Cowpens National Battlefield

Location: Gaffney, South Carolina

Webpage: National Park

General Description: After the defeat of the Continental Army in Charleston and Camden, General Washington replaced General Gates with General Greene.  General Greene could not afford another major defeat to the English forces under the command of General Cornwallis, so his basic strategy was to use hit and run tactics and would have to depend more upon local militias to bolster his forces.  He split his army to make it difficult for Cornwallis to catch his entire force, sending General Morgan southwest of the Catawba River to raise the moral of the locals and obtain supplies.  The victory of the Patriot militia in October, 1780 at Kings Mountain had bought them some time, but most of South Carolina was under the control of the British and North Carolina was threatened.  General Morgan was joined by militia from South Carolina and Georgia and threatened General Cornwallis left flank.  To counter this threat, General Cornwallis sent Lt. Colonel Tarleton to stop General Morgan.  After marching to Ninety-Six and not finding Morgan, he continued to pursue Morgan.  He commanded 1150 men, some of the best light infantry and dragoons under Cornwallis.  These were some of the best soldiers in the world at the time.  On January 16, 1781 Tarleton had the opportunity to trap Morgan against the swollen Broad River.  General Morgan had around 1900 men, which outnumbered the British, however, his forces consisted of only about 400 professional Continental forces with the remainder untested militia from Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia. One advantage General Morgan had was that Tarleton did not know the number of soldiers facing him.  Morgan chose Cowpens, in part, due to it being a well known location used for years to fatten cows for the markets on the coast.  Most of the militia joined Morgan on the afternoon of January 16, the day before the battle.  Tarleton received reliable information of Morgan’s location and made haste to catch him before he was able to cross the Broad River, so did not camp over night.  Thus his army was already exhausted before the battle.  General Morgan decided on a new strategy to take advantage of the terrain and his experience with local militia and British tendencies.  Another reason he choose Cowpens was that it provided an open field that would appear to be to the British advantage.  In addition, it lies between the Broad and Pacolet Rivers which made retreat difficult.  While this would appear to the British to be to their advantage since they could trap Morgan’s army, Morgan knew it would keep the militia from running at the first shot as the militia was prone to do.  He assumed the British would seize the opportunity to form ranks and quickly advance to within bayonet range.  He divided his troops into three defensive lines.  The first line was positioned on a small rise and consisted of 150 selected sharpshooters.  Their long rifles had effective range of over 100 yards while the British muskets were accurate at only 50 yards.  Their orders were to get off as many shots as possible, aiming for the officers, and withdrawing once the British started their charge.  The second line of defense consisted of the militia.  Their orders were to get off two shots and to retreat to the left of the line behind the first line.  The final line consisted of his Continental Army that was hidden behind a small hill.  On January 17, 1781, the plan worked to perfection.  The first line took out most of the officers and after being fired upon by the second line only to see them retreat with devastating effect they were surprised by the third line who had been hidden up to this point.  While the third line held off the British troops, the cavalry charge around the right side and the militia reentered the battle on the left closing the trap.  It was a rare example of a successful “double envolopment” and the only one during the Revolutionary War.  They managed to kill or capture the entire British force under Lt. Colonel Tarleton, although he managed to escape.  Thus Cornwallis not only lost a third of his army but nearly all of his best, professional troops.  Along with the defeat of Major Ferguson forces of loyalist militia at Kings Mountain back in October, General Cornwallis was running out of options.  General Cornwallis left Charlotte to chase General Greene’s main army to Northern Carolina leading to the battle of Guilford Courthouse.  General Morgan stayed in South Carolina laying siege to Nintey-Six and continuing his push of the Redcoats back to Charleston and the coast.  Cowpens was the first major defeat of the British army in the Southern campaign and an important step in victory of the Revolution.  The Visitor Center has a short video about the battle and a driving tour of the battlefield.  Along the driving tour is the Robert Scruggs log cabin, an example of homes in the early 1800s and served as an unofficial “Visitor Center” until the National Battlefield was created.  The driving tour also has stops along the battle and monuments erected.



1) As the only visitors on a Thursday morning, we had the joy of spending significant time with the Park Ranger who has spent the last 16 years studying the Revolutionary War.  We also joined him with two other couples for the Battlefield Tour in the afternoon.  He had a lot of theories about the battle that are not part of the official history of the battle.  For instance, he has a theory that the double entrapment was a fortunate occurrence rather a planned strategy.  Combining the fatigue of the British after marching all night, the loss of most of their officers, the surprise of being fired upon by two lines of defense without begin able to close, and that 10% of the British forces consisted of patriots militia captured and forced into service at Camden, they simply gave up when surrounded by the cavalry on their left and militia on their right.  As another example, he made a very good case that the official location of the third line is not correct.  The lay of the land would dictate that the third line was further advanced hidden within a small ravine at right angles to the road.  Our experience was a great example of the advantage of participating in the ranger talks provided at the National Parks.

2) The Visitor Center is relatively small with only a small room that doubles as the video room with only a couple of exhibits of uniforms and armaments.  The video was very well done providing a realistic reenactment of the battle and strategies used on both sides.


3) Initially I was not impressed with the Robert Scruggs log cabin since it was built around 1828, well after the battle.  It does provide a good example of the log cabins from the early 1800s, but little else.  However, once I learned that the Green River Road that was the centerline of the battlefield was actually a paved road up until the National Park Service obtained the property in 1970.  The Robert Scruggs house served as the unofficial Visitor Center for anyone interested in visiting the battlefield.


4) The driving tour has a small parking lot at the location of the British line at the beginning of the battle and the official location of the third line of the Continentals.  The battlefield is not very large and can be easily walked along the old Green River Road through the center of the battlefield.


5) At the southern end of the battlefield there is a very nice picnic area and 2 mile nature trail.  We did not have time to take the nature trail since we needed to return to the Visitor Center for the Battlefield Tour right after lunch.

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