Hannah’s Cowpens near the intersection of SC Hwy 11 and Hwy 221, near the North Carolina line was; once again, an army camp. In October 1780 it was the Patriots chasing British Major Ferguson on their way to Kings Mountain. They had camped on these grounds to cull out a “flying column” of riders to make the final push to the battlefield. Now on January 17, 1781, just a few short months later, it was British Major Tarleton chasing the Americans and the Cowpens was the place of conflict.
General Daniel Morgan, perhaps under the advice of Nathaniel Greene, was avoiding a confrontation with the larger British force. At a war council on January 16th, it was General Pickens who pushed for a fight and convinced Morgan of his intent. Pickens would insist that “he would fight it with his command alone (being the largest portion) if for nothing else, but to show the people of South Carolina that he did not give up the State, even if the Continentals and regulars did leave the State.”(1) Morgan was convinced and the battle plan was formed.
General Morgan understood his men and their capabilities. Unlike other Patriot Generals, like Gates at Camden, his placement and order of battle utilized their strengths instead of maximizing their weaknesses. The night before the battle he went from campfire to campfire and talked his men up. He would tell them that “Old Morgan was never beaten.” He would lift-up his shirt and show them his scars where the British whipped him for slapping an officer during the French and Indian War. He would joke that they only gave him 499 lashes because they miscounted as they carried out the 500-lash sentence. “Aim at the epaulettes and stripes” he would say, in reference to shooting at the officers to create chaos in the ranks. “Two shots and your free” was the recurring theme to the militia to give them permission to move back from the bayonet and cavalry charges and into the next line. (2) This old teamster had a gift of encouragement and the men grew confident.
As they came up and formed onto the field it was dark and hard to distinguish each other. The mixed company of heroes, unknown to each other, required the use of a watch word to cool the anxious thoughts. The watch word on this occasion was, upon challenge, “Fire”, which was then answered, “Sword”. Hence the watch word was the very same words used by British Major Ferguson towards the over the mountain men when he threatened to lay waste to their country with “Fire and Sword” prior to Kings Mountain. (1) These skirmishers were some of the very same sharpshooters from Kings Mountain.
Robert Cleveland was there with some of his brother Benjamin Cleveland’s “Devils.” The Burke County militia were there with Charles and Joseph McDowell. Wilkes, Lincoln, Orange, Mecklenburg, Guilford, Rowan and other North Carolina County militias were represented. The South Carolina militias of Sumter under the command of Lacey and Bratton were there along with Roebuck, two Spartan militias, Ninety-Six and Little River. Georgia and Virginia were represented as well.
And Morgan had William Washington’s experienced cavalry along with a formidable contingent of Continentals with musket and bayonet.(3)
Twenty-Six-year-old British Major Banastre Tarleton was given around 1100 troops to bring Daniel Morgan and his 800-man force to heel.(4) Success was anticipated for this brash young upstart of the British cavalry. Despite his defeat at the hands of Thomas Sumter at the battle of Blackstocks in November 1780, he was confident in the chase.
However, Daniel Morgan and Andrew Pickens were both over 40 years of age and had been fighting in battles for several lifetimes by comparison. Fear and trembling were not well fed in their personas as “Bloody Ban” approached.
And approach he did. With bayonets affixed the British infantry drew up within site of the rebel force. The Patriots had deployed across the Green River Road and the tree dotted field in upstate South Carolina. The British cannon were rolled out and fired as the lines formed in lockstep. Mired by swamp on the left flank, the British slogged their way up the gentle incline towards the skirmishers who were shooting at them from tree to tree. One by one British officers were felled by these back-country marksmen.
The American skirmishers fell back with their rifles. Back behind the line of General Pickens’ militia, they took up position once again.
On the British came, resolute and fearsome. The yelled “Huzzah to the King” as they marched forward to close the gap on the Americans.
Seventeen-year-old Thomas Young of the Fair Forest Regiment would say, “At first it was pop, pop, pop and then the whole volley. It seemed like one sheet of flame from right to left.”(5)
This defense in force confused the young British cavalryman. From his perch atop his horse on the left flank of his attacking force, he saw the militia turning their backs and leaving the field. He felt sure that the time had come to charge. Tarleton’s misunderstanding and overconfidence was quickly realized when the Patriot militia turned as one and fired point blank into the charging British. Then out of the trees came the Patriot Cavalry under Washington to close the hour-long battle in a classic double envelopment.
It seems fitting that two great Revolutionary War victories, Kings Mountain and Cowpens, had ties to this rural landscape of upstate South Carolina. The world’s greatest army at the time comes boldly into this backcountry community with every intent of demoralizing and defeating the upstart Americans. However, once engaged in battle with the American rebels with a cause, the best equipped and best trained army in the world is turned away wanting and humbled.
- History of the Upper Country of S.C, Logan
- Teaching American History.org/American Revolution/Letter to Nathaniel Greene
- NPS Plaque at Cowpens