The Battle of Cowpens was the turning point of the Revolutionary War in the southern colonies. After losing several battles in the South, the Continental Army defeated the British in a decisive victory at Cowpens. The victory forced the British army to retreat and gave the Americans confidence that they could win the war.
When and where did it take place?
The Battle of Cowpens took place on January 17, 1781 in the hills just north of the town of Cowpens, South Carolina.
Daniel Morgan by Charles Willson Peale
Who were the commanders?
The Americans were led by Brigadier General Daniel Morgan. Morgan had already made a name for himself in other major Revolutionary War battles such as the Battle of Quebec and the Battle of Saratoga.
The British force was led by Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton. Tarleton was a young and brash officer known for his aggressive tactics and brutal treatment of enemy soldiers.
Before the Battle
The British Army under General Charles Cornwallis had claimed a number of recent victories in the Carolinas. The morale and confidence of both the American troops and the local colonists was very low. Few Americans felt they could win the war.
George Washington assigned General Nathaniel Greene command of the Continental Army in the Carolinas in hopes that he could stop Cornwallis. Greene decided to split up his forces. He put Daniel Morgan in charge of part of the army and ordered him to harass the rear lines of the British Army. He hoped to slow them down and keep them from getting supplies.
The British decided to attack Morgan's army while it was separated. They sent Colonel Tarleton to track Morgan down and destroy his army.
As the British Army approached, Daniel Morgan set up his defense. He positioned his men into three lines. The front line consisted of around 150 riflemen. Rifles were slow to load, but accurate. He told these men to shoot at the British officers and then retreat. The second line was made up of 300 militiamen with muskets. These men were to fire three times each into the approaching British and then retreat. The third line held the main force.
William Washington at Battle of Cowpens by S. H. Gimber
Morgan's plan worked brilliantly. The riflemen took out several of the British officers and were still able to retreat to the main force. The militiamen also took a toll on the British before they retreated. The British thought that they had the Americans on the run and continued to attack. By the time they reached the main force they were tired, wounded, and easily defeated.
The battle was a decisive victory for the Americans. They took minimal casualties while the British suffered 110 dead, over 200 wounded, and hundreds more taken prisoner.
More importantly than just winning the battle, the victory gave the Americans in the South a renewed sense of confidence that they could win the war.
Interesting Facts about the Battle of Cowpens
Daniel Morgan would later serve in the U.S. House of Representatives from Virginia.
Colonel Tarleton managed to escape with most of his cavalry. He would later fight at the Battle of Guilford Courthouse and the Siege of Yorktown.
The battle lasted less than an hour, but had a huge impact on the war.
The Americans would win the Revolutionary War ten months later when the British Army surrendered at Yorktown.