Battle of Cowpens
Battle of Cowpens: Miracle of the Three Rivers
Do you believe in Miracles? The Battle of Cowpens. In March of 1781, General Washington wrote to William Gordon: “We have…abundant reasons to thank Providence for its many favorable interposition’s in our behalf. It has at times been my only dependence, for all other resources seemed to have failed us.”
Painted by William Ranney in 1845, this depiction of the Battle of Cowpens shows an unnamed black soldier (left) firing his pistol and saving the life of Colonel William Washington (on white horse in center).
The Battle of Cowpens (January 17, 1781) was a decisive victory by Continental Army forces under Brigadier General Daniel Morgan in South Carolina over the British Army led by Colonel Banastre Tarleton, during the Southern campaign of the American Revolutionary War. It was a turning point in the rebel reconquest of South Carolina from British control. It took place in northwestern Cherokee County, South Carolina, north of the town of Cowpens.
On October 14, 1780, George Washington chose Nathanael Greene to be commander of the Southern Department of the Continental forces. Greene’s task was not an easy one. The Carolinas had been the scene of a long string of disasters for the Continental Army in 1780, the worst being the capture of one American army at the Siege of Charleston and the destruction of another at the Battle of Camden. A victory of Patriot militia over their Loyalist counterparts at the Battle of Kings Mountain in October had bought time, but most of South Carolina was still occupied by the British. When Greene took command, the southern army numbered only 2307 men (on paper, 1482 present), of whom just 949 were Continental regulars.
On December 3, Brigadier General Daniel Morgan reported for duty to Greene’s headquarters at Charlotte, North Carolina. At the start of the Revolution, Morgan, whose military experience dated to the French and Indian War, had served at the Siege of Boston. Later he participated in the 1775 invasion of Canada and its climactic battle, the Battle of Quebec. That battle, on December 31, 1775, ended in defeat and Morgan’s capture by the British.
Morgan was exchanged in January 1777 and placed by George Washington in command of a picked force of 500 trained riflemen, known as Morgan’s Riflemen. Morgan and his men played a key role in the victory at Saratoga, which proved to be a turning point of the entire war. Bitter after being passed over for promotion and plagued by severe attacks of sciatica, Morgan left the army in 1779. A year later he was promoted to Brigadier General and returned to service in the Southern Department.
Greene decided that his weak army was unable to meet the British in a standup fight. He made the unconventional decision to divide his army, sending a detachment west of the Catawba River to raise the morale of the locals and find supplies beyond the limited amounts available around Charlotte. Greene gave Morgan command of this wing and instructed him to join with the militia west of the Big Catawba and take command of them. Morgan headed west on December 21, charged with taking position between the Broad and Pacolet Rivers, and protecting the civilians in that area. He had 600 men, some 400 of which were Continentals, the rest being Virginia militia with experience as Continentals. By Christmas Day Morgan had reached the Pacolet River. He was joined by 60 South Carolina militia led by the experienced partisan Andrew Pickens. Other militia from Georgia and the Carolinas joined Morgan’s camp.
Meanwhile, Lord Cornwallis was planning to return to North Carolina and conduct the invasion that he had postponed after the defeat at Kings Mountain. Morgan’s force represented a threat to his left. Additionally, Cornwallis received incorrect intelligence claiming that Morgan was going to attack the important British fort at Ninety Six, in western South Carolina. Seeking to save the fort and defeat Morgan’s command, Cornwallis on January 2 ordered Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton to the west.
Tarleton was 26 years old and had enjoyed a spectacular career in his service with the British in the colonies. In December 1776, he and a small party surprised and captured Patriot Gen. Charles Lee in New Jersey. He served with distinction at the Siege of Charleston and the Battle of Camden. Commanding the British Legion, a mixed infantry/cavalry force composed of American Loyalists who constituted some of the best British troops in the Carolinas, Tarleton won decisive victories at Monck’s Corner and Fishing Creek. He became infamous among Patriots after his victory at the Battle of Waxhaws. His men had killed American soldiers after they had surrendered. In Tarleton’s account published in 1781, he stated that his horse had been shot from under him during the initial charge and his men, thinking him dead, engaged in “a vindictive asperity not easily restrained.”
Tarleton and the Legion marched to Ninety Six, learning Morgan was not there, but Tarleton decided to pursue his forces. Tarleton asked for reinforcements of British regulars, which Cornwallis sent. Tarleton set out with his enlarged command to drive Morgan across the Broad River. On January 12 he received accurate news of Morgan’s location and continued with hard marching, building boats to cross rivers that were flooding with winter rains. Receiving word that Tarleton was in hot pursuit, Morgan retreated north, to avoid being trapped between Tarleton and Cornwallis.
By the afternoon of the 16th, Morgan was approaching the Broad River, which was high with flood waters and reported difficult to cross. He knew Tarleton was close behind. By nightfall he had reached a place called the Cowpens, a well-known grazing area for local cattle. Pickens, who had been patrolling, arrived that night with a large body of militia. Morgan decided to stand and fight rather than continue to retreat and risk being caught by Tarleton while fording the Broad River. Learning of Morgan’s location, Tarleton pushed his troops, marching at 3 a.m. instead of camping for the night.