Despite the success of the combined American and French forces in the Middle Colonies, the southern colonies remained under British control. The British had recently captured the port cities of Savannah, Georgia and Charleston, South Carolina in 1778 and 1779. The siege at Charleston was particularly costly for Patriot forces. 5,000 Patriot soldiers were surrendered, making it the single largest loss of soldiers for the Patriot cause during the Revolutionary War.
On October 14, 1780, General George Washington chose Nathaniel Greene to lead Patriot forces in the South against the British. Because Greene’s small army of 2,300 soldiers would be no match for the British armies in the area, he decided to split it into two parts, giving command of the detachment he sent to the west of the Catawba River to Brigadier General Daniel Morgan. Morgan was to join another militia in the area and was assigned to protect the locals living in between the Broad and Pacolet Rivers.
British General Charles Cornwallis, in charge of British forces in the South, ordered Banastre (Benny) Tarleton to engage Morgan’s forces, and to protect a fort he mistakenly believed Morgan would attack. By disposing of Morgan’s army, Cornwallis would have a clear path to invade North Carolina. When Tarelton realized Morgan’s army had no intention of taking the fort, he called for reinforcements and began following Morgan, who decided to engage Tarelton at an area in between the Broad and Pacolet Rivers where cows often grazed. Morgan was said to have positioned his army in between the two rivers, so that his soldiers could not desert the army when attacked.
At 6:45 in the morning on January 17, 1781, Tarelton’s exhausted and possibly malnourished army engaged Morgan’s at what came to be known as Cowpens. Before Tarleton’s arrival, however, Morgan had positioned his troops in formations that ultimately confused the charging British soldiers and officers. After the initial British charge, the first two lines of Patriot fighters withdrew. Tarelton believed the Patriots to be in full retreat and ordered his soldiers to charge. What Tarelton failed to account for, however, was a third line of Patriot fighters waiting for the British charge. In an attempt to chase the lines of Patriots who seemed to be in retreat, British forces charged directly into the third line of Patriots who immediately halted the British advance with a bayonet charge of their own. Many exhausted British soldiers surrendered on the spot and others turn and ran. Soon, the British army was outflanked and Patriot forces began attacking the British from behind. British forces began a disorderly retreat, despite the desperate urgings of Tarelton to continue fighting.
As the battle ended, Morgan captured 712 British soldiers. 110 British soldiers were killed in the battle. 128 Patriot soldiers were killed or wounded. The surprising Patriot victory at Cowpens served as a turning point in the Southern campaign of the Revolutionary War. Cowpens would ultimately prove to be the first step in the eventual end of the war as it caused Cornwallis to abandon South Carolina, engage General Nathaniel Greene at Guilford’s Courthouse in North Carolina, and eventually withdraw his battered army to Yorktown, Virginia – where his army would eventually come under siege and surrender.