January 17, 1781

by Frank Stroupe

(Author's note: The major battle in the 2000 movie "The Patriot" is based on The Battle of Cowpens. Col Harry Burwell could be based on a couple of different Continental commanders, seemingly General Daniel Morgan. Col William Tavington is based on Lt Col. Tarleton, Benjamin Martin probably is based on Francis Marion and Andrew Pickens, though Francis Marion was not at the battle. General Cornwallis was not actually present at the battle.)

Stragetic Situation: The war for independence has been dragging on for 6 years. The terrible winter at Valley Forge is a distant memory, but the Continental army has not scored a decisive victory against the British in three years. Cornwallis is the overall British commander, he has left an army in the area of New York and New Jersey, and is personally commanding the army invading the southern colonies, which arrived in South Carolina in May, 1780. The will of the loyalist population is still strong at this time, and he probably wants to booster their morale, and gain their support.

Cornwallis has had several successes in South Carolina. The Battle at Camden in August was a huge victory, with 900 Colonials killed and 1000 captured, and the Battle at Fishing Creek, also in August, opened South Carolina to invasion. But the campaign has dragged on much longer than he has expected. His army has been forced to forage for food, mainly taking it from the anti-British colonists. This has served to enrage the people of South Carolina, and the ranks of the militia has been swelling. The people were further enraged by the presence of Cornwallis' favorite cavalry commander, Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton, who had been known to murder prisoners rather than capture them.

Cornwallis has started an invasion of North Carolina, directing his first movements towards Charlotte. He has sent a loyalist army under the command of Major Patrick Ferguson to the mountains in western North Carolina to protect his flank, then reinforce the British forces at Charlotte. Ferguson has skirmished throughout South Carolina, and built a sizable force of loyalists. This army of 1000 men was completely killed or captured, and Ferguson killed at the Battle at King's Mountain October 7, by a patriot militia force from present day eastern Tennessee known as "overmountain men", joined by 400 South Carolina patriots. With the left flank of his army defeated, Cornwallis pulls back into South Carolina.

The northern Continental army is commanded by General George Washington, and the southern Continental army is commanded by General Nathaniel Greene who had been picked by Washington to replace General Horatio Gates Oct 14, 1780. Greene immediately begins provisioning the impoverished army, and in the meantime performing some miraculous troop movements to prevent an appearance of retreat, including splitting his force, to deceive Cornwallis, and to prevent further lowering morale of the partisan forces in South Carolina under Colonels Francis Marion, Thomas Sumpter, and Andrew Pickens, with whom Greene presently had no direct contact. Green's force consists of: 320 Continental light infantrymen under Brigadier General Daniel Morgan, 200 Virginia militiamen under Major Francis Triplett, and around 100 dragoons under Lieutentant Colonel William Washington. (a 2nd cousin to George)

Most of the force is put under command of General Morgan, with the orders of encouraging the people, and harassing the enemy. He meets up with some of the partisan forces from South Carolina. Cornwallis orders Tarleton to take a sizable force and move against Morgan. And the two armies spend the remainder of October, November and December, moving around the countryside.

Preparation for battle: "Cowpens" was a term used primarily in South Carolina to describe a grazing area for cattle. This particular "cowpens" was known by Morgan as a rich grazing area, some 500 x 500 yards. It was actually known as "Hanna's Cowpens" after the owner. The surrounding area was well forested in oak and pine. The pasture was dotted with oak trees, but there was no undergrowth, as grazing cattle had eaten it away. Hannah's Cowpens was well known by every patriot guide in the Carolinas, as it was located near a major crossroads. It was also known by the partisans from the mountains, as the 3000 "Overmountain Men" had camped there after the defeat at Camden. The North Carolina militia was already located there. It was a place that Pickens could not miss, even if he arrived at night. So, Morgan put out the word for all militia and partisans to rendezvous at the cowpens. This was where he had decided to fight Tarleton.

Morgan's soldiers were surprised when they were told that they were going to fight Tarleton, as they had been falling back the previous few days, and thought they were retreating. Supposedly, Morgan did not like the area that they fell back from, the area was swampy, and he allegedly said that over half of the partisans would disappear into the swamp before the battle. State militiamen were well known for their tendency to flee just before battle. Though, Morgan did not say this out of arrogance...he had been a militia commander himself. With his backwoods speech and common ways, the men of the militias considered him one of their own.

