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The Battle of the Cowpens

[This account was prepared by the Historical Section of the Army War College, and was published by order of the United States House of Represenatives in 1928.]

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The Battle of the Cowpens was the second serious disaster which occurred to the British Army, operating in the Southern States, during the 1780-81 campaign. Following the capitulation of Charleston on May 12, 1780, all of South Carolina was in a condition of subjugation within a few months, and in September British headquarters were moved to Charlotte Town, NC. Prior to this Lieutenant Colonel Ferguson had been detached, with a small force of Provincials, to organize the militia and operate on Cornwallis’s flank. On the 7th of October his entire command was lo at Kings Mountain. Following this disaster the British field army was withdrawn more than 60 miles to Wynnesborough, and there remained on the defensive while awaiting information relative to the rehabilitation of Gates’s army, now commanded by Greene; and in coordinating plans with the commander in chief, General Clinton, particularly with reference to the use of the troops under General Leslie, which were sent from New York to Virginia.

Lieutenant Colonel Tarleton, the only officer remaining after Ferguson’s death used by Cornwallis for the command of roving troops, was sent into the district north of Ninety Six to oppose General Morgan, and somewhat later Cornwallis resumed his march northward. Tarleton and Morgan met at the Cowpens, on the 17th of January, and in a battle noted for the unusual tactics adopted by the Americans, the British were defeated, with heavy losses, by a force inferior in numbers, a considerable portion of which was militia.

The relation of the Cowpens to the southern campaign in 1780-81 can be understood only through a knowledge of the purposes of the two army commanders, Greene and Cornwallis, during the period following Kings Mountain. After General Clinton’s departure from Charleston for New York on June 5, 1780, he conducted correspondence with Cornwallis relative to operations contemplated in the Chesapeake. In October General Leslie was given command of about 2,000 regulars, and sailed from New York to establish posts on the western tributaries of the Chesapeake, near its mouth. The letter of instructions from Clinton, given him before his departure, directed him to proceed to those waters and make a diversion in favor of Cornwallis, who, it was expected, would be, at the time of his arrival, in central and western North Carolina. The instructions suggested that he proceed up the James River and destroy enemy magazines at Petersburg, Richmond, and elsewhere, and finally establish a post on the Elizabeth River at Portsmouth, but that under any conditions he was to communicate as soon as possible with Cornwallis and act under his orders.

A copy of the instructions under which Leslie was to ad was received by Cornwallis about the 24th of October, at which time he was withdrawing from Charlotte Town, and the possibility of carrying out at this time any plan of joint action in Virginia was very remote. Lord Rawdon, who commanded, due to the illness of Cornwallis, immediately dispatched a letter to Leslie, advising him of the defeat of Ferguson, with its consequent augmentation of disaffection in both the Carolinas, and of the necessity of the British Army remaining within supporting distance of Ninety Six and Camden until a more favorable moment arrived for the resumption of the offensive. From the circumstances related in his letter, Lord Rawdon expressed the fear that the two armies were too far apart to render Leslie’s cooperation very effectual.

Although the British commander in chief had signified to Cornwallis that he was at liberty to give Leslie any direction for further cooperation which might appear to him expedient, Cornwallis was loath at this time to instruct the latter to bring his troops to South Carolina. He feared that should he withdraw this force from the Chesapeake, he might interfere with other purposes, unknown to him, to which Clinton had destined these troops. Rawdon therefore informed Leslie in October that “Lord Cornwallis thinks himself obliged to leave you at liberty to pursue whatsoever measures may appear to your judgment best for his majesty’s service and most consonant with the wishes of the commander in chief.” In conclusion Rawdon informed Leslie that should his knowledge of Clinton’s desires prompt him to make a trial upon North Carolina, a movement up Cape Pear River to Cross Creek was the most likely, at this time, to prove effectual. The general situation in the South was similarly described by Rawdon in a letter to Clinton of the 29th of October, wherein was stated the intention of not definitely ordering Leslie to the Cape Fear, as Clinton might have other plans with which such a move would interfere.

When Leslie learned of General Cornwallis’s desire that he quit the Chesapeake and move up the Cape Fear to Cross Creek, knowing that Clinton had no ulterior purpose in keeping him in Virginia, he immediately planned to make this change and sent dispatches to Clinton on the 7th of November informing him of the new arrangement. This met with the entire approval of the commander in chief. A second letter from Lord Rawdon, written on the 31st of October, wherein he reiterated in a more urgent manner the wishes of Cornwallis in the matter, was probably the deciding factor in prompting compliance by Leslie.

Cornwallis established his camp at Wynnesborough in November. It was evident from the correspondence conducted with Leslie that be could make no move until he knew where the latter would establish himself, as his plans for the winter would depend upon this knowledge. The success of the Americans at Kings Mountain had done much to overcome the depression in the South, following the defeat at Camden, and partisan forces were active on both flanks of the British Army. Colonel Marion operated between the Santee and Peedee, and from this locality threatened communications and supplies for the post at Camden, and the army at Wynnesborough. Sumter and his subordinate leaders were active west of the Broad, threatening Ninety Six. Furthermore, the British bad intelligence that General Morgan, with Washington’s cavalry and a body of Continental infantry, was advancing toward Lynches Creek, with Camden as their objective.

