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Battle of Cowpens


On January 17, 1781, American troops led by Brigadier General Daniel Morgan achieved an important victory over British forces at the Battle of Cowpens in South Carolina. The Patriot’s success on the battlefield was a turning point in the Revolutionary War’s southern campaign, helping to reignite the flame of rebellion in the southern colonies.

Nine days after the Battle of Cowpens, General Morgan wrote to his friend William Snickers: “I have given [Tarleton] a devil of a whipping.” Morgan’s description of his victory over British Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton was accurate. In under an hour, American forces had achieved a total victory. 110 British soldiers were killed, over 40 of whom were officers, another 200 were wounded, and 500 men fighting for the Crown were taken prisoner. Morgan on the other hand fared much better, suffering less than 100 casualties.

(Left) Portrait of Daniel Morgan and Lieutenant-Colonel Banastre Tarleton by Sir Joshua Reynolds.

Prior to the battle, Tarleton had been pursuing Morgan’s forces under the orders of the leader of British southern strategy, Lord Charles Cornwallis. On January 16, 1781, General Morgan arrived at the Broad River and decided to make his stand at Cowpens, a pastureland in present-day Spartanburg County, South Carolina. Morgan cornered his force in the bend of the river and delivered rousing words to his men, preparing them for the battle to come.

On January 17, Tarleton’s force of some 1,150 attacked. Morgan countered him with around 1,065 American troops, implementing a unique strategy against his foe. Nicknamed Old Waggoner for his service as a wagon driver during the French and Indian War, Morgan ordered his militia to skirmish with the enemy, but to leave the front line after firing two rounds. Tarleton’s men mistook the repositioning of the Americans as a rout. The error proved fatal for the British as they ran into an unexpected volley of concentrated rifle fire combined with a cavalry charge. That was followed by the return of the militia, essentially sealing the American victory. Tarleton managed to escape, but some 75 percent of his troops were killed, wounded, or captured. The day belonged to General Morgan and all of the men under his command.


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