January, 1781: Battle of Cowpens Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

On January 17, 1781, Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton attacked Brigadier General Daniel Morgan’s troops, whose back and left flank were anchored by the Broad River. Morgan’s first line of 150 sharpshooters fired and then fell back to a second line of 300 militia. These fired two volleys and retired to the rear to regroup.

George Washington’s nephew, Colonel William Augustine Washington, at the Battle of Cowpens. From an engraving by S. H. Gimber for Graham’s Magazine, which began publication in 1841. (National Archives)

On January 17, 1781, Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton attacked Brigadier General Daniel Morgan’s troops, whose back and left flank were anchored by the Broad River. Morgan’s first line of 150 sharpshooters fired and then fell back to a second line of 300 militia. These fired two volleys and retired to the rear to regroup.

The British then pressed on to meet the main American line, which consisted of Continentals. A mistaken order caused a momentary retreat on the American right, but it was orderly and merely anticipated Morgan’s plan to draw in the British. When commanded, the Americans turned and subjected the British to withering fire. The shock of this volley was promptly followed with a bayonet charge.

This American counterattack was supported by dragoons, which struck the left flank and rear of the British Highlanders. The regrouped militia hit the Highlanders’ right flank. Under this intense pressure, the Highlanders broke, causing panic throughout the British line. The British right was turned as well; therefore, Tarleton’s army experienced the disaster of a double envelopment. British casualties and prisoners numbered about 900. American casualties amounted to about 70.

Cowpens boosted American morale and destroyed a good deal of Lord Charles Cornwallis’s army. Morgan’s army was able to unite with Nathanael Greene’s troops and to continue to contest the British for control of the south.

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