In preparation, he asked of volunteers of mounted militia to join his cavalry. He then made sure that the militia had enough ammunition for the upcoming battle. As the troops were bedding down for the night, Morgan met with his subordinates to lay plans for the battle, then he moved among the militiamen, boosting their morale. Thomas Young, of Jolly's Company of Cavalry recalled:

We were very anxious for battle, and many a hearty curse had been vented against General Morgan during that day's march for retreating, as we thought, to avoid a battle. Night came upon us, yet much remained to be done. It was upon this occasion that I was more perfectly convinced of General Morgan's qualifications to command militia than I had ever before been. He went among the volunteers, helped them fix their swords, joked with them about their sweethearts and told them to keep in good spirits, and the day would be ours. Long after I laid down, he was going about among the soldiers, encouraging them, and telling them that the "Old Wagoner" would crack his whip over Ben (Tarleton) in the morning, as sure as he lived. "Just hold up your heads boys," he would say, "three fires, and you are free! And then, when you return to your homes, how the old folks will bless you, and the girls kiss you, for your gallant conduct." I don't think that he slept a wink that night.

The Battle: An hour before dawn, Morgan's pickets warned that Tarleton was only five miles away. "Get up boys", Morgan yelled, "Benny is coming". Morgan ordered the wagons to the rear of the encampment, told the men to eat hearty, and ordered the horses of the mounted militia to be tied to the rear.

The position Morgan had chosen for the battle lay to the right and left of the Mill Gap road, just southwest of the camp. The ground was slightly undulating. Two knolls topped the ridge along which the Mill Gap road ran. Morgan's main line of resistance would be located on the knoll south west of the hollow, in which the camp was established. To its front for 300 yards there is a scarcely perceptible slope downward; beyond this the slope is greater, dropping off into a shallow ravine 700 yards from the main line of resistance. To the rear of the principal position, and west of the camp was the second knoll slightly higher than the first. This knoll continues across the Mill Gap road in a south and south west direction, but at a slightly less elevation. The ground offered no cover for either belligerent, except such as was provided by the trees. The flanks of both armies would be exposed, as the terrain was favorable in all directions for troop movements.

Morgan, in making his dispositions to receive Tarleton's onslaught, exhibited a keen understanding of the strength and weaknesses of the troops involved. He would make the best use of the firepower of his militia without compelling them to stand up against the foe in hand-to-hand combat.

Morgan's battle plan was to employ the Maryland and Delaware Continentals and Virginia militia as his shock troops. Near the brow of the first slope, he posted his best troops, Colonel Howard's battalion of light infantry (280 combat-ready veterans). Howard's center company was astride the Mill Gap road. Major Triplett's company of Virginia militia and Captain Beaty's company of South Carolina militia were deployed on Howard's right. On the Continental' left were positioned about 100 Augusta riflemen of Virginia led by Captains Tate and William Buchanan. Colonel Howard was placed in tactical command of the 400 men holding Morgan's main line of resistance.

One hundred and fifty yards down the face of the slope, skillfully positioned in the grass and among the trees, Morgan stationed 300 Georgia, and North and South Carolina militia. These troops, many of them expert riflemen, were formed in extended order and posted to guard the flanks. Colonels Brannon and Thomas with their South Carolina militia were on the extreme right, while Major McDowell and his North Carolinians were between the road and the South Carolinians. Colonel Hammond with part of Colonel McCall's regiment of South Carolina State Troops was posted east of the road. To Hammond's left was Captain Donnolly and his Georgians. Colonel Pickens would be in overall command of these units.

As soon as the militia had taken position in the open woods, Major McDowell, accompanied by about 60 picked marksmen from his command, and Major John Cunningham, with a like number of Georgia sharpshooters, advanced about 150 yards and took position as skirmishers, Cunningham's people on the left and McDowell's on the right. Their orders were to take aim at the "epaulet-men"...the front line officers of Tarleton's forces.

These marksmen under McDowell were supposedly men of German descent armed with rifles that they had crafted themselves. Rifling of musket barrels was known at that time. (author's note: These men obviously came from the area that Morgan had recently left, near the Cawtaba River in North Carolina. There was a settlement of Germans in future Lincoln County, that had come there from the ironworking areas of Maryland and Pennsylvania. Family history states that three of the author's ancestors were armed with "Stroup rifles", that the men had crafted themselves.)

