The American Patriots turned the southern theater, and the Revolutionary War, against the British at Cowpens. Essentially, the British fell into General Daniel Morgan’s trap leading to a rout. The arrogance of British commander Banestre Tartleton aided the rebels. The defeat pushed Lord Charles Cornwallis war effort into a death spiral. In the end, the Battle of Cowpens led to Yorktown and American independence.
After stalemate in the north, the British shifted operations to the south. George Washington responded by sending his best general, Nathanael Greene, to lead the American effort in the region. Up to the assignment, the British ran rough shot over the Patriots in South Carolina. Despite the American victory at King’s Mountain, the British captured an army at Charleston and destroyed General Horatio Gates at Camden. Greene recognized his army’s deficiencies and determined regular military operations would destroy it. He decided to wage a war of attrition against the British, avoid fighting battles that could eradicate his forces, and split his army.
Greene assigned Daniel Morgan command of his second wing. Morgan assumed command of the force of Continentals augmented by militia. Lord Cornwallis believed Morgan planned to attack a key British fort. In response to the nonexistent threat, the British commander ordered Lt. Colonel Tartleton to counter Morgan. Tartleton served with distinction at Camden, but earned a reputation as a butcher after murdering surrendering American soldiers. Morgan immediately redeployed to avoid being pinched between the two British commanders. On January 16, 1781, Morgan’s force arrived at Cowpens near Chesnee, South Carolina. The American commander had two choices. He could retreat and risk being cut to pieces while crossing the Broad River or he could fight. Morgan decided to make his stand at the traditional grazing pasture while Tarleton shifted his forces to meet the Americans.
General Morgan used the topography against his enemy. First, he left his wings exposed because a ravine on the right and a river on the left provided protection against the British. Second, he knew Tartleton would launch a frontal assault. In response, he placed his sharpshooters in the front, the militia in the middle, and then the main body in behind. Third, he placed the army between two rivers to block retreat. Throughout the war, the militia proved unreliable and undisciplined. By placing the militia between the sharpshooters and regulars, and by placing the whole army between two rivers, the militia had nowhere to run. This does not mean Morgan asked too much of the militia. Rather, he ordered them to fire two shots, retreat, and then reform in the rear.
When Tarleton attacked, Morgan’s strategy worked to perfection. The British advanced only to run headlong into another American line. Even Tarleton’s dragoons failed in their attempts to turn the Americans. The damage Morgan’s army inflicted completely astonished the British. They had not faced such opposition in south. After about an hour of battle, the Americans performed a bayonet charge. The British crumbled in shock in the face of American steel and the shocking reemergence of the militia in the very spot the Europeans expected their own cavalry to appear. Before he realized what happened, Morgan’s army managed a double envelopment. Tarleton fled in terror ending the Battle of Cowpens.
Tarleton lost his entire army with around 800 captured, 230 wounded, and over 100 killed. Morgan lost around 140 casualties. The American victory infused life into the war effort and shocked the British. If Tarleton won at Cowpens, Cornwallis probably pacifies South Carolina. The defeat changed the British strategy as Cornwallis decided to destroy Greene instead of concentrating on the colony. Cornwallis and Greene entered into a cat-and-mouse chase that led directly to Yorktown. Washington moved south to join his compatriot and turned the tables on Cornwallis. Trapped, Cornwallis surrendered to Washington effectively ending the American Revolution.