This Day in History: Kate Barry, the “heroine of Cowpens”
On this day in 1823, a little-known heroine of the American Revolution passes away. Kate Barry has been described as the “heroine of Cowpens” and a woman who “knew no fear . . . where duty pointed she dared to go.”
Nevertheless, it can be hard to tell where the legend of Kate Barry ends and where the truth begins. Her lone biographer notes the “sketchy information” and the “many puzzle pieces that are missing” for anyone who attempts to put together Kate’s story.
Did Kate really tie her toddler to a bedpost to prevent the little girl from harm while she was gone on a mission? Who knows? But we do know that Kate was an important scout and spy for the South Carolina militia and her husband (a militia officer). That task was none too easy. She was often asked to ride through sparsely populated areas with poor roads—or even areas populated with Loyalists!
Despite these handicaps, it’s been said that Kate “was so efficient that the patriot bands were seldom surprised by the British.”
Another legend has it that Kate was once flogged by Tories who wanted to know the whereabouts of her husband, Andrew, and his men. Naturally, Kate would not give them away. Andrew Barry—and his men—were furious when they learned how Kate had been mistreated. Reportedly, one of them approached Barry after the war and encouraged him to retaliate. “It is your duty to kill Elliott, the Tory who struck Kate Barry one cut with a whip to intimidate her and make her disclose where the patriots were encamped,” Major Crawford urged Barry, “but if you will not, then I will kill him, for no man shall live who struck Kate Barry.”
Whether true or not, the story certainly reflects the reputation that Kate had developed among her peers during those Revolutionary War years. The story of Kate’s determination and perseverance in the face of British cruelty did much to inspire those around her.
Other stories have Kate barely escaping across a river with some Tories close on her heels. Or hiding food in tree stumps so Patriot militia would be able to eat. But Kate is best known for her actions just before the Battle of Cowpens in January 1781. Someone needed to round up militia! Kate was perfect for the task. She was intimately familiar with the Appalachian woods and the back trails of South Carolina. She rode hard and played a critical role in gathering up the men before battle.
American Brigadier General Daniel Morgan would lead those men to a decisive and important victory at Cowpens. Indeed, it’s been said that Morgan’s men administered “a devil of a whipping” to the British that day! That Patriot victory proved to be a turning point for the Revolution in the southern part of the country.
Would it have been possible without Kate?
Yet another unsung heroine who deserves to be remembered, even if we never know all the details of her service.
Arthur Mitchell, South Carolina Irish (2010)
J. B. O. Landrum, History of Spartanburg County (1900)
Robert Dunkerly, Women of the Revolution: Bravery and Sacrifice on the Southern Battlefields (2007)
Sheila Ingle, Courageous Kate (2006) (please note the author’s preface about artistic license used in the book)
Sophie Lee Foster, Revolutionary reader; reminiscences and Indian legends (1913)
The South Carolina Encyclopedia Guide to the American Revolution in South Carolina (Walter Edgar ed. 2006) (updated edition)