Research Paper: Battle of Cowpens the British

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[. . .] He was afraid that he would get caught between Tarleton and Cornwallis, so he decided to do a tactical retreat to the north in order to avoid having to face both Tarleton and Cornwallis's troops at the same time.[footnoteRef:16] This was an excellent move by Morgan and demonstrated that he had the ability to analyze his own forces as compared to the other side's forces. Morgan continued to march quickly towards the Broad River with Tarleton's troops on their heels. Tarleton was ambitious and had a reputation for being relentless when in pursuit. [16: Buchanan 312]

On the afternoon of January 16 Morgan was approaching the Broad River. The Broad River was high with flood waters and difficult to cross at that time. By nightfall Morgan came to a place called Cowpens, justly named as it was a grazing area for local cattle. Morgan knew that the delay caused by floodwaters meant that Tarleton would soon catch up to him. Another reason for Morgan's decision to stand and fight was that he was afraid that if he ran, it would cause the locals to lose heart in the cause.[footnoteRef:17] He did it as much for them as for himself. [17: Edwin Bearss. The Battle of Cowpens: A Documented Narrative and Troop Movement Maps. (Johnson City, Tennessee: Overmountain Press. 1996),9. ]

Morgan met up with Pickens and his troops, which consisted of a large group of militia. Pickens and his troops had been patrolling the area. Morgan had to make a choice. He knew that he could not continue to retreat and that Tarleton's troops would catch up due to the delay in crossing the river. He decided to stand and fight, rather than to get caught unprepared while crossing the river. Tarleton received word of Morgan's location and began marching for him. Tarleton made his troops to rise at 3:00 AM and march, rather than camping for the night.[footnoteRef:18] The stage for the battle was set. [18: Buchanan 314-315]

The Troops

The size of the American army is a much disputed topic. Lawrence Babits found that although Morgan's troops were not that great in number, they were joined by several other battalions and militia, making their numbers much bigger than is often reported by many sources. Morgan's troops are typically reported as 600-800 men, but this does not count those that joined him at the river. In this battle the Continental forces led by General Daniel Morgan being comprised of about 1000 men, mainly militia.[footnoteRef:19] According to Babits, the list of troops joining Morgan is as follows: [19: "The Battle of Cowpens 1781," British Battles.Com, accessed 17 February, 2012,]

A battalion of Continental infantry under Lt-Col John Eager Howard, (300)

Virginia State troops under Captain John Lawson (75)

South Carolina State troops under Captain Joseph Pickens (60)

North Carolina State troops under Captain Henry Connelly (number not given)

Virginia Militia battalion under Frank Triplett (160)

Three companies of Virginia Militia under Major David Campbell (50)

North Carolina Militia under Colonel Joseph McDowell (260 -- 285)

A brigade of four battalions of South Carolina Militia under Colonel Andrew Pickens, (730)

Three small companies of Georgia Militia commanded by Major Cunningham (55)

detachment of the 1st and 3rd Continental Light Dragoons under Lt-Col William Washington (82).

Detachments of state dragoons from North Carolina and Virginia (30)

detachment of South Carolina State Dragoons, with a few mounted Georgians, commanded by Major James McCall (25)[

A company of newly raised volunteers from the local South Carolina Militia commanded by Major Benjamin Jolly (45)

As one can see, there were many more troops than many history sources would have one believe. Babits is considered to be the authoritative source on the numbers of Morgan's troops. It was not just Morgan and his small battalion of roughly 600 men. If one adds the numbers accounted for by Babits, one easily comes up with a total of 1,887 to 1,912 officers and men. Morgan's troops can be described as veterans, at least the continental troops. His militia had also seen action at the battle of Musgrove Mill and the Battle of Kings Mountain.[footnoteRef:20] His regulars were well seasoned. However, the same cannot be said for his militia. [20: Buchanan 319]

