January 17

This Day in History

American Revolution

Jan 17, 1781:

Battle of Cowpens, South Carolina

Relying upon strategic creativity, Brigadier General Daniel Morgan and a mixed Patriot force rout British Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton and a group of Redcoats and Loyalists at the Battle of Cowpens on this day in 1781.

Commander in chief of the Southern Army, Major General Nathaniel Greene had decided to divide Patriot forces in the Carolinas in order to force the larger British contingent under General Charles Cornwallis to fight them on multiple fronts—and because smaller groups of men were easier for the beleaguered Patriots to feed. Daniel Morgan took 300 Continental riflemen and 740 militiamen with the intention of attacking the British backcountry fort, Ninety-Six.

In response, Cornwallis dispatched Tarleton with 1,100 Redcoats and Loyalists to catch Morgan, whom he feared might instigate a broad-based backcountry Patriot uprising. Morgan prepared for the encounter with Tarleton by backing his men up to a river at Cowpens, north of Ninety-Six.

As Tarleton's men attacked, Morgan instructed the militia to skirmish with them, but to leave the front line after firing two rounds. The British mistook the repositioning of the Americans as a rout and ran into an unexpected volley of concentrated rifle fire coupled with a cavalry charge and followed by the return of the militia. Tarleton escaped, but Morgan's troops decimated his army.

American rifles, scorned by Britain's professional soldiers, proved devastatingly effective in this engagement. The British lost 110 men and more than 200 more were wounded, while an additional 500 were captured. The American losses totaled only 12 killed and 60 wounded in the first Patriot victory to demonstrate that the American forces could outfight a similar British force without any other factors—such as surprise or geography—to assist them.

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