This Day in History–The Battle of Cowpens

On January 17, 1781, a former teamster turned landowner, entrepreneur and Brigadier General faced off with a motley crew of recent Irish immigrants, Scots-Irish backcountry settlers and scattering of gentry against a group of Continental Army deserters, Lowland Scots, and a jumped-up twenty-something Liverpudlian nabob across a meadow formerly known as “Hannah’s Cowpens.”

The former teamster described it thus to his commander, the former Quaker and ironmaster, Nathanael Greene:

The troops I have the honor to command have gained a complete victory over a detachment from the British army commanded by Lieut. Col. Tarleton. The action happened on the 17th at about sunrise, at a place called the Cowpens, near Pacolet river…

Dan Morgan had dispersed his forces carefully, as he himself described it to Greene:

The light infantry, commanded by Lieut. Col. Howard, and the Virginia militia, under Major Triplett, were formed on a rising ground. The third regiment of dragoons, consisting of eighty men under the command of Lieut. Col. Washington, were so posted in their rear as not to be injured by the enemy’s fire, and yet be able to charge the enemy, should an occasion offer. The volunteers from North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia, under the command of Col. Pickens, were posted to guard the flanks. Major McDowell, of the North Carolina volunteers, was posted on the right flank, in front of the line one hundred and fifty yards, and Major Cunningham, of the Georgia volunteers, on the left, at the game distance in front. Colonels Brenner and Thomas, of the South Carolinians, on the right of Major McDowell, and Col. Hays and McCall, of the same corps, on the left of Major Cunningham. Captains Tate and Buchanan with the Augusta riflemen were to support the right of the line.

When Banastre Tarleton arrived at the Cowpens, he arranged his exhausted men in a long line, as follows, the first to be deployed being driven to advance as the wings were still shaking themselves out into line:

The enemy drew up in one line four hundred yards in front of our advanced corps. The 1st battalion of the 71st regiment was opposed to our right; the 7th regiment to our left; the legion infantry to our centre, and two light companies, one hundred men each, on the flanks. In their front moved on two field pieces, and Lieut. Col. Tarleton with two hundred and eighty cavalry, was posted in the rear of his line.

The result was, more or less, as Brigadier General Daniel Morgan described to Nathanael Grene:

The disposition being thus made, small parties of riflemen were detached to skirmish with the enemy, on which their whole line advanced on with the greatest impetuosity, shouting as they advanced. Majors McDowell and Cunningham gave them a heavy fire and retreated to the regiments intended for their support. The whole of Col. Pickens’s command then kept up a fire by regiments, retreating agreeable to their orders. When the enemy advanced to our line, they received a well directed and incessant fire; but their numbers being superior to ours, they gained our flanks, which obliged us to change our position. We retreated in good order about fifty paces, formed, advanced on the enemy and gave them a brisk fire, which threw them into disorder. Lieut. Colonel Howard observing this, gave orders for the line to charge bayonets, which was done with such address that the enemy fled with the utmost precipitation. Lieut. Colonel Washington discovering that the cavalry were cutting down our riflemen on the left, charged them with such firmness as obliged them to retire in confusion. The enemy were entirely routed, and the pursuit continued for upwards of twenty miles.

 

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