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home : community : history January 31, 2023

1/22/2023 12:07:00 AM
Battle of Cowpens
The Cowpens Monument at the Cowpens National Battlefield site near Chesnee, SC, commemorates the Battle of Cowpens in January 1781, considered a major turning point of the Revolutionary War in the southern colonies.  image courtesy of University of South Carolina
The Cowpens Monument at the Cowpens National Battlefield site near Chesnee, SC, commemorates the Battle of Cowpens in January 1781, considered a major turning point of the Revolutionary War in the southern colonies.  

image courtesy of University of South Carolina

Following the defeat at Cowpens, Cornwallis was engaged in a relentless pursuit of Daniel Morgan and his British prisoners. Arriving at Ramsour's Mill four days after Morgan had left, Cornwallis was disheartened. To pick up speed, he needed to shed the encumbrances that were slowing him down. He ordered a fire. Up in flames went senior officers' wagons, hospital wagons, and other provision wagons, but not before he issued an extra ration of rum before the wagons were destroyed.

The Lincoln County Historical Association will celebrate that event with cider (not rum) this Saturday (Jan. 28th) from 2 - 4 PM at the Ramsour's Mill Cabin on Jeb Seagle Drive in Lincolnton. Bring a lawn chair and join the LCHA at the bonfire as they 'roast' Cornwallis and toast marshmallows. The event is for members and friends of the Lincoln County Historical Association.

The 242ND COMMEMORATION OF THE BATTLE OF COWANS FORD will also be held Saturday January 28th at Hopewell Presbyterian Church, 10500 Beatties Ford Road in Huntersville. This event from 8 - 11 AM will be hosted by the Mecklenburg SAR.

Another coming event:  In honor of George Washington’s birthday, the Catawba Valley SAR and the Jacob Forney DAR will co-host a George Washington Tea at the Lincoln Cultural Center on February 19th at 2 PM.

Jennifer Baker
Vesuvius Furnace Chapter, DAR

Battles of Cowpens

Compiled by Jennifer Baker, DAR Vesuvius Furnace Chapter

A stunning example of military prowess and skilled leadership, the Battle of Cowpens, fought near Chesnee, South Carolina, in January 1781, was a critical American victory in the Revolutionary War. This engagement further weakened British attempts to wrest the southern colonies from American control.

By late 1778, the British high command proceeded with their "Southern Strategy." Why did they choose this new “Southern Strategy?” Simply put, economics. The New England colonies produced many of the same products and goods as the British Isles, but the Southern Colonies were a different story. Rice, indigo, tobacco, and other cash crops abounded--crops that could not be produced in the British Isles. The institution of chattel slavery helped to keep the wholesale prices of these products low, and British mercantilism could profit from cornering the market and selling the goods for substantial profits.

Many leaders in London felt that the Southern people supported Toryism, and by default were more apt to take up arms as loyalists. These loyalist forces could be relied upon to bolster the British war effort lending manpower to an army that had been at war with their own colonists since 1775.

However, in the South Carolina Low Country, British soldiers freed southern planters’ greatest source of labor and income—enslaved workers. While in the Backcountry, British officers used threats and intimidation against the population. Thus, by alienating the population, the British had difficulty rallying sympathetic allies to their cause, while exacerbating the civil war within a civil war. With little loyalist support, they faced greater challenges in battle as the campaign in the South continued.

The South Carolina backcountry turned out to be Britain’s undoing. The colonial population there was split between patriots and loyalists. The territory was engaged in civil war, with neighbor pitted against neighbor. Both sides organized militias and engaged in armed raids and reprisals. Into this hostile arena, General George Washington sent Major General Nathanael Greene to take command of the Southern Army. Greene, just two weeks into his command, split his force, sending Brigadier General Daniel Morgan southwest of the Catawba River to cut supply lines and hamper British operations.

General Cornwallis, the British commander in the South, countered Greene's move by sending Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton to block Morgan's progress. Tarleton was only 26 years old, but he was already an able commander. He was also feared and hated. At the Battle of Waxhaws in 1780, Tarleton was alleged to have attacked Continental Army troops who were trying to surrender. His refusal of offering “no quarter,” is said to be the derivation of the derisive term "Tarleton's Quarter,” meaning “taking no prisoners.” Morgan’s brilliant victory over Tarleton at the Battle of Cowpens was humiliating for the elite British army officer. His loss directly contributed to Cornwallis’s defeat in the southern colonies, the British surrender at Yorktown, and American independence.

Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton, boosted by the British success at Camden and other victories, aggressively pursued American general Daniel Morgan’s forces through South Carolina. Confident that his 1,150 men would continue to be successful in the South, Tarleton chased Morgan without knowing how many men Morgan actually had at his side. Morgan, however, was well aware of the strength and location of his enemy. He readied his 1,065 men for battle.

Tarleton’s early morning crossing of the Pacolet River on January 16th forced Morgan to abandon his campsite and fall back on Cowpens pasture near Thicketty Creek. This open, rolling woodland of first-growth pines and hardwoods was excellent country for cavalrymen but offered little cover for infantry shooters. The Americans found a slope ridge, which dipped down to a shallow swale and rose again to a higher ridge. Just behind the crown of the second ridge was a deeper gully in which cavalry could be concealed. Morgan spent the evening moving from campfire to campfire, talking with his soldiers before combat and building their resolve.

Near dawn on the morning of January 17th, Morgan’s men met the British on wide-open South Carolina pastureland. Morgan knew his men and he knew Tarleton’s. Hoping to hinder any impulse among his troops to retreat, he positioned his forces between the Broad and Pacolet rivers, ensuring a head-on encounter with the enemy. Morgan worried that his men could panic in the preliminary stages of combat, as they had in the American fiasco at Camden months before. Boosting morale in his men and safeguarding their confidence with two rivers, Morgan took a chance against Tarleton’s more disciplined and trained troops. Betting that Tarleton would employ typical British field battle tactics by lining up his men in a linear assault, Morgan deliberately left his flanks open, inviting Tarleton’s troops to take the bait.

Morgan formed his defense into three separate lines: the first of skirmishers; the second of militia, and the third and last line consisting of the better-trained Continental Army units. He ordered some trained men to be in first two lines and to shoot British officers first, so when the British got through the lines, the Royal Army would be leaderless and disorganized. As the British advanced, Morgan commanded his militia in the second line to fire two volleys and then immediately retire to the rear of the line to fight in reserve behind the line of Continentals. This maneuver gave the impression that the Americans were fleeing, while at the same time concealing the third line, which then firedon British troops as they assaulted the hill. The arrangement worked. The British suffered heavy casualties in the initial attacks. By the time they reached the third American line, they had fallen apart.

Depleted of officers, Tarleton’s men continued to try and press their advantage. An hour into the fighting, elements of Morgan’s Virginia Regiments fired point blank into the British as they attempted a feeble flanking move on the right. Just when the British assault was blunted, the Americans fixed bayonets and plunged into the enemy. In the melee that followed, Americans seized the two small field pieces the British had brought along for artillery support. The British line crumbled with Regulars throwing down their arms and surrendering.

American cavalry advanced from behind the third line to cut off the British, shocking and devastating the Royal Army soldiers left standing. Morgan ordered 100 cavalrymen under William Washington (2nd cousin, once-removed to George Washington) to meet Tarleton’s men at the third line. Washington’s horsemen attacked on the right and reformed militia from first two lines struck left, overwhelming Tarleton's frazzled troops. Those British who could, tried to run—only to be hotly pursued by the American cavalry. Washington personally took on Tarleton with his saber, shouting insults as he attacked. Tarleton shot Washington’s horse out from under him and, like his men, fled the field. By 8:00 AM, the battle was over.

For the Americans 25 were killed and 124 wounded. For the British, 110 soldiers perished, 229 were wounded and over 500 men were missing or captured. After the battle, Morgan buried the dead, and, with many British prisoners in tow, headed north to avoid an encounter with Cornwallis. He later retired from duty due to ill health.

After Cowpens, Cornwallis gave up on his efforts to win in South Carolina and pursued Greene’s force into North Carolina. Ensuing battles were at Cowan’s Ford (February 1st), Clapp’s Mill (March 2nd), Weitzel’s Mill (March 6th) and finally he defeated Greene at the Battle of Guilford Court House on March 15th. He then withdrew to Virginia to rest and refit his tired and depleted army. Washington seized the opportunity to trap and defeat Cornwallis at the Battle of Yorktown, the last major conflict of the Revolutionary War.

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This is the 76th in our series of articles from the DAR & SAR leading up to America's 250th birthday in 2026.  We hope readers are enjoying learning a bit more about our early history.

Since 2012, the Lincoln Herald has been providing local news, information about community events, sports scores, the obituaries, and more--for Lincoln, Catawba, Gaston & Cleveland counties.  

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