The Battle of the Cowpens was the second serious disaster which occurred to the British Army, operating in the Southern States, during the 1780-81 campaign. Following the capitulation of Charleston on May 12,1780, all of South Carolina was in a condition of subjugation within a few months, and in September British headquarters were moved to Charlotte Town, N. C. Prior to this Lieutenant Colonel Ferguson had been detached, with a small force of Provincials, to organize the militia and operate on Cornwallis's flank. On the 7th of October his entire command was lost at Kings Mountain. Following this disaster the British field army was withdrawn more than 60 miles to Wynnesborough, and there remained on the defensive while awaiting information relative to the rehabilitation of Gates's army, now commanded by Greene; and in coordinating plans with the commander in chief, General Clinton, particularly with reference to the use of the troops under General Leslie, which were sent from New York to Virginia.
Lieutenant Colonel Tarleton, the only officer remaining after Ferguson's death used by Cornwallis for the command of roving troops, was sent into the district north of Ninety Six to oppose General Morgan, and somewhat later Cornwallis resumed his march northward. Tarleton and Morgan met at the Cowpens, on the 17th of January, and in a battle noted for the unusual tactics adopted by the Americans, the British were defeated, with heavy losses, by a force inferior in numbers, a considerable portion of which was militia.
The relation of the Cowpens, to the southern campaign in 1780-81 can be understood only through a knowledge of the purposes of the two army commanders, Greene and Cornwallis, during the period following Kings Mountain. After General Clinton's departure from Charleston for New York on June 5, 1780, he conducted correspondence with Cornwallis relative to operations contemplated in the Chesapeake. In October General Leslie was given command of about 2,000 regulars, and sailed from New York to establish post on the western tributaries of the Chesapeake, near its mouth. The letter of instructions from Clinton, given him before his departure, directed him to proceed to those waters and make a diversion in favor of Cornwallis, who, it was expected, would be, at the time of his arrival, in central and western North Carolina. The instructions suggested that he proceed up the James River and destroy enemy magazines at Petersburg, Richmond, and elsewhere, and finally establish a post on the Elizabeth River at Portsmouth, but that under any conditions he was to communicate as soon as possible with Cornwallis and act under his orders.
A copy of the instructions under which Leslie was to act was received by Cornwallis about the 24th of October, at which time he was withdrawing from Charlotte Town, and the possibility of carrying out at this time any plan of joint add on in Virginia was very remote. Lord Rawdon, who commanded, due to the illness of Cornwallis, immediately dispatched a letter to Leslie, advising him of the defeat of Ferguson, with its consequent augmentation of defection in both the Carolinas, and of the necessity of the British Army remaining within supporting distance of Ninety Six and Camden until a more favorable moment arrived for the resumption of the offensive. From the circumstances related in his letter, Lord Rawdon expressed the fear that the two armies were too far apart to render Leslie's cooperation very effectual.
Although the British commander in chief had signified to Cornwallis that he was at liberty to give Leslie any direction for further cooperation which might appear to him expedient, Cornwallis was
loath at this time to instruct the latter to bring his troops to South Carolina. He feared that should he withdraw this force from the Chesapeake, he might interfere with other purposes, unknown to him, to which Clinton had destined these troops. Rawdon therefore informed Leslie in October that "Lord Cornwallis thinks himself obliged to leave you at liberty to pursue whatsoever measures may appear to your judgment best for his majesty's service and most consonant with the wishes of the commander in chief." In conclusion Rawdon informed Leslie that should his knowledge of Clinton's desires prompt him to make a trial upon North Carolina, a movement up Cape Fear River to Cross Creek was the most likely, at this time, to prove effectual. The general situation in the South was similarly described by Rawdon in a letter to Clinton of the 29th of October, wherein was fated the intention of not definitely ordering Leslie to the Cape Fear, as Clinton might have other plans with which such a move would interfere.
When Leslie learned of General Cornwallis's desire that he quit the Chesapeake and move up the Cape Fear to Cross Creek, knowing that Clinton had no ulterior purpose in keeping him in Virginia, he immediately planned to make this change and sent dispatches to Clinton on the 7th of November informing him of the new arrangement. This met with the entire approval of the commander in chief. A second letter from Lord Rawdon, written on the 31st of October, wherein he reiterated in a more urgent manner the wishes of Cornwallis in the matter, was probably the deciding factor in prompting compliance by Leslie.
Cornwallis established his camp at Wynnesborough in November. It was evident from the correspondence conducted with Leslie that he could make no move until he knew where the latter would establish himself, as his plans for the winter would depend upon this knowledge. The success of the Americans at Kings Mountain had done much to overcome the depression in the South, following the defeat at Camden, and partisan forces were active on both flanks of the British Army. Colonel Marion operated between the Santee
and Peedee, and from this locality threatened communications and supplies for the post at Camden, and the army at Wynnesborough. Sumter and his subordinate leaders were active west of the Broad, threatening Ninety Six. Furthermore, the British had intelligence that General Morgan, with Washington's cavalry and a body of Continental infantry, was advancing toward Lynches Creek, with Camden as their objective.
