On January 17, 1781, American General Daniel Morgan scored a stunning victory over British Lieutenant Colonel Banastre “Barbarous Ban” Tarleton’s regulars at the Battle of Cowpens, in what is now Cherokee County, SC. This win came at a crucial time for Revolutionary War patriots in the South, who had been repeatedly forced to retreat.
Private James Collins, a 17-year-old South Carolinian, served in that state’s militia during the campaign in the South. He writes of the day:
“It was not long until it became necessary for us to seek safety by joining Morgan, who was encamped at the Cowpens, but we were not permitted to remain long idle, for Tarleton came on like a thunder storm, which soon put us to our best mettle.
“After the tidings of his approach came into camp–in the night–we were all awakened, ordered under arms, and formed in order of battle by daybreak. About sunrise on the l7th January, 1781, the enemy came into full view. The sight, to me at least, seemed somewhat imposing; they halted for a short time, and then advanced rapidly, as if certain victory.
“The militia under Pickins and Moffitt, was posted on the right of the regulars some distance in advance, while Washington’s cavalry was stationed in the rear. We gave the enemy one fire, when they charged us with their bayonets; we gave way and retreated for our horses, Tarleton’s cavalry pursued us; (“now,” thought I, “my hide is in the loft;”) just as we got to our horses, they overtook us and began to make a few hacks at some, however, without doing much injury.
“They, in their haste, had pretty much scattered, perhaps thinking they would have another Fishing creek frolic, but in a few moments, Col. Washington’s cavalry was among them, like a whirlwind, and the poor fellows began to kneel from their horses, without being able to remount.
“The shock was so sudden and violent, they could not stand it, and immediately betook themselves to flight; there was no time to rally, and they appeared to be as hard to stop as a drove of wild Choctaw steers, going to a Pennsylvania market.
“In a few moments the clashing of swords was out of hearing and quickly out of sight; by this time, both lines of the infantry were warmingly engaged and we being relieved from the pursuit of the enemy began to rally and prepare to redeem our credit, when Morgan rode up in front, and waving his sword, cried out, ‘Form, form, my brave fellows! Give them one more fire and the day is ours. Old Morgan was never beaten.’
“We then advanced briskly, and gained the right flank of the enemy, and they being hard pressed in front, by Howard, and falling very fast, could not stand it long. They began to throw down their arms, and surrender themselves prisoners of war. The whole army, except Tarleton and his horsemen, fell into the hands of Morgan, together with all the baggage.
“After the fight was over, the sight was truly melancholy. The dead on the side of the British, exceeded the number killed at the battle of King’s Mountain, being if I recollect aright, three hundred, or upwards. The loss, on the side of the Americans, was only fifteen or sixteen, and a few slightly wounded.
“This day, I fired my little rifle five times whether with any effect or not, I do not know, Next day after receiving some small share of the plunder, and taking care to get as much powder as we could, we (the militia) were disbanded and returned to our old haunts, where we obtained a few day’s rest.”
— from Autobiography of a Revolutionary Soldier, by James Collins, Clinton, LA: Feliciana Democrat, 1859
Cowpens, along with the recent battle at King’s Mountain, was a triumph that the Continentals urgently needed to boost their morale, and demoralize the British army and loyalist sympathizers. It was a decisive blow to Britain’s commanding General Cornwallis, who might have defeated much of the remaining resistance in South Carolina had Tarleton won. That cold clear January day was a turning point in the Patriots’ war for independence.
Sources: The Historical Atlas of the American Revolution, by Ian Barnes, Charles Royster, Routledge, 2000