The British forces, numbering about 1100 were led by Colonel Banastre Tarleton. His command consisted of 7th Light Dragoons, 7th Royal Fusiliers Regiment, 71st Regiment (Fraser's Highlanders) and a battery of Royal Artillery. [footnoteRef:21] These troops were considered to be more experienced and better trained than the militia under General Morgan. This was a condition that was not unique to this battle. Throughout the revolutionary war the Americans faced British troops that were larger, better trained, a better equipped for the battle.[footnoteRef:22] Yet, by the end of the war, it was the Americans that defeated a seemingly insurmountable foe. [21: "Battle of Cowpens," accessed February 19. 2012,] [22: Thomas Raddal."Tarleton's Legion."Collections of the Nova Scotia Historical Society. Vol. 28. Halifax, NS: Allen Print Limited, 1949. ]

Tarleton's men consisted of both experienced soldiers and new recruits that were intended to reinforce the garrison at Fort Ninety Six where they were to receive additional training before going into action. Raw recruits comprised approximately 10% of Tarleton's troops. Tarleton's regular troops were considered to be a formidable foe when they were pursuing someone. However, when the opposition turned and gave them a good fight, they were uncertain.[footnoteRef:23] This would prove and important factor to the outcome of the battle. [23: Babits 46. ]

According to many sources, other than Babits, it makes it sound as if Morgan was severely outnumbered by the British troops. However, when one begins to look of the other detachments that were with Morgan, one can see that Morgan's troops significantly outnumbered the British troops. Even with superior numbers on his side, Morgan's strategy still played a key role in the defeat of the British. When one closely examines the details of the battle, it becomes clear that the numbers had very little to do with Morgan's victory, and it was Morgan's strategy that won the day. Let us now closely examine the strategy used by Morgan to defeat Tarleton's troops in the battle of Cowpens.


Morgan's strategy when he decided to stand and fight may gave derived from the fact that if he stood and fought, then he would have the assistance of the other troops. If he continued to run, when Tarleton caught up with him, he would be largely on his own. He felt that he stood a better chance to stand and fight than to continue to run under the circumstances. However, Morgan only had a short time to devise his strategy before he would face Tarleton's troops. He knew that the element of surprise would be a key to victory.

Morgan decided to use the unique landscape of Cowpens to his advantage. One of his key advantages was and he knew his men and he knew his opponent. He knew that Tarleton would be more likely to attack from the front and face them head on, as this was the most widely used strategy by British troops at that time.[footnoteRef:24] They depended on force to defeat an opponent. Morgan also I knew that his own militia troops are notorious for running as soon as they see the first shots fired. This leaves the regulars abandoned and with reduced numbers. The habit of militia running at the beginning of battle made them more of a hazard than a help in many situations. When the militia would run, it would give the British confidence and encourage them to press on even harder. [24 V.G. Fowler, V.G. "Brigadier General Daniel Morgan." U.S. Department of the Interior: National Park Service: Cowpens National Battlefield South Carolina. 2005. ]

Morgan knew that his militia were likely to run at the first sign of battle, so he decided to use them in an unconventional way and place his army between the Broad River and Pacolet River. This would make it impossible to escape and they would have nowhere to run. Typically, one would try to leave themselves an escape route should things go wrong. However, Morgan's experience at the Battle of Camden taught him what could happen if the militia turned and ran. At this battle the militia ran as soon as the shooting began, leaving half of the force on the battlefield.[footnoteRef:25] Leaving the militia with no way to escape was one way to ensure that they would remain on the battlefield, rather than running. He left them no choice but to stand and fight. [25: Buchanan 328]

Anticipating a direct attack, Morgan chose a low hill as a center of his position. This is where he placed his continental infantry. He deliberately left its flanks exposed to his opponent top draw them to what they would see as an error on his part. Morgan planned is attack in three phases. He arranged its troops in three… [END OF PREVIEW]

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Battle of Cowpens the British.  (2012, May 9).  Retrieved June 15, 2019, from

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"Battle of Cowpens the British."  May 9, 2012.  Accessed June 15, 2019.