The goal of this strategy was to weaken and disorganize Tarleton’s forces, which would be attacking the third line uphill, before attacking defeating them.

At 2:00 AM on January 17, 1781, Tarleton roused his troops and continued his forcemarch to the cow pens. His Tory scouts had told him of the countryside Morgan was fighting on, and he was certain of victory because Morgan’s soldiers, mostly militiamen, seemed to be caught between mostly experienced British troops and a flooding river. As soon as he reached the spot, he formed a battle line, which consisted of dragoons on his flanks, with his two grasshopper cannon in between the British regulars and American loyalists. More cavalry and the 71st Highlanders composed his reserve. Sure of an easy victory, he sent his unrested men into battle.


Morgan’s strategy worked perfectly. After killing fifteen dragoons, the skirmishers retreated. The British pulled back temporarily, but attacked again, this time reaching the militiamen, who (as ordered) poured two volleys into the British, who, with 40% of their casualties officers, were astonished and confused. They reformed and continued to advance. Pickens’s militia broke and apparently fled to the rear and were eventually reorganized. Tarleton responded by ordering one of his officers, Ogilvie, to charge with some dragoons into the “defeated” Americans. Triplett’s riflemen attacked, severely damaging the British, and the cavalry of Washington and McCall charged. Completely routed, the dragoons fled to their own rear. Despite this, Tarleton sensed he could still win with only one line of Americans left and sent his infantry in for a frontal attack. In addition to this, the Highlanders were ordered to flank the Americans.

Under the direction of Howard, the Americans retreated. Flushed with victory and now disorganized, the British ran after them. Abruptly, Howard pulled an about-face, fired an extremely devestating volley into his enemy, and then charged. Having dismantled Ogilvie’s forces, Washington then also charged into the British.

With Tarleton’s right flank and center line collapsed, there remained only the 71st Highlanders still fighting part of Howard’s line. This battle was ended by Pickens’s reformed militia, who attacked again. Desperate to save something, Tarleton assembled a group of cavalry and tried to save the two cannon he had brought with him, but they had been taken, and so Tarleton decided to save himself. He was temporarily stopped by Colonel Washington, whose horse Tarleton shot out from under him and thus made his escape.


Coming on the heels of King’s Mountain, Cowpens was a decisive blow to Cornwallis, who would have defeated much of the remaining American resistance had Tarleton won Cowpens. As it was, the Americans were encouraged to fight further and the loyalists and British were demoralized. If the Battle of Cowpens had turned out differently, Cornwallis probably would not have begun the Yorktown campaign, and the war may have ended differently.

Source Wikipedia

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