Why Did the Battle of Cowpens Start?

The Battle of Cowpens started because Major Gen. Nathaniel Greene, commander of the Continental Army in the South, sent a 1,000-man force under Brigadier Gen. Daniel Morgan into the South Carolina backcountry to attack a British fort. When British Gen. Charles Cornwallis sent Col. Banastre Tarleton and 1,100 soldiers in pursuit, the two forces met in battle at a pastureland called Cowpens.

In January 1781 during the Revolutionary War, Gen. Greene divided his forces into smaller units because his army was weak and his troops would be more effective engaging British troops on multiple fronts. Additionally, it was easier to find provisions for smaller units of men. When Tarleton arrived to defend the British fort and Morgan was not there, he set off in pursuit. Morgan, instead of fleeing, used the natural contours of the Cowpens landscape to set up an ambush. When Tarleton's force arrived, Morgan's men fired two volleys and then withdrew. Thinking the Americans were running away, Tarleton ordered his men to advance. The Americans responded with a volley of rifle fire, a cavalry charge and a bayonet charge.

Although Tarleton escaped, the British force was decimated. The Americans had fewer than 100 casualties, while more than 800 British were killed, wounded and captured. The battle itself was small compared to other Revolutionary War battles, but Cornwallis lost much-needed troops. The victory at Cowpens greatly boosted the morale of the Continental Army and forced Cornwallis to change his battle plans.