Research Paper: Battle of Cowpens Review the Operational Situation This Is the Campaign

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Battle of Cowpens: A Battle Analysis


The Battle of Cowpen was a battle fought at Cowpens, South Carolina on January 17, 1781 between Revolutionary forces led by Brigadier General Daniel Morgan and British forces led by Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton. The Cowpens battlefield was located north of Cowpens town in Cherokee County, near the town of Chesnee.

Strategic/Operational Overview

The Battle of Cowpens was fought in the Southern Theater of the American Revolutionary War, during the later stages of the war. South Carolina, as was most of the Southern colonies, was under British Occupation at this time. The British were also supported by a significant number of American colonists who remained loyal to the British after the Revolution was declared. (Buchanan 275-280).

The British forces' Southern Campaign was partly motivated by politics back in Britain. The Crown was displeased with early British defeats and pressured leadership to achieve victories for to rejuvenate popular support for the costly war. Because General Washington adopted a strategy of defense and evasion following his army's early victories, the British military leadership saw no hope of success in the Northern theater. (Buchanan 54). The British forces, directed their attention to the Southern Theater. (Buchanan 120).

The British won major victories against the Revolutionary forces at Savannah, Georgia in December 1778 and Charleston, South Carolina in May 1780, where the outnumbered Revolutionary forces were captured by the British. The British later consolidated their hold on South Carolina during the Battle of Camden, South Carolina in August, 1780, where they destroyed the numerically superior Revolutionary forces led by General Horatio Gates, the hero of Saratoga. (Buchanan 172).

Following the defeat at Camden, General Washington appointed General Nathaniel Green as Commander of the Southern Department of the Continental forces, with the responsibility of liberating the Southern colonies from British occupation. (Buchanan 275). The Southern Continental forces were assisted, however, by decisive victory of Patriot militia over Loyalist forces led by British Major Patrick Ferguson at the Battle of Kings Mountain in October 1780, where most of the 1,100 Loyalist soldiers were either killed, captured, or wounded. (Buchanan 237). This victory forced British Lieutenant General Charles Cornwallis to terminate his invasion of North Carolina and support British fortifications in South Carolina instead. (Buchanan 244).


Study the area of operations.

(1) weather

The winter in South Carolina was typically mild and wet. This was the case in the days leading up to the battle, as the roads were muddy and the creeks flooded the banks. The weather on the day of battle 55-65'F, with winds at 10 knots. (Buchanan 320).

(2) terrain.

The terrain near the battlefield was generally hilly, with numerous creeks and fords throughout. There were two one major roads in the area, the Mill Gap Road and a road running northwest to North Carolina. Morgan made camp north of the Mill Gap Road in a wooded ravine with a stream of water running through it.

The position selected for the action lay on both sides of the Mill Gap Road, just south of the camp. The ground was hilly, with little underbrush. Two very slight elevations on top of the ridge, which were selected as the lines of deployment for the American troops. The ravine in which Morgan camped and one on the opposite side of the road was very open and flat, though dotted with trees. From either ridge, the terrain between the two was visible under and through the trees. (Army War College, Part II)


Compare the principle antagonists (Operational/Tactical).


size and composition.

The Continental force numbered between 11,912, composed of both standard Continental forces, state forces, and militia. The Continental forces consisted of 82 Continental light dragoons and 300 Continental infantry. The state forces consisted of 55 state dragoons and 150 state infantry. The militia forces consisted 45 militia dragoons and 1,280 militia infantry. (Babit 46).

The British force numbered 1,150 men, composed of both British forces and loyalist American forces. The British force was composed of 300 cavalry, 553 regulars, 24 artillerymen and 281 militia. (Babit 46).



The Continental army infantry were equipped with muzzleloading flintlock muskets equipped with bayonets. The British army infantry were also equipped with muzzleloading flintlock muskets equipped with bayonets. In addition, the British Royal Artillery also possessed two 3-pounder cannons, chosen for their ability to be moved quickly in support of Tarleton's highly mobile units.