Early in November Tarleton had been sent east of the Wateree, and on his arrival at Camden, finding no reason to expect an attack upon that place by General Morgan, proceeded down the east bank of the river against Marion. The two forces met on the 10th, but Marion, realizing he was outnumbered, retreated. During the pursuit an express arrived from General Cornwallis, sent from Wynnesborough the preceding day, directing Tarleton to lose no time in returning, as Cornwallis was “under the greatest anxiety for Ninety Six.” The circumstance which occasioned this unexpected order was the predicament into which Major Wemyss, at the head of 40 of Tarleton’s dragoons, and the mounted Sixty-third, had gotten. He was operating along the Broad, and learning that Sumter with about 300 men was near by, undertook to surprise him by a night attack. The British entered Sumter’s camp by surprise, but instead of dismounting and securing the enemy arms, they remained mounted. Sumter’s men recovered from their surprise, got their arms, engaged the enemy, wounded Wemyss, and as the second in command did not know his plans, the British withdrew.

Cornwallis’s letter of recall to Tarleton written on the 9th was followed by another on the 10th, and a third on the 11th of November, so urgent was he that Tarleton appear in the territory of the Broad to retrieve the situation, and fearful that the other letters might not have gotten through. In the letter of the 11th he said:

I wish you would get three legions, and divide yourself into three park. We can do no good without you. I trust to your coming immediately unless you see something more materially pressing.

Tarleton hastened his return to army headquarters at Wynnesborough, and from thence continued southwestwardly across the Broad, to locate and engage Sumter, who was approaching Ninety Six. There followed the fight at Blackstocks on the 20th of November, wherein General Sumter was wounded. Following this action Tarleton withdrew to Brierlys Ferry on the Broad. It was with much gratification that Cornwallis learned of Sumter’s wound, for he wrote, “he certainly has been our greatest plague in this country.”

The recovery of Cornwallis from his illness during the withdrawal from Charlotte Town, and the successes attendant upon Tarleton’s efforts in the field, stimulated a desire to renew offensive warfare, and in November he decided to bring Leslie’s force to Charleston, as cooperation with him even at the distance of the Cape Fear River would be attended with many difficulties. Leslie. arrived in Charleston on the 13th of December, where orders awaited him to march up country with 1,530 men, to join Cornwallis as soon as possible.

The British plan of campaign for the winter of 1780-81 was for the main army to penetrate into North Carolina, leaving South Carolina in security against any probable attack. Offensive operations were to be started about the middle of January. The line of march was to be by the upper, or western, roads in preference to lowland routes, because fords were more frequent above the forks of the rivers, and the passage of the army could be less easily obstructed. Furthermore, General Greene being on the Peedee, and there being few fords in any of the great rivers of this country below their forks, especially in the rainy season, a penetration north, by way of Salisbury, would probably meet with much resistance by Greene’s army.

Cornwallis was the more induced to prefer the western route, as he hoped to destroy or drive out of South Carolina the corps commanded by General Morgan, which, it will be noted later, was sent into the region of the Broad and Pacolet, during the latter part of December, to threaten the valuable district of Ninety Six. There was hope, also, that by rapid marches the British main army would get between Greene and Virginia, and by that means force the Americans to fight without receiving any reinforcements from that State, or, failing in this, to oblige Greene to quit North Carolina with precipitation, and thereby encourage the friends of the Crown to make good their promises of a general rising to assist the British commander in reestablishing the Royal Government.

While Tarleton lay on the Broad, following the fight at Blackstocks, it became known to the British that General Morgan and Colonel Washington had been detached from Charlotte Town on December 20th and bad proceeded across the Broad in the direction of Ninety Six, which post was viewed by Cornwallis as the most senitive of all under his command. On the 30th of December Cornwallis advised Tarleton of this threat, and on the 1st of the following month sent his aide with orders that Tarleton should cross the Broad with his corps of Cavalry and Infantry of 550 men, the First Battalion of the Seventy-first, consisting of 200 men, and one 3-pounder, to counteract the designs of General Morgan, by protecting the country and compelling him to repass the Broad. The danger of Morgan’s presence west of the Broad was felt so acutely by Cornwallis that the day after he dispatched his aide with this message to Tarleton, he wrote an additional admonition:

If Morgan is still at Williams’s, or anywhere within your reach, I should wish you to push him to the utmost; I have not heard, except from McArthur, of his having cannon; nor would I believe it, unless he has it from very good authority; it is, however, possible, and Ninety-Six is of so much consequence, that no time is to be lost.

Let me know, if you think that the moving the whole, or any part of my corps, can be of use.

On the receipt of this letter Tarleton immediately directed his course to the westward, leaving his baggage behind, but he had not proceeded more than 20 miles from Brierleys Ferry before he was satisfied that Morgan was nowhere near Fort Williams and that for the time being Ninety Six was not threatened. He therefore decided to camp, bring up his baggage, and make certain recommendations to Cornwallis relative to the ensuing campaign, as was called for in the latter’s letter of the 2d. Tarleton wrote on the 4th asking that his baggage be forwarded under escort of the Seventeenth Light Dragoons, the Agarose and the Seventh Regiment. “When I advance, I must either destroy Morgan’s corps,” he said, “or push it before me over Broad River, toward Kings Mountain. The advance of the army should commence (when your lordship orders this corps to move) onward for Kings Mountain. Frequent communication by letter can pass the Broad River.” It is to be noted that at this time Tarleton and Cornwallis occupied interior positions, separated less than 24 hours in messenger service, while Morgan and Greene lay beyond them in opposite directions, and from 5 to 10 days apart by messenger.

