The Battle of Cowpens 1781
A British 17th Light Dragoon
War: American Revolutionary War
Date: 17th January 1781
Place: South Carolina on the border with North Carolina,
United States of America
Combatants: Americans against the British and loyalist Americans
Generals: Colonel Daniel Morgan against Lieutenant Colonel Banastre
Size of the armies: The Americans had around 1,000 men and the British
Uniforms, arms and equipment: The British wore red coats and headgear
of bearskin caps, leather caps or tricorne hats depending on whether
the troops were grenadiers, light infantry or battalion company men.
The two regiments of light dragoons serving in America, the 16th and
17th, wore red coats and leather crested helmets.
Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton of the
17th Light Dragoons, British commander at
the Battle of Camden and commander of
the notorious Tarleton’s Legion
Tarleton’s legion had a uniform of green and the cavalry wore light
dragoon helmets. The American continental regiments were largely
clothed in blue.
The militia of each side wore what they could get.
The British fought with musket and bayonet as did the American
Continental troops. Some of the militia from the back country of
Virginia, the Carolinas and Georgia carried rifles and in many cases
the Pennsylvania small calibre long rifle developed by the German
gunsmiths of that colony. It was these riflemen who at the beginning
of the battle shot down so many British officers and destroyed the
proper control of the British line.
Winner: The Americans, overwhelmingly.
17th Light Dragoons
7th Foot the Royal Fusiliers now the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers
a battalion of 71st Fraser’s Highlanders (disbanded after the war)
Royal Artillery with two 3 pounder guns
William Washington’s dragoons
North Carolina Militia
The war in the southern colonies had become something of a
stalemate, neither side having sufficient strength to hazard full out
offensive operations. The fighting was conducted by raiding columns
and guerilla activity. Both sides behaved with unrestrained ferocity.
Tarleton had made his reputation in the southern colonies as a
ruthless and impetuous commander. Pursued by Tarleton, Morgan
determined to make a stand by the Broad River. He selected a simple
position on two low hills in open woodland in the expectation that
Tarleton would make a headlong attack without pausing to devise a more
subtle plan. Morgan was correct in his assessment of Tarleton’s
Battle of Cowpens
Morgan placed the Georgia and North Carolina militia in front of his
line with a further screen of riflemen to their front. His main line
was on the first and higher hill and Washington’s dragoons were placed
behind the hill. He had no guns.
Morgan’s men had a night’s sleep and breakfast in their positions.
Tarleton marched his force onto the battlefield and attacked
immediately. His first move was to send the 17th Light Dragoons to
disperse the riflemen. The dragoons were driven back by accurate fire.
Militia urged in to Battle
Tarleton formed his infantry line and began the advance; the Light
Infantry on the right, the infantry of his legion in the centre and
the 7th Royal Fusiliers on the left. Troops of light dragoons flanked
the foot. The reserve comprised the 71st Highlanders and the cavalry
of Tarleton’s legion.
General Nathanial Greene
Morgan’s riflemen opened fire on the British line and made a point of
shooting down the “epaulettes" (the officers), before falling back
behind the main American line.
A troop of light dragoons pursued the riflemen and were attacked and
driven back by Washington’s dragoons.
As the British foot attacked, the 71st Highlanders extended the line
to the left, outflanking the Americans. The American line withdrew but
in good order. The British line lost its cohesion as it hurried to
pursue the Americans who halted and gave fire before Washington’s
dragoons again attacked, this time in the rear of the British line.
The Americans went onto the offensive and the British line was
overwhelmed. The 71st continued to fight until finally forced to
surrender. Only the Royal Artillery gunners fought until they were all
killed or wounded.
Tarleton fled the field with the remnants of his column, the cavalry
of his legion having refused to charge from the reserve.
Colonel Washington and his dragoons attacking the British Light
The British lost 39 officers and 60 soldiers killed. 829 were
captured. 12 Americans were killed and 60 wounded. The Americans
captured the British baggage and the colours of the 7th Foot.
Colonel "Light Horse" Harry Lee
This small battle had an effect disproportionate to its size. As
seemed to be the case throughout the war British victories achieved
little in the long term while every American victory gave
encouragement to the colonies.
Tradition and anecdote:
- The Americans gave “Tarleton’s quarter" to the surrendering
British and Loyalist troops- a bayonet in the stomach- until
restrained by their officers, an indication of the depths of ferocity
to which the fighting in the Carolinas descended, substantially due to
the conduct of Tarleton and his Legion.
- The 3 pounder guns were known as “grasshoppers".
- History of the British Army by Sir John Fortescue
- The War of the Revolution by Christopher Ward