Battle of Cowpens Research Paper

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Battle of Cowpens

The British Are Not Coming: How the Read Coats Lost the Battle of Cowpens

The Battle of Cowpens is considered by many historians to be a critical battle, which to a large extent shaped the outcome of the American Revolutionary War or War of Independence. This is due to the fact that it was seen as a "…decisive first step by American forces in reclaiming South Carolina from the British and ultimately turning the tide of the Revolutionary War." [footnoteRef:1] The following discussion will provide a brief overview of the battle and attempt to provide an answer to the question, "how did the British lose the Battle of Cowpens?" [1: "Battle of Cowpens," accessed February 19. 2012,]

Thesis statement

Although, there were other factors involved, the defeat of the British at the Battle of Cowpens was attributed to the superior strategy on the part of General Morgan and his clever use of troop positioning and movement. It is also suggested that the reason for his victory was his astute ability to ascertain the intentions and likely strategy of the enemy as well as understanding the capabilities and weaknesses of his own men. The thesis is that Morgan's strategy, more than any other factor, was responsible for the defeat of the British at the Battle of Cowpens.

Overview and Discussion

The Battle of Cowpens took place on January 17, 1781 in South Carolina in an area close to the border of North Carolina. The American War for Independence was in a stage of stasis with neither side making any dramatic progress. The reason for this situation was that "… both sides didn't have enough strength to make full offensive attacks." [footnoteRef:2] As a result "…both the British and the Colonists fought this war ferociously with tactics such as guerrilla warfare." [footnoteRef:3] This resulted in a war that consisted mostly of small skirmishes. The lack of ability to conduct a large offensive on either side, meant that neither side could make significant progress in their goals. [2: "What happened at the battle of cowpens?", accessed 18 February, 2012,] [3: "What happened at the battle of cowpens?", accessed 18 February, 2012,]

The war had been dragging on for six years. However, the Continental Army had not had any decisive victories over the British in more than three years. [footnoteRef:4] The overall Commander of the British forces, General Cornwallis, also found himself in difficulties as the campaigns in the southern states of the country had lasted longer than he had originally anticipated and his troops had been forced to forage for food. Fighting a battle so far from one's own supply lines was proving difficult. This meant that food was taken from the colonialists to feed the British army. This angered the colonists even further, resulting in increased anti-British sentiment and an increase in the number of recruits to the militias opposed to the British occupancy. [4: Frank Stroupe, "Battle of Cowpens," Free Info Society, accessed 18 February, 2012,]

There was also strong sentient in South Carolina against the brutal tactics that were being employed by the British troops in the area. For example, the British commander under Cornwallis, Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton, "…had been known to murder prisoners rather than capture them." [footnoteRef:5] Tactics such as these only angered the colonists further. The British were fighting a battle in a land of enemies, one in which they found themselves with decreasing allies and increasing enemies. However, up until this point, the British had been able to make significant progress, or at least halt the revolution through better trained troops and superior equipment as compared to the American forces. [5: Frank Stroupe, "Battle of Cowpens," Free Info Society, accessed 18 February, 2012,]

Even though they were at a disadvantage, the British had been able to levy defeat after defeat to the American forces. This significantly affected the morale of the American military and the colonists as well. They were beginning to lose heart and see the British as an unstoppable force. A major military defeat of the British at this juncture would consequently have larger ramifications in terms of morale for the American Revolutionaries. Therefore, the Battle of the Cowpens was not only a single victory against the British but is seen as the beginning of the eventual defeat of the British in the American War for Independence.

General Daniel Morgan

General Morgan was not new to the battlefield and brought with him a strong background of battle experience. Morgan's military experience dated back to the French and Indian War as well as the Siege of Boston. In 1775, he fought in the Battle of Quebec, a battle which ended in Morgan's defeat and subsequent capture by the British.[footnoteRef:6] Morgan was freed in a prisoner exchange in 1777 and placed in command of a handpicked force of 500 rifleman by General Washington. Morgan and his group of elite rifleman played as decisive role in the victory at Saratoga. [footnoteRef:7] [6: Buchanan 270-284] [7: Buchanan 285]

Despite these victories, Morgan was passed over for advancement. This discouraged Morgan regarding his military career. Morgan became plagued by attacks of sciatica and left the army in 1779 as a result. However, he returned only one year later and was promoted to brigadier general.[footnoteRef:8] This military background and experience gave Morgan the advantage and the ability to assess his own troops and those of the British that he would face. Morgan and his troops were under the direction of General Greene of the Southern Division. [8: Buchanan 292]

Before the Battle of Cowpens, General Greene knew that his army was weak and would be unlikely to be able to face the British head on in a fight. Therefore, he decided to do something unconventional and split his troops.[footnoteRef:9] Splitting one's troops was typically considered to be a bad idea because it reduced the numbers available to face the enemy. General Greene sent a detachment west of the Catawba River to attempt to raise the morale of the locals in support of the war efforts. He hoped that they would contribute supplies beyond those available around Charlotte. [footnoteRef:10] Greene gave Morgan command of the wing that was supposed make this maneuver and later join him west of the Catawba River. [9: 70th Congress 54-56] [10: Buchanan 292]

Morgan headed out on December 21 with approximately 600 men, four hundred of which were from the Continental Army. He took position between the Broad River and Pacolet River, assisting civilians that needed it along the way. Once they reached the Pacolet River they were joined by 60 South Carolina militia. There also are joined by other militia from Georgia and the Carolinas.[footnoteRef:11] This significantly bolstered his troops. [11: Buchanan 296-302]

Lieutenant Commander Tarleton

While this was going on, the British troops led by Lord Cornwallis were planning to invade North Carolina, an action they had postponed after the defeat it Kings Mountain. [footnoteRef:12] Morgan, in his position by the river, posed a threat to Cornwallis's ability to do invade the southern states. One of the key turning points in the southern campaign came when Cornwallis received incorrect intelligence that Morgan was going to attack the British fort at Ninety Six, South Carolina. His main objective was to save the fort and defeat Morgan's command. On January 2, Cornwallis's ordered Lieutenant Commander Banastre Tarleton to head west to meet up with Morgan and defeat him.[footnoteRef:13] [12: Ibid. ] [13: Buchanan 306-309]

Lieutenant Commander Tarleton was much younger and less experienced than Morgan. His military career began when he and a very small party captured General Charles Lee in New Jersey in December of 1776. He served with distinction at the Seige of Charleston and the Battle of Camden. With this little bit of experience, he was given some of the best British troops in the Carolinas. He soon gained a reputation for being ruthless and was one of the most hated by the American soldiers and colonists alike. His men killed American soldiers after they had surrendered, which made him a target to be had by the American troops.[footnoteRef:14] This did not gain him popularity with the locals either. [14: Buchanan 309]

Tarleton, following orders from Cornwallis, marched to the Ninety Six only to find that Morgan was not there. However, Tarleton decided to follow Morgan anyway and sent word back to Cornwallis to send reinforcements of British regulars. Tarleton set out to meet Morgan and drive them across the Broad River. On January 12, Tarleton learned the location of Morgan's troops and began a hard march to catch up.[footnoteRef:15] It was Tarleton's intention to catch Morgan between both his and Cornwallis's troops. It appears that both sides had a good understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of each other and the inability of American troops to face forces that were large and well trained. [15: Buchanan 311]


The setup for the Battle of Cowpens began when Morgan learned that Tarleton…[continue]

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