Things were looking bright for the colonies in their battle for independence. 1780 was a year demonstrating that the Colonial forces could match the British forces. Now in 1781, the Colonials prove to be more than a match for those same forces of the crown.

Earlier in January 1781, Benedict Arnold led a British force sent to the southern colonies with the mission of destroying colonial supply lines and resources. George Washington responds by sending General Lafayette along with General Wayne to counter Arnold’s disruptive efforts.

January 17, 1781: The Battle of Cowpens

Britain set their sights and hopes on the southern colonies as a means to regain momentum in the crown’s favor; however, things don’t quite work out the way they hoped. The only double envelopment in the American Revolution took place on January 17, 1781 at the Battle of Cowpens. After the battle’s conclusion, Colonial Brigadier General Daniel Morgan writes to his superior, General Nathanael Green stating “…our success was complete…” The message was dated January 19, 1781. Nine months later, the British surrender bringing an end to the war and essentially establishing America’s independence.

Image below: Brigadier General Daniel Morgan


Portrait of Daniel MorganCredit: Charles Willson Peale (1741–1827)

The Southern Campaign

In 1779, the contest between the colonials and the British forces turned into a stalemate. Who would be the first to break the stalemate? Britain believed they could turn the tide in their favor by shifting their commanders to the southern colonies. It was the British leaderships’ belief that the South still held large numbers of Loyalists. There they hoped to find support, supplies, and find or build a Loyalist militia to use against the Colonial rebels.

Skirmishes between militia in the South were not uncommon. Thus, the idea that a Loyalist militia could be used to replenish the British army was not unrealistic. However, the colonies were not unlike a dysfunctional family with competing agendas, and only siding with the parent that they (Colonists/Loyalist) believe will give them what they want.

Colonies and individual towns did not always agree with their neighbors and, unfortunately, neighboring militia would try to settle debates and loyalties by force. And yet, it was this in-fighting that fed the British commanders reasoning that they could harness this feuding to the benefit of the monarchy. Things did not work out as they hoped.

George Washington became aware of the British plan – and in response, he sent General Nathanael Greene south to unit and reinvigorate the colonial cause for independence. Nathanael Greene’s command included an experienced commander: Colonel Daniel Morgan. Colonel Daniel Morgan (later to be promoted to Brigadier General), a former Teamster, fought during the French and Indian Wars alongside his cousin Daniel Boone. 



Nathanael Green, 1783Credit: Charles Peale 1741-1827Image Above of Nathanael Green

Wikipedia has a decent biography on Daniel Morgan so I’ll leave his story in your hands. His life is interesting and worth reading.[1] Major General Greene split his force giving Morgan more than 800 men to cut off British southern supply lines and disrupt British operations. This is a daunting task considering it cuts Morgan’s relatively small force far enough away from Greene’s main body that both were vulnerable to being encircled or trapped by General Cornwallis’s more experienced and disciplined British force. 

Painting: The Battle of CowpensCredit: William Ranney in 1845

Cornwallis discovered that Greene split his forces. And in response, Cornwallis sent a 26 year old Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton with approximately 1,150 trained soldiers to chase down and defeat Morgan’s perceived smaller force. Tarleton was well-known and hated by the Colonials. He became infamous for his slaughter of surrendering Colonial Army troops at the Battle of Waxhaws.

The best play by play description of the momentous battle can be read at the National Park Service website under “The Battle of Cowpens,”[2] The History Channel Website,[3][4] and from the British perspective, BritishBattles(dot)com.[5] Although you can always read the particulars from Wikipedia, I highly recommend reading the battle summaries from the history sites just listed. The References are shown at the end of this article. The video below does a nice job of describing and showing the events.

In a Nutshell

Tarleton and Cornwallis both woefully underestimated Morgan and his combined militia and Colonial Army troops. The original reports, to include Morgan’s own report of the engagement underestimated Morgan’s actual troop strength. Early reports claimed that Morgan defeated a numerically superior British force with a smaller Colonial force; however, more recent studies of the records of the time have shown that Morgan may have had a slight advantage in numbers due to a large number of militiamen that were likely not counted among the original colonial reports. Regardless of this, Morgan had a mixed bag force consisting of a militia between 500-1000 hunters, farmers, townspeople, as well as his 800 Continental troops. This militia joined with Morgan in batches and not as an organized singular and trained force. Morgan knew what he was working with and new their strengths and weaknesses and how best to use both. Tarleton had a big ego and a sense of invulnerability. Morgan would teach the arrogant Tarleton a lesson that would eventually lead to British defeat.  [2]    

The victory by the Morgan over Tarleton truly exemplifies the value of strong leadership pared with brilliant tactics. The battle wasn’t won by the most skilled crack troops:  it was won by the best planned, communicated, organized, lead and executed action by the least trained troops. It also demonstrated that a colonial force quickly assembled from barely organized militiamen and colonial regulars that had never trained together as a combined army could indeed conquer a trained and disciplined professional British force, became the turning point that led to the surrender of British forces at Yorktown in October of 1781, nine months later.

But the beginning of 1779 was not all in the favor of the Colonials: on January 29, 1779, Augusta, Georgia fell to British forces returning it to British Rule. It remained under British control until the end of the war.

January 20, 1783, a cease-fire agreement between Britain and France was signed. Subsequently, a cease-fire was signed between the Continental Congress and Britain on April 11, 1783.

January 14, 1784:  The Treaty of Paris is ratified by the Continental Congress officially ending the American Revolutionary War.

Final Word

The winter months are traditionally not a time for major battles; and yet, that may have been to the benefit of the Colonials. The British were traditionalists in combat operations: straightforward, lined up, typical formations and shooting at the officers was considered unethical. The Colonials knew this; and more so, past experience and success with hit an run tactics along with the willingness to cut-off the head of the snake, Colonial troops under Morgan were well adapted to making use of terrain and weather to their favor as well as having no reservations towards picking-off the British officers whenever the opportunity showed itself. By chopping away at the British leadership and the fast moving mounted redcoats, Morgan demonstrated how easily he could disrupt his enemies command and control.