The Battle of Cowpens 1781

Battle: COWPENS

A British 17th Light Dragoon
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 Tarleton

Size of the armies: The Americans had around 1,000 men and the British around 1,100.

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
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.

British Regiments:
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
“Tory” militia

American Regiments:
William Washington’s dragoons
Maryland Continentals
Delaware Continentals
Virginia Militia
North Carolina Militia
Georgia Militia

Account:
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 actions.

Map of the Battle of Cowpens
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
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
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 16th Light Dragoons
Colonel Washington and his dragoons attacking the British Light Dragoons

Casualties:
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

Follow-up:

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”.

References:

  • History of the British Army by Sir John Fortescue
  • The War of the Revolution by Christopher Ward