On the 5th of January Cornwallis approved the suggestions relative to combined action as mentioned in Tarleton’s letter of the day before, and informed him that the Seventh Regiment was escorting his baggage to Brierleys Ferry, and that he, Cornwallis, proposed marching on January 7. Two hundred men of the Seventh Regiment, who were mostly recruits and designed for the garrison at Ninety Six, 50 dragoons of the Seventeenth Regiment, and a 3-pounder, brought the wagons from Brierleys Ferry to camp. Upon the arrival of the baggage and reinforcing troops, Tarleton crossed Indian and Duncan Creeks, and on his advance received accounts of the increase of Morgan’s corps, which induced him to halt his march and request permission of Cornwallis to retain the Seventh Regiment. This request having been granted, on the 12th he continued his course to the westward in order to discover the most practicable fords, and the Enoree and Tiger were passed on the 14th, above the Cherokee Road. That evening Tarleton obtained information that Morgan was on the Pacolet, guarding all the fords. In the meanwhile Cornwallis’s march northward had not been made in accordance with his plans, as the junction of Leslie’s command bad been much retarded by high waters, and it was not until the 14th that “Leslie is at last out of the swamps,” at which time Cornwallis was at Bull Run.

On the 15th Tarleton made at reconnaissance of Morgan’s dispositions covering the fords of the Pacolet, and that evening a feint was made to cross high up the river. The morning of the 16th this course was altered, as it was now known that Morgan had with drawn from the Pacolet, and a passage was secured within 6 miles of the hostile camp. The British continued their march for several miles, and halted in some log huts to rest and reconnoiter Morgan’s whereabouts. Tarleton intended to post his troops behind the huts in case Morgan showed an inclination to attack him in this position. In his narrative he says that the camp afforded a plentiful supply of halkooked provisions, left by the Americans that day. Patrols and spies were dispatched to observe the Americans during the night, and dragoons followed until dark, when they were ordered back to the main body. Early in the night the patrols reported that Morgan bad withdrawn to Thicketty Creek, and that several groups of partisans were en route to join him. Tarleton determined to push ahead promptly for the purpose of engaging Morgan before he could effect a passage of the Broad, and before his numbers were too greatly augmented. Accordingly at 3 o’clock on the morning of the 17th the pursuit was resumed. The wagons and baggage of his train were left in camp under the protection of a small detachment from each corps.

Part II


THE disaster which befell the American Army at Camden on the 16th of August resulted in Congress passing a resolution on the 5th of October ordering General Washington to direct a court of inquiry to be held on the conduct of Major General Gates, as commander of the southern army, and to appoint his successor. Washington designated Maj. Gen. Nathaniel Greene, second in command in the main army, and an officer whose ability, loyalty, and capacity for command were fully appreciated by the commander in chief. On the receipt of instructions from General Washington and Congress, Greene proceeded south, stopping in Philadelphia to confer with Congress, and in the several States on his way, which were immediately concerned in furnishing men and supplies for the Southern Department. He desired to acquire a knowledge of the military situation therein, and plan for the regular support and subsistence of his command in provisions, forage, and transportation. Before leaving Philadelphia he wrote to Washington that his first object would be to equip a flying army of 800 horses and 1,000 Infantry. Greene held the services of Cavalry and mounted Infantry in high regard, the contrary view being entertained by the officer whom he was to relieve. lieut. Col. Henry Lee was one of the officers whom he desired to conduct partisan warfare, which he knew would constitute an important factor in his campaigns.

General Greene reached Charlotte Town, where Gates’s headquarters were now established, on the 2d of December, and on the following day the latter issued his final order to the troops, turning the command over to General Greene. While traversing Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina, wise and energetic measures had been taken by Greene, in consultation with the State authorities, to insure that cooperation and assistance would be forthcoming. A survey of his troops at once confirmed his previous knowledge of their needs for food, clothing, transportation, and shelter, as learned from Gates’s reports on these matters, and his attention to the correction of these deficiencies was incessant and laborious. His ability as a quartermaster was in no wise inferior to his worth as a commander in the field, and the detailed manner in which he directed the betterment of conditions is a high tribute to his general efficiency. The logistics of supply were carefully covered in his many instructions for the surveys of all possible water routes, the construction of bateaux, the listing of animals and wagons for transportation, and for the operation of mills, ironworks, and other utilities.

Pending improvement in his numbers, and augmentation in the necessary supplies, the army was to remain inactive. The country around Charlotte Town had been depleted so thoroughly of food and forage, that on the 8th of December Greene Wrote to Colonel Koscitisko to examine the country along the Peedee for a distance of 20 or 30 miles south of Little River, for a good position for the army.

During this enforced period of combat inaction and rehabilitation, intelligence of the enemy was most essential, particularly in view of the many rumors that Cornwallis was to be reinforced by way of the Cape Fear, or through Charleston. For this work troops that were well mounted and extremely mobile were necessary, due to the great distance covered, and Marion, who operated in the eastern part of South Carolina, was selected for this duty on the 4th of December a letter of instructions was sent to this officer by Greene directing him to continue partisan warfare, thereby harassing the enemy and preserving the tide of sentiment among the people as much as possible in favor of the patriotic cause. Upon Marion he would depend for early information of reinforcements arriving in Charleston, or departing therefrom to join Cornwallis. To secure this information, and other that might be necessary, Marion was to employ spies and organize an intelligence service.

The unhappy condition of the southern array is pictured in a letter written to Washington on the 7th of December, wherein Greene says:

Nothing can be more wretched and distressing than the condition of the troops, starving, with cold and hunger, without tents and camp equipage. Those of the Virginia line are literally naked, and a great part totally unit for any of duty, and must remain so until something can he had from the northward.

The magnitude of the work confronting Greene in his responsibility for the retention of the Southern States in the Confederation, and the earnestness with which he engaged in his labors, will be understood by reading the seven lengthy letters written by him on the 6th and 7th of December to Baron von Steulsen, who was in Virginia under his command, General Washington, General Knox, the President of Congress, the Board of War, Governor Nash, and Governor Jefferson.

