At the Battle of Cowpens in South Carolina on January 17, 1781, during the Revolutionary War (1775-83), American troops under Brigadier General Daniel Morgan (1736-1802) routed British forces under Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton (1754-1833). The Americans inflicted heavy casualties on the British, and the battle was a turning point in the war’s Southern campaign.
More to Explore
This Day in History
On this day in 1777, General George Washington begins marching 12,000 soldiers of his Continental Army from Whitemarsh to Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, for…
During the American Revolution, Great Britain's 13 American colonies rose up in insurrection and won their independence.
Captain Nathan Hale of the 19th Regiment of the Continental Army was one of the first known American spies of the Revolutionary War.
On August 16, 1780, American General Horatio Gates suffered a humiliating defeat at Camden, South Carolina.
On June 17, 1775, early in the Revolutionary War (1775-83), the British defeated the Americans at the Battle of Bunker Hill in Massachusetts.
Did You Know?
Two U.S. military ships were named in memory of the Battle of Cowpens. The first USS Cowpens, an aircraft carrier, served in World War II. The second USS Cowpens, a guided missile cruiser, was commissioned in 1991 and served in the Persian Gulf. Both vessels were nicknamed The Mighty Moo.
Battle of Cowpens: Background
After the British scored victories in South Carolina at Charleston (May 1780) and Camden (August 1780), Major General Nathanael Greene (1742-86), commander of the Continental army’s Southern campaign, decided to divide Patriot troops in the Carolinas in order to force the larger British contingent under General Charles Cornwallis (1738-1805) to fight them on multiple fronts—and because smaller groups of men were easier for the beleaguered Patriots to feed. Brigadier General Daniel Morgan took 300 Continental riflemen and some 700 militiamen with the intention of attacking the British backcountry fort, Ninety-Six.
In response, Cornwallis dispatched Banastre Tarleton with 1,100 Redcoats and Loyalists to catch Morgan, whom he feared might instigate a broad-based backcountry Patriot uprising. Morgan, nicknamed Old Waggoner because he served as a wagon driver during the French and Indian War (1754-63), prepared for the encounter with Tarleton by backing his men up to a river at Cowpens, a pastureland in present-day Spartanburg County and north of Ninety-Six.
Battle of Cowpens: January 17, 1781
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. More than 800 British troops were killed, wounded or captured. The Americans suffered less than 100 casualties in the first Patriot victory to demonstrate that they could outfight a similar British force without any other factors, such as surprise or geography, to assist them. The victory provided an important morale boost, and later that year, in November, the Americans would defeat the British at Yorktown, Virginia, the last major Revolutionary War battle.
Fact Check We strive for accuracy and fairness. But if you see something that doesn't look right, contact us!
Follow a seemingly disastrous decision to declare war to the glory of the stars and stripes.
Keep up with the latest History shows, online features, special offers and more.Sign up
Classroom Study Guides
Classroom companion for the new HISTORY series Vietnam in HD.