The Battle of Cowpens in the Revolutionary War

Cavalry fight at the Battle of Cowpens depicting a​ black soldier firing his pistol to save William Washington on January 17, 1781

William Ranney / Public Domain 

The Battle of Cowpens was fought Jan. 17, 1781 during the American Revolution and saw American forces win one of their most tactically decisive victories of the conflict. In late 1780, British commander Lieutenant General Lord Charles Cornwallis sought to conquer the Carolinas and destroy Major General Nathanael Greene's small American army in the region. As he retreated north Greene directed Brigadier General Daniel Morgan to a take a force west to raise morale in the region and find supplies. Pursued by the aggressive Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton, Morgan made a stand in a pasture area known as the Cowpens. Correctly assessing his opponent's reckless nature, Morgan's men conducted a double envelopment of the British and effectively destroyed Tarleton's command.


After taking command of the battered American army in the South, Major General Greene divided his forces in December 1780. While Greene led one wing of the army towards supplies at Cheraw, South Carolina, the other, commanded by Brigadier General Morgan, moved to locate additional supplies for the army and stir up support in the backcountry. Aware the Greene had split his forces, Lieutenant General Cornwallis dispatched an 1,100-man force under Lieutenant Colonel Tarleton to destroy Morgan's command. A bold leader, Tarleton was notorious for atrocities committed by his men at earlier engagements including the Battle of Waxhaws

Riding out with a mixed force of cavalry and infantry, Tarleton pursued Morgan into northwestern South Carolina. A veteran of the war's early Canadian campaigns and a hero of the Battle of Saratoga, Morgan was a gifted leader who knew how to obtain the best from his men. Rallying his command in a pastureland known as the Cowpens, Morgan devised a cunning plan to defeat Tarleton. Possessing a varied force of Continentals, militia, and cavalry, Morgan chose Cowpens as it was between the Broad and Pacolet Rivers which cut off his lines of retreat.

Armies & Commanders


  • Brigadier General Daniel Morgan
  • 1,000 men


  • Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton
  • 1,100 men

Morgan's Plan

While opposite to traditional military thinking, the Morgan knew his militia would fight harder and be less inclined to flee if their lines of retreat were removed. For the battle, Morgan placed his reliable Continental infantry, led by Colonel John Eager Howard, on the slope of a hill. This position was between a ravine and a stream which would prevent Tarleton from moving around his flanks. In front of the Continentals, Morgan formed a line of militia under Colonel Andrew Pickens. Forward of these two lines was a select group of 150 skirmishers.

Lieutenant Colonel William Washington's cavalry (around 110 men) was placed out of sight behind the hill. Morgan's plan for the battle called for the skirmishers to engage Tarleton's men before falling back. Knowing that the militia was unreliable in combat, he asked that they fire two volleys before retreating behind the hill. Having been engaged by the first two lines, Tarleton would be forced to attack uphill against Howard's veteran troops. Once Tarleton was sufficiently weakened, the Americans would switch over to the attack.

Tarleton Attacks

Breaking camp at 2:00 AM on January 17, Tarleton pressed on to the Cowpens. Spotting Morgan's troops, he immediately formed his men for battle despite the fact they had received little food or sleep in the preceding two days. Placing his infantry in the center, with cavalry on the flanks, Tarleton ordered his men forward with a force of dragoons in lead. Encountering the American skirmishers, the dragoons took casualties and withdrew.

Pushing forward his infantry, Tarleton continued taking losses but was able to force the skirmishers back. Retreating as planned, the skirmishers kept firing as they withdrew. Pressing on, the British engaged Pickens' militia who fired their two volleys and promptly fell back around the hill. Believing the Americans were in full retreat, Tarleton ordered his men forward against the Continentals.

Morgan's Victory

Ordering the 71st Highlanders to attack the American right, Tarleton sought to sweep the Americans from the field. Seeing this movement, Howard directed a force of Virginia militia supporting his Continentals to turn to meet the attack. Misunderstanding the order, the militia instead began withdrawing. Driving forward to exploit this, the British broke formation and then were stunned when the militia promptly stopped, turned, and opened fire on them.

Unleashing a devastating volley at a range of about thirty yards, the Americans brought Tarleton's advance to a halt. Their volley complete, Howard's line drew bayonets and charged the British supported by rifle fire from Virginia and Georgia militia. Their advance stopped,the British were stunned when Washington's cavalry rode round the hill and struck their right flank.While this was occurring, Pickens' militia reentered the fray from the left, completing a 360-degree march around the hill.

Caught in a classic double envelopment and stunned by their circumstances, nearly half of Tarleton's command ceased fighting and fell to the ground. With his right and center collapsing, Tarleton gathered his cavalry reserve, his British Legion, and rode into the fray against the American horsemen. Unable to have any effect, he began withdrawing with what forces he could gather. During this effort, he was personally attacked by Washington. As the two fought, Washington's orderly saved his life when a British dragoon moved to strike him. Following this incident, Tarleton shot Washington's horse from under him and fled the field.


Coupled with the victory at Kings Mountain three months before, the Battle of Cowpens aided in blunting the British initiative in the South and regaining some momentum for the Patriot cause. In addition, Morgan's triumph effectively removed a small British army from the field and relieved pressure on Greene's command. In the fighting, Morgan's command sustained between 120 to 170 casualties, while Tarleton suffered approximately 300 to 400 dead and wounded, as well as around 600 captured.

Though the Battle of Cowpens was relatively small in regard to numbers involved, it played a key role in the conflict as it deprived the British of desperately needed troops and altered Cornwallis' future plans. Rather continuing efforts to pacify South Carolina, the British commander instead focused his efforts on pursuing Greene. This resulted in a costly victory at Guilford Court House in March, and his ultimate withdraw to Yorktown where his army was captured that October. 

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Hickman, Kennedy. "The Battle of Cowpens in the Revolutionary War." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Hickman, Kennedy. (2023, April 5). The Battle of Cowpens in the Revolutionary War. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "The Battle of Cowpens in the Revolutionary War." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 29, 2023).