After two weeks of arduous attention to a multitude of details, report having been received in the meanwhile from Kosciusko of a favorable site for the array on the Peedee, the troops were put under marching orders on the 16th, but due to heavy rains the march was postponed until the 20th. The route followed was by way of Wadesborough to Haleys Ferry, thence to the position selected on the east bank of the Peedee, opposite to Cheraw Hill, which was reached on the 26th’. General Greene called his new location a “camp of repose,” adding in this connection, in a letter to Washington written on the 28th of December, “no army ever wanted one more, the troops having totally lost their discipline.”

General Greene was fortunate in his selection of officers to surround him, and part of his success in the South must be attributed to these capable leaders and administrators. There were Von Steuben, Lee and his legion, which joined on the Peedee early in January, Williams, Morgan, William Washington, Howard, Carrington, Davie, and the partisan leaders, Sumter, Marion, Pickens, and others, as highly reputed as leaders in their several lines of activities, imbued with a spirit of loyalty for their commander, and possessed of an unquestionable determination to attain the independence of their country.

Before departing from Charlotte Town, General Greene arranged to send General Morgan with an independent command to operate along the tributaries of the Broad and Pacolet, threatening the British post at Ninety Six and the left of Cornwallis’s army. During the great depression which existed in the South after the defeat of Gates at Camden, and while the British were triumphantly advancing to Charlotte Town, Morgan had returned to active duty in the Army and joined Gates at Hillsborough in September. Congress appointed him a brigadier general on the 13th of October.

The duty to be performed by Morgan’s command was so far removed from Greene’s headquarters, with the British Army between, that detailed Instructions were prepared for his guidance:

CAMP CHARLOTTE, December 16, 1780

You are appointed to the command of a corps of light infantry of 320 men detached from the Maryland line, a detachment of Virginia militia of 200 men, and Colonel Washington’s regiment of light horse amounting to from sixty to a hundred men. With these troops you will proceed to the west side of the Catawba River, where you will he joined by a body of volunteer militia under command of General Davidson of this State, and by the militia lately under command of General Sumter. This force and such others as may join you from Georgia, you will employ against the enemy on the west side of the Catawba, tither offensively or defensively, as your own prudence and discretion may direct-acting with Caution and avoiding surprise by every possible precaution. For the present, I give you the entire command in that quarter, and do hereby require all officers and soldiers engaged in the American cause to he subject to your orders and commands.

The object of this detachment is to give protection to that part of the country and spirit up the people–to annoy the enemy in that quarter–to collect the provision and forage out of their way- -which you will have formed into a number of small magazines in the rear of the position you may think proper to take. You will prevent plundering as much as possible and be as careful of your provisions and forage as may be, giving receipts for whatever you take to all such, as are friends to the independence of America.

Should the enemy move in force toward the Pee Dee, where the army will take a position, you will move in such a direction as to enable you to join me if necessary, or fall upon the flank, or in to the rear of the enemy, as occasion may require. You will spare no pains to get good intelligence of the enemy’s situation and keep me constantly advised of both your and their movements. You will appoint, for the time being a commissary, quartermaster, and forage master, who will follow your instructions in their respective lines. Confiding in your abilities and activity, I entrust you with this command, being persuaded you will do everything in your power to distress the enemy and afford protection to the country.

Given under my hand at Charlotte this 16th December, 1780.

To Brig. Gen. Morgan. Nath. Greene.

Morgan’s command of approximately 600 men left Charlotte Town on the 21st of December, reaching the Catawba that evening, and the following morning crossed the river at Biggers Ferry. From thence the march led to Cane Creek, and the following day, the 24th, the Broad was crossed, and on the 25th camp was made on the north bank of the Pacolet, at Grindalls Ford. Here Morgan was joined, a few days later, by a party of mounted militia under Colonel Pickens and Major McCall.

Early in December General Greene had given orders to General Davidson, of North Carolina, to join Morgan with militia gathered from that State, when the latter had crossed the river; but the British authorities incited the Cherokee Indians to ravage the western settlements, and the men of Burke, Rutherford, Washington, and Sullivan Counties were engaged in safeguarding their homes. Davidson did arrive in Morgan’s camp on the Pacolet toward the end of December with 120 men, but returned at once to North Carolina for the drafts that had been ordered to assemble in the district of Salisbury.

On the 27th of December Morgan received intelligence that a body of Georgia Tories, about 250 in number, had advanced as far as Fair Forest, and were committing depredations in that region. For the purpose of routing them he sent Washington’s dragoons, and 200 mounted militia under Major McCall, on the 29th. The hostile force was about 20 miles from Grindalis Ford, in the direction of Ninety Six. The enemy withdrew on the approach of Washington’s command, but after a hard march of 40 miles they were encountered the next day at Hammonds Storehouse, and dispersed with great loss. Although at considerable distance from supporting troops, and within range of Ninety Six and Wynnesborough, Washington proceeded to march against a British post called Fort Williams, on the road from Wynnesborough to Ninety Six, and about 15 miles northeast of the latter place. General Cunningham, who was in charge of the Tory militia in this region, evacuated the fort, and Washington perceived the wisdom of retracing his steps to the Pacolet. In the meanwhile Morgan detached 200 men to cover the withdrawal of Washington’s command, to guard against any misfortune that might occur to it.

At the time of reporting the success at Hammonds Storehouse, Morgan wrote to Greene on the 31st that the militia were coming in fast, and suggested that when he had collected his force he desired to march into Georgia, if the main army could, at the time, make a diversion against Cornwallis. To expedite this movement, should it meet with the approval of General Greene, he had sent for 100 swords, which he intended putting into the hands of expert riflemen, to be mounted and incorporated with Washington’s corps. He said, “It is incompatible with the nature of light troops to be encumbered with baggage,” and called for 100 packsaddles to replace wagon transportation, where necessary or desirable.

