Summary of the Battle of Cowpens
The Battle of Cowpens took place on January 17, 1781, at Cowpens, South Carolina. It was part of the fighting that took place in the Southern Theater of the American Revolutionary War. The British forces were led by Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton, who had been sent by General Charles Cornwallis to attack the Americans. Cornwallis had received information that indicated the Americans were going to attack the fort at Ninety-Six, South Carolina, which was garrisoned by American Loyalists. When Tarleton found out the Americans were not at Ninety-Six he went looking for them. Daniel Morgan expected the attack and took defensive positions near the Broad River. When Tarleton arrived, his men were exhausted from the long march but he proceeded to attack. Morgan had his men pull back as if they were retreating from the field. The movements confused the British and allowed the Americans to mount a bayonet charge. The attack took the British by surprise and their forces collapsed. Many of the British turned and ran, but some surrendered right away. As the British retreated from the field in disarray, Colonel William Washington confronted Tarleton and the two fought in single combat. They were both wounded and Washington pursued Tarleton on horseback for about 16 miles, until Tarleton managed to escape. The Americans won the day and were able to capture a significant number of the best troops under the command of Cornwallis.
This painting by Frederick Kemmelmeyer depicts action at the Battle of Cowpens. Image Source: Wikipedia.
- Date Started: The battle started on January 17, 1781.
- Date Ended: The fighting ended on January 17, 1781.
- Location: The battle took place at Cowpens in Cherokee County, South Carolina.
- Who Won: The Americans won the Battle of Cowpens.
- George Washington sent Nathanael Greene to take command of the Southern Army.
- Greene split his forces in two and sent Morgan and his men to cut off British supply lines.
- Cornwallis sent Tarleton to confront Morgan.
- Tarleton had earned a reputation for his brutal tactics, known as “Tarleton’s Quarter,” which meant he ordered his men to take no prisoners.
- After the Battle of Waxhaws, Tarleton was accused of ignoring American troops who were trying to surrender, and allowing his men to massacre them.
- The Battle of Cowpens served as the inspiration for the climactic battle scene in the movie “The Patriot.”
This illustration from “The Story of the Revolution” by Henry Cabot Lodge depicts the fight between Tarleton (left) and Washington. Image Source. New York Public Library Digital Collections.
Important Leaders and Casualties
Prominent American Military Leaders
- Daniel Morgan
- William Washington
- Andrew Pickens
- John McDowell
- John Cunningham
- John Howard
Prominent British Military Leaders
- Banastre Tarleton
- Arthur MacArthur
- The total estimated casualties were around 1,000 killed, wounded, or missing.
- The Americans suffered around 150 casualties.
- The British suffered around 850 casualties.
The Battle of Cowpens was important because it forced Cornwallis to abandon South Carolina. Instead, he pursued Greene’s forces into North Carolina. In North Carolina, Cornwallis and Greene fought at the Battle of Guilford Court House, which the British won. After Guildford Court House, Cornwallis went to Yorktown to allow his army to rest and resupply. The move was a mistake and gave the Americans and French the opportunity to trap the British on the coast. With French ships blockading the harbor, Washington surrounded Yorktown and laid siege to the city, which eventually led to the surrender of Cornwallis. The Battle of Yorktown was the last significant action of the American Revolutionary War.
This painting of Banastre Tarleton was done by Joshua Reynolds. The character of William Tavington from the movie “The Patriot” is based on Tarleton. Image Source: Wikipedia.
Timeline of the Battle of Cowpens
This timeline shows how the Battle of Cowpens fits into the chronology of the Southern Theater.
- April 1, 1780 — Siege of Charleston Begins
- April 14, 1780 — Battle of Monck’s Corner
- May 6, 1780 — Battle of Lenud’s Ferry
- May 12, 1780 — Siege of Charleston Ends
- May 29, 1780 — Battle of Waxhaws
- July 12, 1780 — Battle of Williamson’s Plantation
- July 21, 1780 — Battle of Colson’s Mill
- July 30, 1780 — First Battle of Hanging Rock
- July 30, 1780 — Battle of Rocky Mount
- August 6, 1780 — Second Battle of Hanging Rock
- August 8, 1780 — Battle of Wofford’s Iron Works
- August 16, 1780 — First Battle of Camden
- August 18, 1780 — Battle of Fishing Creek
- August 18, 1780 — Battle of Musgrove’s Mill
- August 20, 1780 — First Battle of Great Savannah
- September 4, 1780 — Battle of Blue Savannah
- September 12, 1780 — First Battle of Cane Creek
- September 26, 1780 — Battle of Charlotte
- September 29, 1780 — Battle of Black Mingo Creek
- October 3, 1780 — Battle of the Bees
- October 7, 1780 — Battle of King’s Mountain
- October 14, 1780 — Battle of Shallow Ford
- November 9, 1780 — Battle of Fishdam Ford
- November 20, 1780 — Battle of Blackstock’s Plantation
- January 17, 1781 — Battle of Cowpens
- February 1, 1781 — Battle of Cowan’s Ford
- February 3, 1781 — Battle of Trading Ford
- February 25, 1781 — Battle of Haw River
- March 2, 1781 — Battle of Clapp’s Mill
- March 6, 1781 — Battle of Wetzell’s Mill
- March 15, 1781 — Battle of New Garden Meetinghouse
- March 15, 1781 — Battle of Guilford Court House
- April 25, 1781 — Battle of Hobkirk’s Hill (Second Battle of Camden)
- April 25, 1781 — Battle of Petersburg
- May 10, 1781 — Third Battle of Camden
- May 13, 1781 — Battle of Myhand’s Bridge
- May 22, 1781 — Siege of Ninety-Six Begins