“I was desirous to have a stroke at Tarleton ... & I have given him a devil of a whipping.” ~ Brig. Gen. Daniel Morgan, January 1781.
It doesn’t have one of history’s flowing, almost poetic names about it, like Saratoga, Lexington, Concord, Yorktown, Trenton, Fort Ticonderoga or King’s Mountain.
In fact, when you hear the name of the winter Revolutionary War battle in northern South Carolina, near its border with North Carolina, you almost want to stop and say, “What!”
Yet, apart from George Washington’s brilliant backs-against-the-wall victory over the British mercenary Hessians at Trenton, N.J., the Battle of Cowpens was perhaps the most significant victory by the American Continental Army during this nation’s struggle for independence.
Deriving its name from its original role as an overnight stop for cattle drovers, Cowpens today has a population of a little more than 2,000 people.
But in the winter of 1781, a battle was fought there that helped turn the tide of late-war American Revolution fortunes.
The battle often is characterized as one of almost a small Civil War action, since a number of American loyalists were part of the British force, led by the infamous Col. Banastre Tarleton.
Tarleton had a deserved reputation for spilling the blood of American Rebels. At the Battle of Waxhaws the previous spring, Tarleton’s loyalist cavalry force butchered many surrendering Continentals from Virginia. Accounts said 113 Patriots were killed with sabres and 150 badly injured from a force of 400.
“Tarleton’s quarter” thereafter was a common expression for a refusal to take prisoners, thus making all subsequent actions in the South one of death and a lack of honor and compassion on either side.
On the American side in the maneuvering of forces prior to Cowpens, was one of the unquestioned leaders during the war — Brig. Gen. Daniel Morgan. A gifted battlefield tactician, he commanded a mixed force of cavalry, regular Continental infantry and a substantial force of militia.
Called “Old Waggoner” because he served as a wagon driver during the French and Indian War, Morgan backed his men against the Broad River along the pastureland around Cowpens. That strategy, cutting off any avenue of escape to his rear, was used by Morgan to force his men to stand their ground and fight the British.
When Tarleton attacked Morgan’s 300 Continental riflemen and 700 militiamen — as he had been dispatched to do by overall Carolinas British commander Gen. Charles Cornwallis — Morgan had instructed the militia to skirmish with British forces, and after firing but two rifle volleys, were to fall back from the front line.
The trap Morgan had set was to have the British mistake his ordered tactical retreat of the militiamen — notorious throughout the war for throwing down their arms and running from the sight of English bayonets and rifle fire — to look as if they were routed and running away.
But, as the British advanced, they ran into a withering volley of concentrated fire from the Continentals, coupled with a cavalry charge and the fire of the militiamen, who had turned to stand their ground.
Reportedly, the British professionals had utter scorn for American rifles, and that scorn turned into a massive defeat for Tarleton, as the devastating volleys from the Americans decimated the British force of nearly 1,100. After the battle, the British had suffered 800 casualties, killed, wounded or captured, to less than 100 by the Continentals.
The battle demonstrated that Patriot forces in the South could stand their ground as well as their Northern counterparts under George Washington. In fact, it was the first Patriot victory that showed a roughly equal force of American soldiers could outfight the British, without aid of surprise or geography.
Not only were the British casualties a staggering blow to Cornwallis in his overall Southern campaign, but it provided a critical boost to flagging American morale.
Morgan deftly outfought and even more so outmaneuvered Cornwallis at every turn after the battle, forcing the British into utterly exhausting marches and countermarches, to the point Cornwallis was forced to burn his own supplies to keep them from falling into Patriot hands.
Compared with grand battles with large armies decades later during the American Civil War, Cowpens was relatively small.
Yet it significantly turned the tide in the South, depriving the British of desperately needed troops and forcing Cornwallis to change his plans for future campaigning
In fact, Cornwallis abandoned the Carolinas, moving north to the Yorktown Peninsula of Virginia and his eventual defeat by Washington at the famous battle, effectively ending all hopes of the British returning the colonies to their fold following his surrender.
Cowpens thus goes down as one of the significant turning points in American military history — and the history of a fledgling nation.
Christy is news editor at the Enid News & Eagle. Go to his column blog at http://enid news.com/historicallyspeaking