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  • James Houser

January 17, 1781 - The Battle of Cowpens

Updated: Jun 1, 2021

To get this out of the way, I LOVE the Carolinas Campaign of the Revolutionary War. It is one of my favorite military history stories of all time, and Nathanael Greene is one of my favorite American generals of all time. He was better than Patton, or Abrams, or Pershing, but he's been sadly shafted by history. I really should do a podcast about the Carolinas Campaign...

January 17, 1781. An American rifleman wins the greatest tactical victory of the Revolutionary War and gets completely shafted in a mediocre and inaccurate Mel Gibson movie 220 years later.

The Revolutionary War had been going on for five years. The British, having failed to subdue New England or the Middle Colonies thanks to George Washington and his Continentals, had shifted their focus to the Carolinas and Georgia around 1780. Great Britain was clearly losing the war, but hoped they could still get a favorable conclusion to the war by reconquering the Southern Colonies. Forces under Lord Cornwallis won a series of victories in the Carolinas and recaptured most major towns and cities. Washington sent his best general, Nathanael Greene, to rally support in the South and defeat Cornwallis.

The Southern Campaign, 1780-1781. Cowpens is wrong, should say 1781

One of Greene's major problems was a rampaging force of British troops and pro-British American loyalists under Banastre Tarleton, a ruthless British officer. In the film "The Patriot", Tarleton is portrayed as "Tavington," essentially a moustache-twirling villain and all-around baddie. In reality, Tarleton was certainly a nutjob and definitely a war criminal, but far more clever than his movie counterpart. American guerrillas caused enormous problems for the British in South Carolina, and Tarleton roved across the swamps and towns of the Carolinas on what might be politely regarded as "extreme" counterinsurgency tactics.

Greene dispatched Brigadier General Daniel Morgan with a small force into South Carolina to forage for supplies and raise the guerrillas' morale. Tarleton, always eager for blood, headed off to confront Morgan with his army of ruthless raiders. Morgan was the leader of the Continental Army's elite riflemen, a Virginian who despised the British since he had been forced to serve them in the French and Indian War. Even though most of his force was poorly trained militia, he was determined to make a stand and put an end to Tarleton's marauding.

Cowpens, 1781: Morgan crushes Tarleton

They collided at a place called "Hannah's Cowpens," a pasture commonly used by nearby farmers. Morgan understood that the British thought the American militia was cowardly and would run at the first sign of danger - and decided to use this to his advantage. He positioned his force between two low hills, and put the militia up front. When the British saw this force of nervous militia on January 17, they attacked without thinking of the consequences.

The British fell right into the trap. As the militia retreated, they led the British forces into the organized American troops, who held their ground and cut the British attackers down. At the same time, American cavalry and riflemen on either flank rushed forward and around the British to trap them in a cauldron of fire. It was a double envelopment - the most perfectly executed battle of the whole Revolutionary War.

Tarleton's force was nearly eliminated, Tarleton himself barely escaping - not, as the film claims, impaled by Mel Gibson. Nevertheless, the Americans won the Battle at the Cowpens, and this victory helped break the British hold on South Carolina.

"The Battle of Cowpens," Don Troiani, 1996

Even though American forces soon had to retreat from South Carolina, the Continental victory removed a major British force from the field - and allowed the rebels to retake South Carolina less than a year later. Tarleton would burn no more villages or churches. The tide in the South had turned; it was the beginning of a road that would lead to Cornwallis's surrender at Yorktown.

Tarleton, the scourge of the South, would retire to a lush British country estate and eventually get voted into Parliament. He died rich and happy, not stabbed to death by Mel Gibson on the field of Cowpens. Life ain't a movie, guys.

So that's the story. "The Patriot" is incredibly wrong for a lot of reasons, but mostly because it robs credit from Daniel Morgan and his Virginia riflemen of the expert strategy that defeated British forces in one of the best-fought tactical battles ever won by an American. It turns Tarleton into evil Lucius Malfoy, turns the British into Enlightenment Nazis, and reinforces the myth that "The British were so dumb cuz they stood in lines to fight while the smart Americans hid behind the trees." All that is wrong, and we'll probably get to that this year...I have more Revolution posts coming up.

But seriously. Look up the Battle of Cowpens. If nothing else, admire its genius. And I cannot WAIT to tell you guys about the rest of Nathanael Greene's Southern Campaign - one of my favorite campaigns in history.

Book recommendations: For the Southern Campaign, there is John S. Pancake's This Destructive War: The British Campaign in the Carolinas, 1780-1782 (Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 1985). For the Revolutionary War as a whole, a great military perspective is John E. Ferling's Almost a Miracle: The American Victory in the War of Independence (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007). Finally, the best comprehensive history of the war from all perspectives is still probably Robert Middlekauff's The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763-1789, revised ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005).

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