The Patriot Resource - American Revolution

Battle of Cowpens
Battle of Cowpens

The Battle: General Morgan Arrays His Troops
Brig. General Daniel Morgan had taken the time to listen to his officers who had experience fighting in the Carolinas. He learned of Lt. Colonel Tarleton's tendencies from his officers like Lt. Colonel Washington, who had twice skirmished with Tarleton. Morgan's plan for battle would now rely on Tarleton's tendency for quick, aggressive frontal charges. He also counted on British expectations of the militia fleeing, like it had at Camden. Morgan himself spent most of the night of January 16th going from campfire to campfire exhorting the militia to stand and take two shots.

About two hours before daybreak on January 17, 1781, a scout brought news to General Morgan that British Lt. Colonel Banastre Tarleton was about five miles away. Morgan immediately ordered reveille. He gave his men a chance to eat breakfast before deploying his forces, which numbered about 1,000 on this day. Morgan placed 120 chosen Georgia and North Carolina sharpshooters in trees to pick off British officers and act as a skirmishing line. About 150 yards behind them, Morgan placed 300 North and South Carolina and Georgia militia under the command of Andrew Pickens. 100 riflemen from Virginia protected Pickens' right.

The main body of General Morgan's force was stationed on a rise 150 yards beyond the militia and 300 yards beyond the sharpshooters. There Morgan placed 280 Maryland and Delaware Continental regulars under Lt. Colonel John Eager Howard. They were joined by 200 Virginia militia, who had previously served as regulars. Behind the rise down in a small swale, Lt. Colonel William Washington and his eighty cavalry joined by forty-five volunteers waited as reserves.

After his men had formed up, General Morgan rode his lines giving encouragement by his speech and presence. Morgan again instructed the forward sharpshooters to harass Tarleton's lines, then retreat back to Andrew Pickens before the British could mount a bayonet charge on their positions. Morgan told Pickens' men to hold their fire until the British were within fifty yards, fire twice and retreat back behind the left of the Continental line and form up to the left of regulars commanded by Lt. Colonel John Eager Howard. Morgan then addressed his regulars with some encouraging words before he took his position just behind the regulars where he could observe the whole field.

Sometime before dawn, Lt. Colonel Tarleton's forward van arrived at Cowpens. A messenger was sent back to Tarleton, who then asked his Tory guides for a description of the land around Cowpens. They described an open land with the Broad River six miles away running parallel to the rear of the Continental position. Tarleton later wrote that he felt the land was perfect for his preferred tactics. The open land lent to his favorite tactic of cavalry charges, while the river cut off easy retreat.

Around 6:45 A.M. on that cold morning the head of Lt. Colonel Tarleton's force of 1,076 emerged from the woods. Soon after, the sharpshooters began their harassing fire, which made it difficult for Tarleton to study the deployment of General Morgan's forces. Tarleton ordered a detachment of fifty dragoons to charge and disperse the sharpshooters. The dragoons never finished their charge as the sharpshooters sent them back to the British line after fifteen fell from their saddles.

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