Battle of Cowpens A Battle Research Paper

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Morgan's skirmishers kept firing as they withdrew to join the second line of militiamen. Tarleton's main infantry and cannons then attacked Morgan's second line. (Buchanan 321-322).

Morgan's second line fired a volley into Tarleton's infantry line, which scattered Tarleton's line. Tarleton's infantry regrouped and charged at the second line, joined by a unit of dragoons. The second line fired a second volley at Tarleton's main line before retreating to the back of the third line. (Buchanan 322-323).


Detail the major phases/key events.

Tarleton believed that the Revolutionary forces were broken when second line retreated. He ordered a full advance on the third line positioned on the top of the hill. He ordered the reserve unit of Highlanders to flank the American right. (Buchanan 324).

Militia commander Howard ordered his militia unit to engage the Highlanders in front of the right flank. However, the militiamen misunderstood his order and withdrew from battle. Seeing the militiamen withdrawing, the advancing British force broke formation and charged en masse. (Buchanan 324).

When the mass of British troops got within 30 yards, the Morgan's third line fired a volley, killing many. At this point, the British troops were confused by the stiff resistance and paused. Also, the retreating American militiamen stopped halted their withdrawal and turned to face the enemy. (Buchanan 324).

Recognizing their advantage, Morgan's third line performed a bayonet charge on the now-catatonic British troops. Morgan's cavalry appeared from behind the American left to attack the British right flank. The second line of militiamen re-appeared from behind the American right to attack Tarleton's reserve Highlander unit which was now on the British left flank. (Buchanan 325).

The militiamen who halted their retreat earlier, then appeared to attack the Highlander unit from the other side. The coordinated charge shocked the British right flank and center line, both of which collapsed, leaving the Highlanders unit to fight off the militiamen alone. (Buchanan 325).

Recognizing that his force was going to be routed soon, Tarleton ordered his own cavalry unit, still in reserve, to charge. However, his cavalry unit realized that a charge would be suicide, so they disobeyed Tarleton and left the field of battle. Tarleton, with a few loyal cavalry, entered the field himself, but was repelled by the larger American cavalry under Colonel Washington. Tarleton turned and fled the field. (Buchanan 326).


State the outcome.

The Continental force won a decisive victory, killing 110, wounding 200, and taking 712 prisoners. In return, the Continental force suffered 25 casualties and 124 wounded. Most of the elite troops of Cornwallis' army were lost in the Battle of Cowpens. (Buchanan 326).

The American victory at Cowpen forced Cornwallis out of South Carolina, into North Carolina, thereby abandoning British possessions in Georgia. This was the beginning of the expulsion of the British from the Southern Theater, which was to be completed at the Battle of Guilford Courthouse. (Buchanan 398). There, a quarter of Cornwallis' outnumbered forces were wounded, causing him to retreat to Yorktown, where he was finally besieged by General Washington's force, ending the Revolutionary War.



Explain the reasons for the outcome and the military "lessons learned."

Morgan succeeded because he made the most of his forces and of the situation. Morgan had inferior troop quality and inferior strategic initiative, as he was being chased by an elite force while boxed in between two rivers.

Morgan's victory demonstrated a number of strategic principles. First, Morgan understood the importance of timing and preparation, choosing to set up camp in front of the Broad River to wait for Tarleton, rather than crossing the Broad River while there was a possibility that Tarleton could catch him while crossing.

Second, Morgan understood the importance of morale. He knew that the inexperienced militiamen would get the urge to rout against superior troops so he placed his force with its back to the river, precluding the possibility of escape. Morgan recognized that soldiers in desperate straits lose their sense of caution and fight with desperate tenacity, as was observed by Sunzi in the Art of War. (Sunzi, Book IX, Verse 24)

Third, Morgan understood how to position his force to capitalize on his numerical advantage. He knew that he held a great advantage in number of infantry but a disadvantage in cavalry. He layered his forces into three lines of infantry in order to disorient the enemy and deceive them as to his true strength. He allowed the first two lines of skirmishers and militiamen to harass and deceive the enemy before getting out of harm's way.

Fourth, Morgan understood the importance of terrain. He positioned his core unit on the best strategic position on the field, ensuring that he would maximize the impact of his strongest unit as well as the best terrain. He also took advantage of the exhaustion of the enemy by placing

Tarleton failed because he ignored basic military principles out of an underestimation of his enemy. Tarleton ignored his force's inferior troop condition and morale. He also ignored the superior terrain on which Morgan's force rested. Finally, he ignored the advantage in preparation possessed by Morgan, who arrived to the battlefield 15 hours before Tarleton. To his credit, Tarleton could have gotten away with such digressions against many forces of a similar size. However, Tarleton underestimated the cleverness of Morgan's command.

It is likely that Tarleton pushed the attack because his food supply ran out. If Morgan's forces managed to cross the Broad River, he would have been able to hold that side of the river easily against Tarleton's cavalry-heavy force. Tarleton would have had no choice but to cease his pursuit at that point.


Buchanan, John (1997). The Road to Guilford Courthouse: The American Revolution in the Carolinas. New York: John Wiley and Sons.

Babits, Lawrence E. (1998). A Devil of a Whipping: The Battle of Cowpens Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Historical Section of the Army War College (1928). The Battle of Cowpens. Washington, D.C.: U.S.…

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