Morgan remained on the Pacolet to await a reply to his letter of the 31st of December covering the foregoing suggestion, but developments were now so rapid that it became impossible to give further serious thought to a march on Georgia. Greene knew’ that Leslie was advancing on Camden, at which place a strong post had been established under lord Bawdon, and in replying on the 8th of January to Morgan’s letter which reached him the 7th, he did not think an expedition into Georgia was “warrantable in the critical situation our Army is in,” “Should you go into Georgia, and the enemy push this way, your whole force will be useless.” Greene intimated to Morgan that by remaining where he was he was favorably situated to interrupt communications with Ninety Six and Augusta, and to harass the enemy rear should Cornwallis attempt to push forward. He was cautioned to attempt no major enterprise, unless by surprise, “for you will only beat your heads against the wall without success.” As a further warning, Greene added: “I must repeat my caution to you to guard against a surprise.”

Before receiving from General Greene a reply to his letter of December 31, Morgan wrote the former again on January 4, as to the difficulties of obtaining forage and provisions in the vicinity of his camp, and declared the necessity either to move into Georgia or retreat. He had spies watching the enemy and did not consider himself in danger of being surprised. Greene replied to this communication on the 13th with the advice that Morgan hold his present ground, as a retreat would discourage the militia, and informed him that “Colonel Tarleton is said to be on his way to pay you a visit.” This letter did not reach its destination before the action at the Cowpens.

On the 14th of January Morgan learned that Tarleton had crossed the Tiger at Musgroves Mill, and he prepared to change his position in the direction of the Broad. leaving detachments to observe the fords over the Pacolet, the army was put in motion on the 15th, and that evening camped at Burrs Mills on Thicketty Creek. It was on this same day that Tarleton reached the Pacolet and reconnoitered the crossings. His strength was estimated by Morgan to be from 1,100 to 1,200 men.

Continuing his retirement on the 16th, the Cowpens were reached, where small patties joined during the night, and the spirit of the camp was strong for fight. Morgan doubtless viewed this augmentation of strength and the high spirits of the men as favorable omen, and determined to offer battle the following day. The proposed plan of deployment was explained to the several leaders, particular attention being given to the part the militia, whom Pickens was to command, would take in the battle. For the purpose of strengthening Washington’s Cavalry, 45 militia were selected for their ability as horsemen and rifle shots, armed with sabers, provided with suitable mounts, and attached to the dragoons.



THE place where General Morgan established his camp the night of the 16th was near the intersection of the Mill Gap Road and the road running northeast into North Carolina, and crossing the Broad River at Island Ford. Many roads of more recent construction now traverse this territory, but during the Revolutionary period they were few in number. The Mill Gap Road crossed the Broad at Cherokee Ford and ran northwestwardly through the present town of Gaffney, into the mountains far to the west. Its course followed generally the tops of ridges, thereby avoiding the crossing of creeks and rivers. The road from Spartanburg to North Carolina now runs through Chesnee, but in olden days it crossed the Mill Gap Road about 3 miles southeast of Chesnee. Morgan made camp in a wooded ravine having a stream of water running through it, which lay north of the Mill Gap Road, and about a thousand yards northwest of the cabin of Robert Scruggs, which was visited by Lossing in 1849.

The position selected for the action lay on both sides of the Mill Gap Road, just south of the camp. The ground is slightly undulating, and at the time was covered with scattered trees of red oak, hickory, and pine. Being used for the grazing of cattle, there was but little, if any, underbrush. Two very slight elevations top the ridge along which the Mill Gap Road runs, and these were selected as the lines of deployment for the American troops. The main position was on the elevation just south of the ravine, in which camp was established. To its front for 300 yards there is a scarcely perceptible slope downward; beyond this the slope is greater, dropping off into a shallow ravine 700 yards from the main position. To the rear of the main position, and just west of the camp site, is an elevation slightly higher than that of the main position. This ridge continues across the road in a south and southwest direction, but at a slightly less elevation. From either ridge the terrain between the two was visible under and through the trees. The ground offered no cover for either the attack or the defense, except such as was furnished by the trees. The flanks of both armies were exposed, as the terrain was favorable in all directions for the operation of mounted troops. The ravine in which Morgan camped and one on the opposite side of the road offered but little interference with the movement of foot or mounted troops.

Morgan’s plan of battle was to use the Maryland Continentals and the Virginia Militia (of worth equal to the Continentals, as many had served in preview campaigns) in his main position on the summit of the southernmost ridge and astride the Mill Gap Road. Washington’s dragoons to the number of 80, augmented by the 45 militia under McCall, were the main reserve, posted in rear of the northernmost ridge, where ground cover was sufficient to protect them from hostile observation and fire and sufficiently Dear “as to be able to charge the enemy, should they be broken.” The militia were to form an interrupted line on the flanks in front, which position was to be held only temporarily, when they were to withdraw and rearm on the flanks of the main position after reorganization had been effected and lend what assistance they could as an additional reserve.

