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This Day in History: The Battle of Cowpens

On this day in 1781, the Battle of Cowpens takes place. The Americans administered “a devil of a whipping”! The British were soundly defeated, and the battle would prove to be a turning point for the Revolution in the southern part of the country.

Prior to the battle, the division between Loyalists and Patriots was rather stark in the South. The British hoped to take advantage of this situation: If they won a few significant southern victories, the Patriots would be in retreat. The Loyalists would be able to regain control of southern state governments and join with the British in crushing the rebellion in the north.

The Battle of Cowpens, by William Ranney (1845)

At first, the British strategy seemed to be working: The British won victories in Savannah, Charleston, and Camden. But then they encountered unexpected difficulty from the back country and its militias.

If the rest of this story starts to sound a little bit like Mel Gibson’s “The Patriot,” well, that is not an accident. That movie was based partly on the hero of the Battle of Cowpens (American Brigadier General Daniel Morgan) as well as its villain (British Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton).

Tarleton was known for his cruelty. Allegedly, he’d refused to allow Americans to surrender at the Battle of Waxhaws in May 1780. Because he would not give quarter to surrendering Americans, the phrase “Tarleton’s quarter” was afterwards used to mean, “no quarter.” And it was a rallying cry at the Battle of Cowpens.

By contrast, Daniel Morgan was a much-admired hero from the Battles of Quebec and Saratoga. He knew the country because of his work as a wagoner. (He was even called “the Old Wagoner”). He was good at assessing the situation on the ground and changing tactics at the last minute, as needed. He was good at guerilla fighting.

At Cowpens, Morgan took a stand that seemed to favor the British. His men lacked escape routes, but Morgan may have reasoned that it would encourage his militia to take a stand. They’d have to. He spent the night before the battle giving pep talks to his men. The National Park Service website says that Morgan “spoke emotionally of past battles, talked of the battle plan, and lashed out against the British.” His talks were effective. His men were ready to fight the next morning.

Morgan organized his troops into three lines. Each would do its task, then retreat back to the next line. They would take advantage of Tarleton’s tendency to rush too quickly into the fray. William Washington’s cavalry were also poised and ready to surprise the British, mid-battle. (William was 2nd cousin to George.) At one point, an order to retreat was unintentionally given to the Americans. (The order was lost in all the noise and misunderstood.) The British began charging the retreating Americans, but Morgan ordered his men to turn and fire. They did, and the result was devastating. The Patriots followed with a bayonet charge. The British began surrendering en masse.

The Americans had won an astonishing victory! But Tarleton had escaped.

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