The Continental force commanded by Morgan consisted of veteran Continental forces, mixed with a larger amount of militiamen, most of whom were inexperienced. The British force commanded by Tarleton was composed primarily of the British Legion, a mixed infantry and cavalry force that constituted some of the best British troops in the Carolinas.


condition and morale.

Morgan's force had been steadily moving west from Charlotte for three weeks, crossing the Pacolet River in the process. After three weeks, the force had to retreat more briskly from Tarleton's force over a period of 5 days, after Tarleton learned of Morgan's position and received reinforcements. Though they were likely winded at this point, they had arrived at the field of battle 15 hours before the enemy and set up camp, which allowed them to rest. (Buchanan 288-290).

Morgan decided to take a position with his back to the Broad River instead of crossing the Broad River. Though the stress of being pursued by an elite force may have lowered morale initially, the impossibility of escape ultimately instilled a sense of urgency, raising morale. The fact that the force arrived at the field of battle first, having a day to set up camp and prepare for battle, probably made the troops feel in control of the situation, further raising morale. (Buchanan 295-298).

Tarleton's force had marched in haste to Ninety-Six to support the fort that the British believed Morgan would attack. Afterwards, Tarleton set out in pursuit of Morgan with a fresh set of reinforcements but without knowledge of Morgan's position. After learning of Morgan's position, Tarleton rushed his force to the position and arrived at 3:00 A.M. On the day of the battle, declining to camp for the night. (Buchanan 311-315). Also, the British had run out of food in the forty-eight hours before the battle and had only gotten 4 hours of sleep during that period. Thus, Tarleton's force was likely hungry and exhausted. (Babit 156).

Tarleton's force was composed mostly of the elite British Legion, which had better morale than the average British regular. Also, Tarleton had a history of success pursuing units, and their pursuit of Morgan's force up to the Broad River must have made the troops eager. However, arriving to the field of battle late, hungry, and exhausted, while having to attack the enemy uphill must have had a detrimental effect on morale.

d. State the mission and describe initial disposition of the opposing forces.

Morgan was commanded by Greene to take a detachment of Green's outnumbered force (relative to Cornwallis' combined forces), take command of the militia west of the Catawba River, and gather more militia and supplies from the area. Morgan was then charged with taking a position between Broad River and Pacolet River in order to present a rear threat to Cornwallis' force. Morgan crossed the Pacolet River and retreated from Tarleton's force up to the Broad River, where he encamped.

Tarleton was commanded by Cornwallis, who was given faulty intelligence, to take a small detachment to support the British fort at Ninety-Six, South Carolina, which was purportedly under threat of attack by Morgan. Tarleton discovered that Morgan was not at Ninety-Six, but decided to pursue Morgan anyway. Tarleton probably decided to pursue Morgan with a smaller force in order to remove the threat that Morgan's force posed to British fortifications in the area. Tarleton learned of Morgan's position between the Pacolet River and Broad River and met the encamped force right before Broad River.

Morgan placed his main infantry on a low hill, deliberately leaving his flanks exposed to his opponent. He then set up three lines of soldiers. The first line consisted of 150 skirmishers. The second line consisted of 300 experienced militiamen. The third line consisted of 550 experienced infantry set on a hill, which was to be the main line and center of the formation. Behind, the main line, Morgan set up the light dragoons to provide cover.

Tarleton place his main infantry in a line to advance directly on Morgan's position. He placed dragoon units on the sides of these units to protect the main infantry's flank. He placed the 250-man battalion of experienced Scottish Highlanders behind the right side of the main line in reserve. Finally, he kept his own unit of 200 cavalry well behind the main line in reserve in order to pursue Morgan's fleeing units after he routed Morgan's force.




Describe the opening moves of the battle.

Tarleton ordered his dragoons to attack the first line of skirmishers, before retreating. Tarleton then… [END OF PREVIEW]

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