At this time Howard’s Maryland and Delaware Continentals consisted of 237 men. They were placed on the left of the line, astride the Mill Gap Road. To their right were Captain Beate’s and Major Triplett’s companies of Virginia Militia, under the command of the latter, and totaling about 100 men. Captains Tate and Buchanan with about 100 of the Augusta riflemen of Virginia, supported the right of the line. In the advanced position, which was to be abandoned early in the fight, were about 308 militia from North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia, under Colonel Pickens. These troops were situated to guard the flanks. Major McDowell, of the North Carolina Volunteers, was posted on the right flank, 150 yards in front of Howard’s line. Major Cunningham, of the Georgia Volunteers, was on the left flank, at the same distance in front of Howard’s line. To the right of Major McDowell were posted the South Carolina Volunteers under Colonels Brannon and Thomas. To the left of Major Cunningham was posted the remainder of the South Carolina Militia, under Colonel Hays and Major Hammond. The latter commanded Major McCall’s regiment, he being with Colonel Washington.

From Pickens’s line of militia small parties of riflemen were sent 150 yards farther to the front to skirmish with the enemy. McDowell commanded those in the right sector of the skirmish line and Cunningham those in the left sector. Patrols covered the front and larks to give warning of Tarleton’s approach. Tarleton broke camp at 3 o’clock in the morning, determined to engage the Americans before they could cross the Broad, or in case they made an early march and continued their withdrawal, to strike them when astride the river. The baggage and wagons were to remain in camp, wider protection of a detachment from each corps, until daybreak. The advance guard consisted of three companies of light infantry, supported by the legion infantry. The main body comprised the Seventh Regiment, the two 3-pounders, and the First Battalion of the Seventy-first Infantry. The cavalry and mounted infantry brought up the rear. The march was slow, due to the ground being broken by creeks and ravines, and the necessity for careful reconnaissance on the front and flanks. Before dawn a screen of cavalry was placed on the front, soon after which contact was made with the American patrols, when Tarleton ordered two troops of dragoons to reinforce the advance guard and harass the rear of the enemy.

In due course of time the advance guard reported that the Americans were forming, and the native guides with Tarleton described their position as in an open woods, free from swamps, with the Broad parallel to their rear.

Tarleton viewed the enemy’s situation as one vulnerable to attack, particularly in view of his superiority in cavalry, and the inability of a defeated force to escape beyond the Broad. Furthermore, the supposed nearness of Cornwallis and the assumed superiority of his regulars over the large percentage of militia with Morgan made it seem apparent that success should be attended with no great loss to his command. His total strength, including the detachment left to guard the baggage, was about 1,000.

The dragoons in the advance guard drove in the hostile covering forces along the Mill Gap Road, thereby enabling Tarleton to proceed far enough to inspect the deployment of Morgan’s army. It is probable that his estimate of the strength of the opposing forces was considerably less than the total of 1,920 mentioned later in his narrative. Even though he believed that he was opposed by about 500 Continentals, 120 cavalry, 1,000 militia, and 300 backwoodsmen, he probably ignored the two latter groups, and considered himself superior in quality to the American Continentals and cavalry, who made a force much smaller than his regulars. Prior to deploying the infantry were directed to discard all surplus equipment and retain only their rifles and ammunition. The light infantry then filed to the right, into a position opposite to Morgan’s militia, with their right flank extending as far as the left of the militia. The legion infantry were added to the left of the light infantry, and a 3-pounder placed in the line between the two commands. This force was instructed to advance within 300 yards of the enemy. When this position was reached, the Seventh Regiment formed upon the left of the legion infantry, and the other 3-pounder was given to the right division of the Seventh. A captain, with 50 dragoons, was placed on each flank of the line, to protect its flanks and threaten those of the enemy. The First Battalion of the Seventy-first Regiment formed 150 yards in rear of the left flank of the Seventh, and constituted, together with about 200 legion cavalry, the reserve.

The British deployment being completed at about 8 o’clock, Tarleton ordered his troops to attack. The whole line moved with the greatest impetuosity, shouting as they advanced. The Americans responded with Indian war cries of equal intensity, and held their fire until the enemy closed to effective rifle range, when the front-line skirmishers under Cunningham and McDowell gave them a “heavy and galling fire, and retreated to the regiments intended for their support.” Tarleton’s infantry suffered but little from this fire and continued their approach to Pickens’ line, which, “kept up a fire by regiments, retreating agreeably to their orders.” Still the British line suffered but little, and now it approached the Continentals and the Virginians under Howard. Here, according to Morgan, they received a “well-directed and incessant fire.” Tarleton says, “the fire on both sides was well supported, and produced much slaughter.” The British advance was temporarily checked.

At this time Tarleton sent the troop of dragoons on the right of the line to harass that portion of the militia which had fallen back to the left of Picken’s line, and at the same time ordered forward his reserve. The First Battalion of the Seventy-first was directed to pass the left of the Seventh before delivering its fire. The reserve cavalry and the troop on the left of the line were ordered to incline to the left and form a line which would embrace the whole of the American right flank. When the battalion of the Seventy-first was in position, the entire British line moved forward. Tarleton now had about 750 infantry in line, supported by two guns, and was opposed by less than 450 infantry in Howard’s line. Whether or not the militia, which had withdrawn to the two flanks of Howard’s line, could be later assembled and used in the fight could not at this time be determined. Those who had withdrawn to the left rear of the main position were charged by the troop of dragoons from the right of Tarleton’s line and were being cut down, when Washington countercharged with his cavalry, supported by some infantry fire, and relieved the situation in that quarter.

It was evident to Howard that with the enemy reserve brought into action his right flank was exposed, and he ordered the flank company to charge front to the right. In doing this some confusion ensued, and first a part and then the whole of the company commenced a retreat. The officers along Howard’s line seeing this, and supposing that orders had been given for a retreat, faced their men about and moved off. Morgan, at this time, was engaged in reforming the militia, and was surprised to observe the Maryland and Delaware Continentals, who had fought so valiantly at Camden, in apparent retreat. He quickly rode over to Howard to inquire into the situation and his apprehensions were quieted when Howard, pointing to the line, observed that ‘men were not beaten who retreated in that order.” Morgan then ordered Howard to continue retiring his line until the rising ground to the rear was reached, and rode back to select the position on which the line was to halt and face about.

