The Battle of Cowpens by William Ranney

The Battle of Cowpens, painted by William Ranney

Cowpens, Battle of

January 17, 1781

The Battle of Cowpens was a turning point in the Revolutionary War.

(January 17, 1781). In mid-December 1780 General Daniel Morgan positioned his “Flying Army” on the Pacolet River to threaten the British stronghold of Ninety Six. British general Lord Cornwallis responded by dispatching Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton to protect Ninety Six and drive Morgan from South Carolina. Learning that Ninety Six was safe, Tarleton moved against Morgan with 1,250 men.

Morgan withdrew and assembled his force on January 16, 1781, at Hannah’s Cowpens, a well-known local site situated near the North Carolina border in present-day Cherokee County. When the British reached the battlefield about daybreak on January 17, Morgan, reinforced by militia to about two thousand men, was ready to fight. He deployed more than three hundred North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia riflemen skirmishers, which forced Tarleton to deploy. Behind these skirmishers, Colonel Andrew Pickens led one thousand militiamen from the South Carolina upcountry, placing them on the reverse slope and hiding many from British scouts. A third line of Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia Continentals, Virginia State Troops, and militia was to their rear, arranged so as to allow a militia withdrawal without disrupting their ranks. Continental cavalry and militia waited for an opportunity to strike.

British infantry advanced and drove back the skirmishers. Other British infantry deployed and went forward, their flanks covered by dragoons. When the British closed within thirty yards, militia fired at least five battalion volleys. Despite losses, the British charged with bayonets, routing the militia. From this point three separate lines of advance occurred. The British infantry reformed and moved within thirty yards of the Continentals, engaging them in a firefight, and British dragoons advanced on both flanks. On the American left, British dragoons scattered reforming militia. The British, in turn, were repulsed by William Washington’s cavalry. On the American right, British Legion dragoons and the Seventy-first Scottish Highlanders advanced, driving off North Carolina skirmishers and then taking position beyond the American right flank. These British dragoons also were repulsed by Washington’s cavalry, who charged through them, turned, and charged back.

Outflanked, the American third line commander, John Eager Howard, ordered a right company to turn and oppose the Highlanders. For several reasons the maneuver failed, and a withdrawal commenced with the Highlanders in hot pursuit. One hundred yards upfield, the Americans, who reloaded as they withdrew, turned and fired, so shocking the Highlanders that many collapsed while others ran. They were pursued by American infantry and dragoons who swept the battlefield. Tarleton’s infantrymen were virtually all captured, but most British dragoons escaped. Total British casualties were about 800. American casualties were approximately 25 killed and 124 wounded.

The Battle of Cowpens was a turning point in the Revolutionary War. To recapture the prisoners, Cornwallis lightened his army and pursued Morgan and then Greene across North Carolina. This “Race to the Dan” wore out the British. They did win a costly victory at Guilford Courthouse (March 15, 1781), then marched to the coast and on to Virginia, where Cornwallis surrendered to a combined Franco-American army at Yorktown (October 19, 1781). After Guilford Courthouse, Greene returned to South Carolina and defeated British forces in a “War of Posts” during the summer of 1781. Greene’s support of partisans, especially Francis Marion and Andrew Pickens, drove the British to the coast by October 1781, effectively ending British domination of interior South Carolina. See plate 11.

Babits, Lawrence E. A Devil of a Whipping: The Battle of Cowpens. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998.

Fleming, Thomas J. Cowpens: “Downright Fighting”: The Story of Cowpens. Washington, D.C.: National Park Service, 1988.

Moncure, John. The Cowpens Staff Ride and Battlefield Tour. Fort Leavenworth, Kans.: Combat Studies Institute, 1966.

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Title Cowpens, Battle of
  • Coverage January 17, 1781
  • Author
  • Keywords General Daniel Morgan, Lord Cornwallis, Banastre Tarleton, turning point,
  • Website Name South Carolina Encyclopedia
  • Publisher University of South Carolina, Institute for Southern Studies
  • URL
  • Access Date June 17, 2024
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update July 21, 2022
Go to Top