Behind these three lines and concealed by the second knoll, Morgan held in reserve 80 dragoons under Colonel Washington. Colonel McCall with his and Major Jolly's companies (about 40 effectives), which had been outfitted as dragoons, were formed east of the road and 100 yards to the left of Washington's people. McCall would look to Washington for his orders. In rear of the cavalry, the horses of the militia were picketed in a grove of young pines. They were saddled and bridled. ready for instant use. Captains Inman and Price with their mounted companies were advanced down the Mill Gap road, with orders to keep a sharp lookout for the British vanguard.

Morgan's disposition of his troops was unorthodox. The most unreliable American units were in front, well in advance of the Continentals. But Morgan knew his militia, and he told his officers how he proposed to use this formation to beat Tarleton. His directions were simple. To the skirmishers of the first line he said, "Let the enemy get within killing distance 'or about 50 yards', then blaze away, especially "at the men with epaulets." After this the skirmishers could retire, "seeking shelter from the trees, as opportunity might offer, loading and firing until they reached Pickens' line, which they were to join." Morgan knew his skirmishers would take to their heels, and this was his way of showing them how to do it, but effectively and without panic. The deployment of the skirmishers, the left wing of Georgians and the right of Carolinians, was adopted by Morgan with the view of arousing a spirit of rivalry, which might add to the men's effectiveness. "Let me see," Morgan remarked "which are most entitled to the credit of brave men, the boys of Carolina or those of Georgia."

After being joined by the skirmishers, Pickens' militia would hold their fire until the redcoats approached to within 50 yards. Then, after delivering two well-directed volleys, they were to retire in good order, and take position on the left of the Continentals, firing by regiment as they withdrew. Here they would be reformed and held in reserve. He then made a fiery speech which was calculated to bolster the militia's self confidence. As he pounded his fist into his palm, he remarked that he expected to see them display their usual zeal and courage.

Morgan's words to the Continentals and militia constituting his main line of resistance were understandably brief. These troops did not need the "stimulus of spirit-stirring speeches to fit them for the performance" of their duty. He prepared them for the retreat of the militia, by repeating the orders he had given that portion of his command. They were told to fire low and deliberately, not to break for any reason, and if compelled to retreat, to rally on the knoll to their rear.

Orders were dispatched for Colonel Washington to assist in rallying the militia in case they broke, and to cover them should they be pursued. In addition, he was to protect the horses of the militia, and to hold himself ready to act as circumstances might dictate. The hillock occupied by the cavalry was well-chosen. The knoll to their front, and the gradual descent beyond it, screened them from the fire of the British, without obscuring from them a horseman's view of the battlefield for some distance in front of the main line of resistance. It provided, besides, a secure rallying point for the militia.

Every preparation having been made, Morgan established his command post in rear of the Continentals, and confidently awaited the approach of the redcoats.

After halting at Burr's Mill late on the afternoon of January 16, 1781, Colonel Tarleton dispatched patrols and spies to observe the movements of Morgan and his people. The 17th Light Dragoons were directed to follow the foe till dark, while spies were to question people known for their Whig sympathies as to what they might know about Morgan's intentions.

It was after dark before Tarleton received his first reports. A patrol had watched the Americans as they "struck into byways," leading toward Thicketty Creek. Not long thereafter, a party of Loyalists brought in an American Colonel of Militia who had strayed from his unit. Tarleton questioned the Colonel. The information gained, along with other reports collected by his men, satisfied Tarleton that his proper course of action would be to hang "upon General Morgan's rear, to impede the junction of reinforcements, said to be approaching, and likewise to prevent his passing Broad river without the knowledge of the light troops. . . ."

About midnight, Tarleton was awakened to receive a report that a "corps of mountaineers" were on the march from Green River to join Morgan. This added to the urgency of the situation the Americans would have to be watched closely, if he were to capitalize on any mistakes Morgan might make.

Tarleton was so eager to fulfill his boast to destroy Morgan's corps or push it back against Kings Mountain, where Lord Cornwallis could finish it off, that he allowed his men little rest on the night of the 16th. At 3 a.m. on January 17, 1781, Tarleton called in his pickets, and the British took up the march. The redcoats followed the route taken by the Americans the preceding evening, as they had pulled back to the Cowpens. Since he would travel light and fast, Tarleton left his baggage and wagons behind. The troops, detailed from each unit of the corps to guard the train, were to follow the main column at daybreak.