The halt and change of front was effected without mishap, and although this retreat resulted from misunderstanding, it was very fortunate, as Howard’s units were thereby extricated from a position wherein they doubtless would have been defeated with heavy losses.

So certain were the British that victory was at hand that they pushed forward to close in on the retreating force with the bayonet, and an order was dispatched to the cavalry on the right to charge. Not more than 30 yards separated them from the Americans, when the latter unexpectedly halted and changed front, and again confronted them with a deadly volley, which stopped the British in their tracks and threw them into great confronted them with a deadly volley, which stopped the British in their tracks and threw them into great confusion.

Lieutenant Colonel Howard observing this, gave orders for the line to charge bayonets, which was done with such address, that they fled, with the utmost precipitation, leaving their field pieces in our possession.

Some of the militia which had withdrawn to Howard’s right were reformed and participated in the rout.

Further exertions to muie the British infantry advance were useless. Nor could Tarleton’s cavalry strike for it was at the moment when they were prepared to charge the retreating line that Howard halted and feed his command about, and the panic which seized the British infantry extended to the cavalry also, and a general flight ensued. Tarleton sent directions to his cavalry to form about 400 yards to the right of the enemy, whilst he endeavored to rally the infantry to protect the guns.

The cavalry did not comply with the order, and the effort to collect the infantry was ineffectual; neither promises nor threats could gain their attention; they surrendered or dispersed, and abandoned the guns to the artillerymen, who defended them for some time with exemplary resolution.

In this last stage of defeat, Tarleton in his narrative says that he made a final struggle to bring his cavalry to the charge, but all attempts to restore order proved fruitless.

Above 200 dragoons forsook their leader and left the field of battle.

He was able to rally a group of 14 officers and about 40 horsemen, and with these engaged the cavalry of Washington, who in the latter siege of the fight were adding to the general confusion of the enemy by passing around Howard’s right and charging into the broken ranks of the enemy. The contest between the two mounted groups was short lived, and Tarleton fled from the field, the action having lasted about 50 minutes. He directed his course to the south-east in order to reach Hamilton Ford, near the mouth of Bullock Creek, where he might communicate with Cornwallis, who had not advanced beyond Turkey Creek. A part of Washington’s command pursued scattered groups of the enemy cavalry for some distance, returning to camp late that night.

The British losses, as reported by General Morgan in a letter dated the 19th of January, were 10 officers and 100 noncommissioned officers and privates killed, 200 rank and file wounded; 502 noncommissioned officers and privates prisoners, independent of the wounded, and 29 commissioned officers prisoners. This totals approximately 841, and is somewhat in excess of the entire British infantry and artillery personnel in the battle. The losses in the legion cavalry were not heavy, and that night and the next day 200 of their scattered numbers rejoined Tarleton. The spoils of war included 2 standards, 2 field pieces, 800 stand of arms, 100 dragoon horses, and 35 wagons. The baggage which had been left in camp was in a great measure destroyed by its guard before they fled.

Cornwallis’s return of troops shows the following changes in the organizations under Tarleton’s command:

Unit Jan 15 Feb 1
Seventh Regiment 167
Seventy-first Regiment
First Battalion
Light Company
British Legion 451 174
Total: 936 174

In addition to the foregoing, Tarleton had about 40 men of the Seventeenth Dragoons and a detachment of artillery to man the two 3-pounders. The American losses were inconsiderable, there not having been more than 12 killed and about 60 wounded.

Tarleton attributed his defeat to

the bravery or good conduct of the Americans to the loose manner of forming which had always been practiced by the King’s troops in America; or to some unforseen event, which may throw terror into the most disciplined solders or counteract the best concerted designs.

He held the opinion that commanding officers in the Army, who were unfortunate in action, should be subject to the same rules which governed the Navy, to the effect that a court-martial would inquire into the merits of the case. Influenced by this thought, some days after the action Tarleton “required Earl Cornwallis’s approbation of his proceedings, or his leave to retire till inquiry could be instituted to investigate his conduct.” To this demand Cornwallis replied in a letter of the 30th of January:

You have forfeited no part of my esteem as an officer by the unfortunate event of the action of the 17th. This means you used to bring the enemy to action were able and masterly, and must ever do you honor. Your disposition was unexceptionable; the total misbehaviour of the troops could alone have deprived you of the glory which was so justly your due.



IT is difficult to understand General Morgan’s reasons for accepting battle at the Cowpens, unless his personal characteristics for bravery and daring and his superior qualities as a leader of militia explain the matter. The instructions which he received before leaving Charlotte Town were that he was to act offensively or defensively, as his prudence and discretion might direct, but that he was to conduct operations with caution and avoid surprises. When he effected his withdrawal from the Pacolet in the face of Tarleton’s approach he halted for the night of the 15th at Burrs Mills, on Thicketty Creek, and sent to Greene the last letter written prior to the battle. At this time he had no thought of an early encounter. He reported that Tarleton had crossed the Tiger at Musgroves Mill with a force of 1,100 or 1,200, and that his command was probably Tarleton’s objective. He suggested to General Greene that his detachment be recalled and that General Davidson and Colonel Pickens be left with the militia to check the disaffected in that region. He realized that, due to his distance from the main Army, Cornwallis might detach a force against him so superior as to render it essential to his safety to avoid an engagement. He wrote:

Upon a full and mature deliberation, I am confirmed in the opinion that nothing can be effected by my detachment in this country which will balance the risks I will be subject to by remaining here.

