It had only been four years since Brigadier-General Daniel Morgan had been returned in an exchange, having been taken prisoner by the British following defeat at the Battle of Quebec. Ever defiant, the man who once took a bullet to the back of the neck, knocking out teeth, and had received 499 lashes from a British whip for knocking out a British Lieutenant who struck him with the flat end of his sword, bragging they still owed him one more, he had surrendered his sword to a French-Canadian Priest rather than offer it to the Colony’s Governor, General Guy Carleton. Even as his 500 handpicked riflemen had help secure victory at the Battle of Saratoga, it was clear to General Washington that the trade had paid off. Now, he and his troops had been sent South to assist General Nathanael Greene in his under gunned and under manned efforts in South Carolina. Greene’s plans were simple, he would use the highly-trained riflemen in guerilla warfare, knowing that though they were outnumbered they could plunge a knife in the heart of the British with the right tactics. In response, Lord Cornwallis would unleash the fury of the Green Dragoon, Bloody Ban Tarleton, in an attempt to counter.
It would be in that effort that on January 17th, 1781 Colonel Tarleton would form his line, having chased Morgan through the hills and fields of South Carolina, to strike at Cowpens. Yet Morgan not only counted on that, he had hoped for it, knowing the British officer’s tendency to strike first and strike hard. Knowing how notoriously unreliable the militia was, how it would abandon a battle at the first sign of hardship, he set his troops in two separate position that made fleeing the battle impossible if the army was routed. This would not be another Battle of Camden, and though his regulars were better trained, with better, more accurate weaponry than muskets, they would be soon cut down without support. Even as Tarleton hit there would be no place to go if they let him push too hard and too far, it would be fight and win, or die. They were to fire twice, and flee quickly behind the regulars who were harder and more determined in battle. Yet, the truth was that these were not ordinary Militia. Many of them were battle hardened at Kings Mountain. They had faced the British Bayonets and had survived to take the day. In the hills sharpshooters would be positioned under the command of Major John Cunningham of Georgia and Colonel Joseph McDowell of North Carolina. The British hadn’t counted on it and even as they pushed forward, moving into first strike position they would play right into Morgan’s hands.
As the British advanced Morgan would repeat the famous line, “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes!” The soldiers would cheer as the British charged, and charged again amidst the rising fog of musket fire and the clashing thunder of the hooves shook the ground. “They give us the British Hallo, boys. Give them the Indian Hallo, by God!” Morgan would cry out to his troops. They would push back even as the British ordered the second charge. This would force the Continental Army back from their position, and play into the arrogance of Colonel Tarleton. For him the battle was won, he just needed to take to the field and pluck it from the smoke and the ashes. He would order a general charge. It would be a mistake. As the British moved forward with their full force, Colonel William Washington would lead his Calvary down from the right as the militia pushed forward from the left as they quickly overwhelmed the Bloody Ban’s forces.
It wouldn’t be bad enough for the British that Morgan had roundly defeated them, but by capturing the majority of the British Forces, 700 to 900 troops in all, he took from Lord Cornwallis some of his best and bravest, some of England’s best trained, and most experienced troops now marched off as prisoners of war. Even as Colonel Washington charged Tarleton would barely escape capture as his horse was shot out from under him when one of the surgeons from 71st Highlanders would give him his own. Morgan would leave the Wizard Owl, Colonel Andrew Pickens to tend to the wounded, bury the dead and care for the prisoners under a white flag as he quickly fled with his troops to North Carolina, knowing Cornwallis would soon be coming for him and the troops he claimed.
It wouldn’t matter. South Carolina had reached the edge and Cowpens had pushed it over. The end was coming for the British as General Greene prepared now to take back the state. It was only now a matter of time.
It would be the beginning of the end of the British engagement in South Carolina.