As the column moved out in the darkness, three companies of light infantry, supported by the Legion infantry, took the advance. The 7th Fusiliers, the Royal Artillerists with their two 3-pounders, and the 1st Battalion 71st (Fraser's Highlanders) constituted the main column; the cavalry and mounted infantry brought up the rear. Progress was slowed by the configuration of the terrain. Numerous creeks and ravines had to be crossed in the darkness. In addition, the men guarding the flanks had to move cautiously, because this was ambush country. Before dawn, Thicketty Creek was crossed. Tarleton now called a brief halt to let an advance guard of cavalry take the lead. An American patrol led by Captain Inman was encountered, pursued, and two of its members captured. The prisoners, when questioned, told the British that Morgan was camped five miles away. Where upon, Tarleton ordered Captain Ogilvie of the Legion to the front with two companies of dragoons. The chase was not continued much farther before Captain Ogilvie sent word that the Rebels had halted and were forming for battle.

Tarleton accordingly was delighted with the situation. He believed he had Morgan just where he wanted him, with a rain-swollen river to his rear. In case of a repulse, Tarleton could look to Cornwallis and Leslie for assistance. He would attack immediately. Orders were given for the Legion dragoons to drive in the militia patrols covering Morgan's front, so the British could reconnoiter Morgan's position. Pressing forward on the Mill Gap Road, the Legionaries forced Captains Inman's and Price's scouts to pull back. Tarleton was now able to ascertain that the Americans had posted their troops in two lines, the front line, he estimated, to consist of about 1,000 militia and the second of 500 Continentals. After having studied the American position, Tarleton had his officers see that their men shucked their gear, except their arms and ammunition. The Light Infantry Battalion was filed to the left till its front equalled that of Pickens' militia posted east of the road. The green-uniformed infantry of the British Legion filed into position on the left of the Light Infantry Battalion. A 3-pounder, called a "grasshopper", was positioned between these two units.

Covered by the fire of the 3-pounder, these commands closed to within 300 yards of Morgan's skirmish line. Next, the 7th Fusiliers were advanced and formed on the left of the Legion infantry, while the other 3-pounder was emplaced along the right of the 7th Fusiliers. A captain, each with 50 dragoons, was posted to the right and left of the infantry battle line. Besides guarding Tarleton's flanks, the dragoons would threaten those of the Americans. The 1st Battalion, 71st Infantry (Fraser's Highlanders) was ordered to form 150 yards to the rear and echeloned to the left of the 7th Fusiliers. The kilted Highlanders, along with 200 green-uniformed horsemen of the British Legion, were to constitute Tarleton's reserve.

Tarleton, his fighting blood aroused, was so eager to close with the foe that he ordered the attacks before his officers could complete their dispositions. Major Newmarsh of the 7th Fusiliers was still posting his officers. The 1st Battalion, 71st Infantry and the cavalry had not disentangled themselves from "the brushwood with which... [Thicketty] Creek abounds" at the time they were directed to form and await orders.

Astride his horse, behind Howard's Continentals, Morgan caught sight of green-jacketed dragoons riding among the trees at the far end of the slope, 400 yards in front of his skirmishers. They were followed by infantrymen in red and white. It was about 7 a.m., and the day was clear and cold. As the British gathered at the edge of the open woods, Tarleton sent a detachment of dragoons to scatter Morgan's skirmishers. Cunningham's Georgians and McDowell's North Carolinians obeyed their orders. As they retired on Pickens' line, they kept up a desultory but effective fire which unhorsed 15 of the British. One section of the skirmishers merged with Pickens' militia, while the remainder circled and reformed in rear of Howard's Continentals.

After the dragoons had been recalled, it was intended that McDowell's and Cunningham's people should resume their positions in front of Picken's battle line. Before they could do so, Tarleton's artillery roared into action, under cover of which his right wing took up the advance.

As drums rolled and fifes shrilled, the British "raised a prodigious yell and came running as if they intended to eat us up," Morgan recalled. "It was the most beautiful line I ever saw, commented Thomas Young of Jolly's cavalry:

When they shouted, I heard Morgan say, "They gave us the British halloo, boys. Give them the Indian halloo, by God!" and he galloped along the lines, cheering his men and telling them not to fire until he could see the whites of their eyes. Every officer was crying "Don't fire!" for it was a hard matter to keep us from it.