General Greene replied to this letter on the 19th of January, at which time he was unaware that an engagement had occurred, to the effect that it was of great importance to keep a force in that quarter, for which duty the militia alone would not answer. He realized that the movements of Cornwallis and Tarleton had the appearance of being directed against Morgan, and told him.

I do not wish you should come to action unless you have a manifest superiority, and a moral certainty of succeeding. Put nothing to the hazard. A retreat may be disagreeable, but not disgraceful. Regard not the opinions of the day. It is not our business to risk too much. Our affairs are in too critical a situation, and require time and nursing to give them a better tone.

Upon his further withdrawal to the Cowpens on the 16th, where additional militia joined, and with the knowledge that Tarleton was closely pursuing and was now but one short march away, Morgan decided that evening to stand and fight. The decision once made, however much its wisdom may be questioned, there can be no doubt about the enthusiasm and thoroughness with which he prepared for the coming day. A plan of action was determined upon, and his commanders informed. The role for the militia was such that under a slight baptism of fire, it was hoped much of their fear would be dissipated, and that they would remain on the battle field for later participation in the contest. Appeal was made to their loyalty, their manhood, and their prowess with the rifle. There was no question but what Washington’s dragoons, Howard’s Continentals, and Triplett’s Virginians would do their full duty. The men were able to rest during the night, and after the morning meal leisurely took up their designated positions.

Not much praise can be given for the position selected, except that the slope in front of Pickens impeded, to some extent the advance of Tarleton’s weary ranks, and the hill in rear offered cover for the cavalry reserve. bi all directions the terrain was open to attack from both infantry and cavalry, and Morgan doubtless knew that the cavalry of Tarleton’s legion far outnumbered Washington’s dragoons.

What superiority he believed to be possessed by the troops under Howard over the infantry of Tarleton can not be explained other than on the grounds that he hoped his own courage great enough to cause his men to dot he seemingly impossible. In planning for the militia under Pickens to hold their line for but a brief time, and then retire, it would be with the assumption that the British would not have lost heavily by the time they reached the main line. On this line the late of the day would be determined, and Howard’s strength was less than 450 men. Tarleton’s strength at this stage of the action would probably be 750 infantry, outnumbering Howard about 2 to 1.

It appeared to the British, when Howard’s line fell back, that victory was at hand, and so it would have been, had the line been composed of men less inured to battle than were the Continentals of Maryland and Delaware. There was no delay or hesitation when the order to halt, face the enemy, and fire, was given, and there then occurred in a moment a Scene of dumbfounded surprise, confusion, and panic seldom witnessed in battle. The outcome resulted in one of the most gloriously unexpected victories of the Revolutionary War. The heroes of the Cowpens could worthily stand shoulder to shoulder with those of Kings Mountain.

Under a resolution of Congress passed March 9, 1781, the thanks of the United States were given to Brigadier General Morgan, and the officers and men under his command, “for their fortitude and good conduct, displayed in the action at the Cowpens.” The resolution further provided that a gold medal be presented to General Morgan, silver medals to lieutenant Colonels Washington and Howard, and a sword to Colonel Pickens.

In writing to the President of Congress on the 17th of February, General Washington said:

General Morgan’s signal victory over Colonel Tarleton with the flower of the British Army reflects the highest honor upon our arms, and I hope at least the attended with this advantage, that it will check the offensive operations of the enemy until General Greene shall have collected a much more respectable force than he had under his command by the last accounts from him. I am apprehensive that the Southern States will look upon this victory as much more decisive in its consequences than it really is, and will relax in their exertions. It is to be wished that the gentlemen of Congress who have interests in those States would remove such ideas, if any such should be found to exist, and rather stimulate them to redouble their efforts to crush an enemy, pretty severely shaken by the two successful strokes upon Ferguson and Tarleton.

Cornwallis employed the day following the battle in effecting a junction with Leslie’s command and in collecting the remains of Tarleton’s corps, and on the 19th hastened in pursuit of Morgan, hoping to be able to engage him and recover the prisoners before Morgan and Greene could effect a junction. A part of the army, without baggage, made great exertions to come up with Morgan, but the celerity of his movements and the swelling of numberless creeks rendered their efforts useless, and he reached the Catawba on the 23d of January.

Cornwallis therefore assembled his army on the 25th of January at Ramseur’s mill, on the South Fork of the Catawba, and as the loss of his light troops could only be remedied by the activity of the whole corps, he employed two days in collecting flour, and in destroying superfluous baggage and wagons, and then resumed the pursuit.

In writing to Lord Germain on the 17th of March, Cornwallis said that:

The Unfortunate affair of the 17th of January Was a very unexpected and severe blow; for, besides reputation, our loss did not fall short of 600 men. However, being thoroughly sensible that defensive measures would be certain ruin to the affairs of Britain and the Southern Colonies, this event did not deter me from prosecuting the original plan.

Tarleton in his narrative, commenting on the two disasters which the British suffered in South Carolina, said that the fall of Ferguson at Kings Mountain was a catastrophe which put an end to the first expedition into North Carolina, and that the Battle of the Cowpens overshadowed the commencement of the second expedition. This comment taken in conjunction with the above-mentioned apprehension of General Washington, “that the Southern States will look upon this victory as much more decisive in its consequences than it really is,” briefly summarizes the result of the Battle of the Cowpens. The effect at the time was to hearten greatly the patriotic cause and to distress the British Army and their Tory sympathizers beyond measure. It was the second link in the chain of events, soon to be followed by others, which finally led to the surrender of Cornwallis’s army at Yorktown.