When 17 January 1781
Strength British – 1,150 Americans – 1,900
After receiving false information that a small force of Continentals, under the command of Brigadier General Daniel Morgan, intended to attack the Loyalist stronghold of Ninety-Six, Colonel Banstre Tarleton was sent to confront the Americans. When Tarleton arrived in Ninety-Six, he found that Morgan was not there, but his scouts reported that the Americans were at Grindal Shoals near the Pacolet River. Tarleton was determined to confront Morgan’s force having won virtually every engagement he had fought in the South.
As Tarleton grew close to his force, General Morgan retreated to Burr’s Mill on Thicketty Creek, then crossed the Pacolet River, and finally, decided to make a stand in a pasture where cows regularly grazed. The field was about 500 yards long, dotted with trees, and lacked undergrowth. Morgan sent word out for the Patriot militia, many of whom were returning home from King’s Mountain, to join him.
Morgan spent the night before the battle talking to as many of his soldiers as he could, delivering powerful speeches and rallying his men for the impending fight. Meanwhile, Tarleton woke his exhausted troops at 2 a.m. to continue pursuing Morgan. The British had been on the march for almost a full week and were physically and mentally drained.
Morgan organized his soldiers in three lines: the frontline consisted of sharpshooters, the second were militiamen, and the third were Continental regulars. He left his sides open to flanking, expecting Tarleton to order a frontal assault. Just after dawn, Tarleton took the bait and attacked Morgan head on. His cavalry charged at the center of Morgan’s line but within minutes they retreated after they were targeted by American sharpshooters who killed fifteen redcoats. Without assessing the battlefield, Tarleton then ordered his wearied infantry to charge the Patriot frontline. At the same time, Morgan ordered his sharpshooters to retreat and join his second line of militiamen. Tarleton thought victory was within his grasp as his redcoats broke into an unorganized run, but Morgan ordered his second line to fire a volley at the approaching British. This stopped the British run and at the same time American cavalry from one-side and militia from the other attacked the redcoats. This “double-envelope” caused many British troops to drop their weapons and surrender where they stood.
Cowpens was a surprising victory for the Americans, and it turned the tide of the war in the South. It gave Patriots in the Southern Colonies renewed confidence to continue fighting and resist British occupation.
Cornwallis gave up efforts to subdue the Patriot resistance in South Carolina and pursued the Continental army led by Nathaniel Greene into North Carolina which would have long-term ramifications for the British in North America.
British – 110 killed / 229 wounded / 829 captured
Americans – 25 killed / 124 wounded
The Battle of Cowpens by Don Troiani.