Some of the recruits of the 7th Fusiliers lost their nerve and halted and opened fire. Their officers moved in, and after a few of the men had been knocked sprawling with the flat of a saber, they came to their senses. They then moved out "in as good a line as troops could move at open files."

Covered by the fire of their artillery, the British drove to within 150 yards of Pickens' battle line, when the militia, at Pickens' command, let loose a deadly volley. A number of red coats and green-coated legionaries were cut down, including fifteen of the "epaulet men." The militia reloaded and fired again, staggering Tarleton's battle line. Being veterans, the British did not panic easily. They quickly dressed their ranks and pressed on, their bayonets at the ready. The militia, in accordance with Morgan's orders, now filed off toward the left end of Howard's line. Tarleton, seeing the militia take to their heels, sensed that victory was at hand. He ordered Captain Ogilvie, who commanded the 50 dragoons on the right, to charge the retreating Americans. By the time the hard-riding men of the 17th Light Dragoons thundered forward, the troops constituting Pickens' right had not passed from in front of Howard's line. Assailed by the dragoons they panicked, and instead of halting at Howard's line, they sought safety by fleeing toward the crest where Washington's cavalry was posted.

Some of Pickens' militia ran fast enough to get to their horses and vanish. One of the militia officers was Lieutenant Hughes:

a man of great personal strength and of remarkable fleetness on foot. As [Hughes'] men, with others, broke. . . and fled before Tarleton's cavalry. . .with his drawn sword he would out-run his men and passing them, face about, and command them to stand, striking right and left to enforce obedience to orders; often repeating with a loud voice: "You damned cowards, halt and fight! If you don't stop and fight, you'll all be killed!" But most of them were for a while too demoralized to realize the situation or obey the commands of their officers. As they would scamper off, Hughes would renewedly pursue, and once more gaining their front, would repeat his tactics to bring them to their duty. At length the company was induced to make a stand, on the brow of a slope, some distance from the battle line, behind a clump of young pines that partially concealed and protected them from Tarleton's cavalry.

Morgan saw the British mounted soldiers thunder forward, and he determined to commit his reserve Colonel Washington's cavalry. As Ogilvie's dragoons rode among the Americans, Washington's horsemen struck them with such force that the British fled. Though Washington pursued them, Collins reported they were as hard to catch as a "drove of wild Choctaw steers."

Meanwhile, Morgan had galloped to the end of Howard's line to rally the militia. While brandishing his sword and shouting encouragement to the last units to leave the field, he saw that many of the irregulars were heading for the area where their horses were tethered. Riding after them, he bellowed, "Form, form, my brave fellows...Old Morgan was never beaten." Assisted by Pickens, Morgan halted most of the militia, and the two officers began to re-form them behind Howard's main line of resistance.

The British, believing that victory was in their grasp, let go a wild shout and advanced up the gentle slope against Howard's position. As soon as the militia had passed across their front to the left, Howard's men opened fire. A desperate fight ensued. For the better part of the next fifteen minutes, neither side gained an inch. Tarleton determined to commit his reserve. The 1st Battalion, 71st (Fraser's Highlanders) was to assail Howard's Continentals, while the cavalry threatened Morgan's right. The reserve at this time was about a mile away. Major Archibald McArthur of the Highlanders was told to pass the 7th Fusiliers before halting his men and having them blaze away. He was cautioned not to entangle his right with the left of the 7th. The cavalry of the British Legion, reinforced by the 50 dragoons posted to the left of the artillery, was to incline to the left, and to form a line, which would envelop the Americans' right.

The Highlanders came forward on the double with their bagpipes skirling. The arrival of the Highlanders enabled the British to extend their left so that it overlapped Howard's right. Morgan at the same time saw that the British horse was getting ready to charge his endangered flank. Responding to this emergency with his characteristic alacrity, Morgan sent Colonel Brannon with instructions for Colonel Washington to regroup his troopers and to assail the foe before they could carry out their mission.

