After the disaster at Camden, Nathaniel Greene was given command over America’s southern army. More prudent than Gates, he avoided a direct confrontation with Cornwallis and his increasingly confident British troops. Instead, he sent Daniel Morgan to harass Britain’s western posts and Henry Lee to disrupt the supply lines linking Cornwallis’s main army at Winnsborough to Charleston, South Carolina.
Cornwallis decided to match force with force and dispatched the dashing and cruel Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton to engage Morgan. They met each other at Cowpens on 17 January, a large meadow roughly 500 yards long and just as wide, anchored at its southern end by two small hills about 70 yards apart. The two forces were roughly equal in size. Both had cavalry units and both supplemented their regulars with militia. And both knew the reputation of the American militia. Morgan, however, used this knowledge to better advantage.
At the front of his lines, Morgan placed 150 sharpshooters. Behind them he positioned 300 militia, and behind them, on the crest of the first hill, another 450 men. Behind these, between the first and second hills, Morgan positioned his small cavalry of about 125 horsemen. Tarleton, as expected, sent his cavalry and infantry directly into the center of the Americans’ front line. Morgan’s sharpshooters fired several rounds at the cavalry before retreating to the back line. The American militia held their fire until the infantry had advanced within musket range; then they fired two volleys before also falling back behind the first hill as previously instructed.
The British, believing that the American militia was retreating as usual, pressed toward the center of the main American line at the top of the hill. There they met stiff resistance from the forces deployed there. Only the American right gave way and, smelling blood, the British poured through the opening. But when they did, they ran smack into blazing guns of the militia who had fallen back to other side of the hill. At this point Greene also sent his cavalry, hidden between the hills, into the flank of the stunned enemy.
Tarleton managed to escape with about 50 others. More than 100 British soldiers were killed and more than 800 prisoners were taken. The Americans suffered fewer than 100 casualties and received a tremendous boost in morale. In addition, Cornwallis, resolved to track Morgan down and he did at Guilford Courthouse. By then, Morgan had reunited with Greene bringing their combined forces to almost 4500 men. In the battle fought on 15 March, the British eventually won the field, but they suffered more than 500 casualties, forcing Cornwallis to fall back to Wilmington until he could be re-enforced with fresh troops. The South was back in play.