Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Cowpens, our very own Upstate SC battlefield

January 17, 1781 – the Battle of Cowpens.

US Memorial Monument in honor of all the men who fought at Cowpens

Last week we featured Ninety Six National Historic Site, site of the American Revolution’s first major land battle in the South. It was a little later in the Revolutionary War that brigadier general Daniel Morgan was sent into western South Carolina with his “Flying Army” to operate on the British left flank and rear (led by British commander in the south Major Gen. Cornwallis). Cornwallis responded by dispatching Banastre Tarleton along with the British Legion to counter Morgan… and the rest is history.

Morgan sent for militia units from SC, NC and Georgia – men who had fought at Musgrove Mill and Kings Mountain – but was still outnumbered when Tarleton caught up to them in Upstate SC. Choosing to stand and fight, Morgan devised a battle plan and dug in at the Cow Pens, a frontier pasturing ground on the road to a ford across the Broad River six miles to the northwest. Today, these fields and surrounding 842 acres are Cowpens National Battlefield. Our recent visit was also on a chilly winter morning – but some 237 years after the battle.

On the morning of the January 17th, 1781, Morgan received word that Tarleton had crossed the Pacolet River 12 miles to the south. He knew what he was up against, and devised a plan to counter British battle tactics, relying on the firing distance of the long rifle (200 yards vs. the musket’s 50) and his chosen topography to win the battle against muskets and bayonets.

He placed his militia sharpshooters on the front line in two small groups. When the British came into view just before dawn, the sharpshooters dropped two-thirds of the British officers before withdrawing behind the second line, Andrew Pickens’ regional militia. Together they were to deliver two volleys ‘at a killing distance’ before falling back to Howard’s Continentals. All went according to plan up until that point – but the British still surged forward, and after fierce fighting the entire line began a retreat. Morgan rallied his troops at the last line, and here the Washington cavalry also joined the melee. Pickens’ militia opened fire on the dragoons and Highlanders, and suddenly, the battle was over. In less than an hour 110 British were killed, 229 wounded and 600 captured (compared to 24 killed and 104 wounded for Morgan), and Tarleton fled, the British Legion cavalry falling in behind him.

We started off on our walking tour of Cowpens National Battlefield from the Visitor Center on the Battlefield Trail. The 1¼-mile self-guided tour takes visitors straight across the battlefield on Green River Road, with informational placards posted at the various points where Morgan’s forces had been stationed. We passed the line of Howard’s Continentals and the Pickens’ Militia, down past where the sharpshooters had been stationed all the way to Tarleton’s front line: the Dragoons, Fusiliers and Infantry. Looking back at the ground we had covered, we found it amazing how well-utilized the topography had been in the battle; the field has three low crests separated by wide swales, and the various lines optimized the high ground as well as cover provided by each.

The trail winds around through a wetlands area and a hardwoods forest, and then arrives back at the Visitor Center. If you haven’t already, watch the short film and explore the exhibits before returning to your car for the driving loop portion of the Cowpens experience.

The Auto Loop Road takes visitors on a 3-mile loop around the perimeter of the battlefield. Wayside exhibits, overlooks and short trails at several points along the way provide additional insight into the battle, while a stop at the 1800s reconstructed Robert Scruggs House provokes thought of how a family with 11 children managed to live in such a small cabin.

Scruggs cabin

A group shelter, restrooms and picnic area are located on the far side of the loop, as well as the trailhead for the 2-mile Cowpens Nature Trail that loops down to the river. After finishing the loop you’ll emerge back out on the Cherokee Foothills Scenic Highway, a short drive from Gaffney, SC.

Cowpens is about a 1-hour drive from Greenville. For hours and other info, please visit their website. The Cowpens National Battlefield was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on October 15, 1966. It is also on the Overmountain Victory National Historic Trail, the 330-mile commemorative motor route that shadows the march of the 1,000-strong Patriot militia in 1780.


Cornwallis would continue north to Guilford Courthouse, Petersburg and his eventual surrender in Yorktown in October 1781, but the victory at Cowpens was new hope for the American Revolution. 

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