After having taken this action, Morgan rode to the point of danger, where he found Colonel Howard badly shaken by the turn of events. Seeing that his right had been outflanked by the Highlanders, Howard decided that the best way to cope with this danger was by changing the front of his right flank company, Wallace's Virginians. Howard ordered Wallace's company to face about in line, then wheel to its left to form a right angle with the rest of the battle line, and thus be better able to oppose the advance of the Highlanders. This order was misunderstood, however. In executing it, the Virginia militia, after coming to the right about, marched forward and toward the rear, instead of wheeling to the right. Other officers along the line seeing this, and supposing that orders had been given for a retreat, faced their men about and moved rearward.

Morgan was understandably distressed by this development. Calling to Howard, he inquired, "Why are your men retreating?"

Howard replied, "I am trying to save my right flank."

"Are you beaten?"

"Do men who march like that look as though they are beaten?" Howard asked.

Morgan saw that the men were marching to the rear, as if they were on parade. His confidence restored, Morgan told Howard to remain with his men until they reached "the rising ground near Washington's horse." He then rode ahead to select the "proper place for us to halt and face about."

This was the climax of the battle and the crucial decision. If Morgan had panicked or not gone along quickly with Howard, the Cowpens would have had a different ending. As it was, the misunderstood order called for a lightning-like decision, an almost intuitive reaction. Daniel Morgan met the crisis superbly.

Tarleton's soldiers had seen the Continentals and Virginia militia start to retreat and assumed that victory was at hand. Shouting louder than ever in their eagerness to be in on the kill, the British dashed up the slope, breaking ranks. Colonel Washington, returning from his pursuit of Ogilvie and his dragoons, was to be right of the onrushing British, and he saw the confusion which had swept their ranks. "They are coming on like a mob; give them a fire and I will charge them," he messaged to Morgan.

Howard's people had now reached the swale separating the knolls, and they had started up the hillock on which the cavalry had been posted at the beginning of the fight. Turning quickly on the retiring Continentals and Virginians, Morgan roared, "Face about, boys! give them one good fire, and the victory is ours!" He then galloped along the entire line.

At this moment, the foe, confident of victory, was sweeping forward in an impetuous and disorderly fashion. As if on parade, the Continentals and Virginians faced about, and sent a volley crashing into the redcoats' ranks at a range of between 30 and 40 yards. Stunned by this unexpected and terrible fire, the British recoiled. Before they could recover from the shock, Colonel Howard called for a charge, and the grim Americans were upon them bayonets flashing. Tarleton, in the meantime, had called for his cavalry to charge. Just as the British horse was sweeping toward the foe, a volley crashed into their flank from an unexpected direction, and sent them reeling back in the wildest confusion. The dragoons of the Legion, ill disciplined at best, and spoiled by the easy successes Tarleton's dash had gained for them, were not the men to face a surprise attack.

Moments before, the British might have escaped by flight. But by this time Colonels Washington and Pickens were ready to strike. Washington's cavalry swept down upon Tarleton's right, while Morgan and Pickens hurled the re-formed militia at his left.

The result was a double envelopment, perfectly timed. The British, Tarleton admitted, were thrown into a panic. Tarleton sent orders for his cavalry to rally and form about 400 yards to the right of the foe, while he endeavored to re-form the infantry to protect the two 3-pounders. The cavalry of the Legion, however, refused to listen to the pleas of their officers, while Tarleton's effort to collect the infantry was ineffectual. Neither promises nor threats could gain their attention. Many of the men of the 7th Fusiliers threw down their arms, and fell to the ground. Morgan watched as the Legion infantry and Light Infantry dropped their arms and accouterments and took to their "heels for security helter-skelter." But they were quickly overtaken by the volunteer cavalry, and with the exception of a few, surrendered, about 200 yards from the point of disaster. As the Americans swept forward, the cry "Tarleton's Quarter" was raised. But a useless slaughter was avoided, as Morgan, Howard, and the other officers shouted for their men to spare their prisoners.

As the Continentals forged ahead, Colonel Howard spotted the artillery a short distance to his front and called Captain Nathanial Ewing to take it. Captain Thomas Anderson of Delaware, hearing the order, also rushed for the same piece. Anderson won the race by placing "the end of his spontoon forward into the ground, made a long leap which brought him upon the gun and gave him the honor of the prize." The other 3-pounder was captured by a detachment of Continentals led by Captain Robert H. Kirkwood. Tarleton had watched in frustration as the Americans closed in on the handful of blue-coated Royal Artillerists. He sought to rally 250 dragoons of his Legion for a counterattack, for he felt that by a furious onset, he might yet win the day, as the Americans were badly disorganized by their sweeping success. He was unsuccessful, however. About 250 dragoons forsook their leader and rode off, bearing down any officer that opposed their flight.

