The Magazine of South Carolina

Return to the Cowpens

Scenes From the Annual Revolutionary War Encampment


Militiamen break bread

Colonial troops at drill

Mountain fighter clad in homespun

Musket fire

Reenactors take tea over a campfire

Colonial woman knitting

Priming a firearm


Article by Daniel E. Harmon/Photos by Kenny Fey

Shivering, homespun-clad sharpshooters and militiamen shuffled through wild grass in the cold predawn darkness and formed their lines of defense. The mood was grim. Soon, seasoned and disciplined Redcoat, Hessian and Highland infantry and cavalry would advance up the road through the frosty pastureland, and there would be hell for all to pay. Daniel Morgan, the American commander, had chosen "Hannah’s Cowpens" as the place to fight—not because he wanted to, but because he knew if his army continued to run from "Bloody Ban" Tarleton’s superior British force, many weary volunteers would abandon him and return to their frontier homes. Disintegration of his command would be disastrous to the Americans’ struggle for independence in the lower colonies.

The Cowpens was a broad, sparsely wooded plain within sight of the Blue Ridge Mountains. It was here that several thousand American back-woodsmen had gathered the previous October before marching to glory at King’s Mountain. A landmark well known to the Patriots, it was the logical place for Morgan to marshal his fighters. He had approximately 900 men with whom to confront Tarleton’s 1,100 pursuers.

In the hour before dawn, Morgan positioned the Americans in three lines across the field. In front were eagle-eyed skirmishers, ordered to pick off as many oncoming British as they could, then fall back into the second line. The second unit consisted of Andrew Pickens’ militia, who hopefully would deliver two devastating volleys, then likewise withdraw. Morgan deployed his strongest contingent—500 veterans from Virginia, Delaware and Maryland—across the rear. Here was where the fiercest fighting would take place. Hopefully, the British by then would be weakened and off balance.

As the sun began to rise, the action proceeded basically as Morgan had planned. But like most battles, it was marred by blunders on both sides. And the outcome was decided by a sudden, unpredictable turn of events.

In the thick of the fight, the main body of Patriots mistook an ordered maneuver as a signal to withdraw en masse. Seeing them turn from the fight, British dragoons charged at their heels, bayonets fixed. For a moment it appeared the Americans would be routed, if not caught and annihilated. But Morgan perceived an opportunity in this unforeseen crisis. Gauging the moment for maximum surprise, he ordered his retreating soldiers to halt, turn and fire. They obeyed. By then, the British were so close behind them that the Americans had no time to pause and aim from the shoulder; most of them fired from the hip.

That single action produced instant crimson carnage. The point-blank volley decimated Tarleton’s astonished foot soldiers, and Morgan’s men immediately fell among them with bayonets to finish the work. By the end of the melee, fully half of Tarleton’s command had been captured or killed and 200 more wounded. American losses were astoundingly low: 12 killed and 60 wounded.

That’s the way history was forged on January 17, 1781. The disheartened Lord Cornwallis, Tarleton and company soon withdrew their British occupation army northward into George Washington’s unwitting but climactic trap at Yorktown, VA. Daniel Morgan became a hero; his statue, two centuries later, commands the city square that bears his name in nearby Spartanburg. The Cowpens was restored to the grazing hoof stock from which the generals had borrowed it—but now with a name that would have special meaning forever in the American saga.


* BB&T

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