On the Americans' right, the battalion of the 71st had been able to hold Pickens' militia at bay. Deserted by their cavalry and fiercely assailed in front and on the flank by the militia, the Highlanders slowly pulled back. Just when it seemed as if they might escape, Colonel Howard, his Continentals freed by the quick surrender of the 7th Fusiliers. threw his right wing against them.This movement threw their ranks into confusion. The militia rushed forward and engaged the Highlanders in hand-to-hand combat. Into the Scottish masses charged Colonel James Jackson at the head of his Georgians. He snatched at the regimental flag but missed. Howard promised quarter, and Major McArthur surrendered his sword to Colonel Pickens.

Fourteen officers and 40 men of the 17th Light Dragoon rallied on Tarleton. As he led a charge in a futile effort to save the Highlander, Tarleton was intercepted by Washington's cavalry. Tarleton's horse was shot from under him. Dr. Robert Jackson, Assistant Surgeon of the 71st, rode up and offered his horse to the Colonel. Tarleton refused, but Jackson insisted, exclaiming, "Your safety is of the highest importance to the army!" As Tarleton swung into the saddle, Jackson affixed a handkerchief to the end of his cane and walked toward the Americans. When challenged, he answered, "I am assistant surgeon of the Seventy-First. Many of the men are wounded and in your hands. I therefore come to offer my services to attend them."

Colonel Washington was satisfied that Tarleton would be with the dragoons, as they were the only organized British force still on the field. Burning with desire to capture him, Washington ordered a pursuit. The Americans soon overtook the retreating foe, but in his eagerness to come to grips with the British, Washington had outdistanced most of his column. As Washington pounded into view, Tarleton and two of his officers wheeled their horses about. Undaunted, Washington struck at the first that approached him, the officer on Tarleton's right. Washington's sword crashed against the Britisher's and snapped off near the hilt. The English officer stood up in his stirrups to deal Washington a mortal blow. Just at this moment, a lad named Collins rode up and shot the Britisher in the shoulder. The uplifted arm fell. Tarleton's other companion moved to close with Washington, but he was routed by Sergeant-Major Perry. Tarleton pushed forward and made a thrust at Washington, which he parried with what remained of his sword. Tarleton, seeing that additional Americans were at hand, wheeled his horse around and rejoined his retreating dragoons. As he galloped off, he took a parting shot at Washington, whose horse received the ball.

The detachment from each corps under Lieutenant Fraser of the 71st that was guarding the train received early news of the defeat from several Loyalists. He ordered the excess baggage destroyed, had the men climb into the wagons, and led them to Cornwallis' encampment. While on his forced march neither he nor any of his men saw any Americans or Colonel Tarleton's column. Fraser's command was the only infantry to escape the debacle.

A body of Tories, who were attached to Tarleton's command and had been employed as guides and spies, moved in to plunder the abandoned wagons. Tarleton and his people came upon the Tories, and in their haste failed to ascertain their identity. Calling for a charge, Tarleton scattered the Tories, killing and wounding a number, before pushing on toward Broad River.

The Results: The battle had commenced about 7 a.m. and had continued for nearly an hour. Morgan listed his losses as: 1-2 killed and 61 wounded. This loss was chiefly sustained by the Continentals and Virginians, and particularly by the flank companies posted on the right of Howard's line. Tarleton lost 110 killed including one major, 13 captains, 14 lieutenants, and nine ensigns; 830 prisoners were counted, including 200 wounded. Tarleton had lost nine-tenths of his force; a fourth of Cornwallis' field army, a blow from which the latter never recovered.

The Cowpens along with King's Mountain, were victories that the Continentals needed to boost their morale, and demoralize the British army and loyalist sympathizers. They were the turning point in the Patriots' war for independence. The Battle at Yorktown would come 10 months later.


Edwin C. Bearss; "Battle of Cowpens: A Documented Narrative and Troop Movement Maps" National Park Service, Washington DC, 1967

Don Higganbotham; "Daniel Morgan: Revolutionary Rifleman"; UNC Press, 1979

Lawrence C. Babits; "A Devil of a Whipping: The Battle of Cowpens"; UNC Press, 1998