Early in November Tarleton had been sent east of the Wateree, and on his arrival at Camden, finding no reason to expect an attack upon that place by General Morgan, proceeded down the east bank of the river against Marion. The two forces met on the 10th, but Marion, realizing he was outnumbered, retreated. During the pursuit an express arrived from General Cornwallis, sent from Wynnesborough the preceding day, directing Tarleton to lose no time in
returning, as Cornwallis, was "under the greatest anxiety for Ninety-Six." The circumstance which occasioned this unexpected order was the predicament into which Major Wemyss, at the head of 40 of Tarleton's dragoons, and the mounted Sixty-third, had gotten. He was operating along the Broad, and learning that Sumter with about 300 men was near by, undertook to surprise him by a night attack. The British entered Sumter's camp by surprise, but instead of dismounting and securing the enemy arms, they remained mounted. Sumter's men recovered from their surprise, got their arms, engaged the enemy, wounded Wemyss, and as the second in command did not know his plans, the British withdrew.
Cornwallis's letter of recall to Tarleton written on the 9th was followed by another on the 10th, and a third on the 11th of November, so urgent was he that Tarleton appear in the territory of the Broad to retrieve the situation, and fearful that the other letters might not have gotten through. In the letter of the 11th he said:
Broad, to locate and engage Sumter, who was approaching Ninety Six. There followed the fight at Blackstocks on the 20th of November, wherein General Sumter was wounded. Following this action Tarleton withdrew to Brierlys Ferry on the Broad. It was with much gratification that Cornwallis learned of Sumter's wound, for he wrote, "he certainly has been our greatest plague in this country."
The recovery of Cornwallis from his illness during the withdrawal from Charlotte Town, and the successes attendant upon Tarleton's efforts in the field, stimulated a desire to renew offensive warfare, and in November he decided to bring Leslie's force to Charleston, as cooperation with him even at the distance of the Cape Fear River would be attended with many difficulties. Leslie arrived in Charleston on the 13th of December, where orders awaited him to march up country with 1,530 men, to join Cornwallis as soon as possible.
The British plan of campaign for the winter of 1780-81 was for the main army to penetrate into North Carolina, leaving South Carolina in security against any probable attack. Offensive operations were to be started about the, middle of January. The line of march was to be by the upper, or western, roads in preference to lowland routes, because fords were more frequent above the forks of the rivers, and the passage of the army could be less easily obstructed. Furthermore, General Greene being on the Peedee, and there being few fords in any of the great rivers of this country below their forks, especially in the rainy season, a penetration north, by way of Salisbury, would probably meet with much resistance by Greene's army.
Cornwallis was the more induced to prefer the western route, as he hoped to destroy or drive out of South Carolina the corps commanded by General Morgan, which, it will be noted later, was sent into the region of the Broad and Pacolet, during the latter part of December, to threaten the valuable district of Ninety Six. There was hope, also, that by rapid marches the British main army would
get between Greene and Virginia, and by that means force the Americans to fight without receiving any reinforcements from that State, or, failing in this, to oblige Greene to quit North Carolina with precipitation, and thereby encourage the friends of the Crown to make good their promises of a general rising to assist the British commander in reestablishing the Royal Government.
While Tarleton lay on the Broad, following the fight at Blackstocks, it became known to the British that General Morgan and Colonel Washington had been detached from Charlotte Town on December 20th and had proceeded across the Broad in the direction of Ninety Six, which post was viewed by Cornwallis as the most sensitive of all under his command. On the 30th of December Cornwallis advised Tarleton of this threat, and on the 1st of the following month sent his aide with orders that Tarleton should cross the Broad with his corps of Cavalry and Infantry of 550 men, the First Battalion of the Seventy-first, consisting of 200 men, and one 3-pounder, to counteract the designs of General Morgan, by protecting the country and compelling him to repass the Broad. The danger of Morgan's presence west of the Broad was felt so acutely by Cornwallis that the day after he dispatched his aide with this message to Tarleton, he wrote an additional admonition:
Let me know, if you think that the moving the whole, or any part of my corps can be of use.
called for in the latter's letter of the 2d. Tarleton wrote on the 4th asking that his baggage be forwarded under escort of the Seventeenth Light Dragoons, the Yagers, and the Seventh Regiment. "When I advance, I must either destroy Morgan's corps," he said, or push it before me over Broad River, toward Kings Mountain. The advance of the army should commence (when your lordship orders this corps to move) onward for Kings Mountain. Frequent communication by letter can pass the Broad River." It is to be noted that at this time Tarleton and Cornwallis occupied interior positions, separated less than 24 hours in messenger service, while Morgan and Greene lay beyond them in opposite directions, and from 5 to 10 days apart by messenger.
On the 5th of January Cornwallis approved the suggestions relative to combined action as mentioned in Tarleton's letter of the day before, and informed him that the Seventh Regiment was escorting his baggage to Brierleys Ferry, and that he, Cornwallis, proposed marching on January 7. Two hundred men of the Seventh Regiment, who were mostly recruits and designed for the garrison at Ninety Six, 50 dragoons of the Seventeenth Regiment, and a 3-pounder, brought the wagons from Brierleys Ferry to camp. Upon the arrival of the baggage and reinforcing troops, Tarleton crossed Indian and Duncan Creeks, and on his advance received accounts of the increase of Morgan's corps, which induced him to halt his march and request permission of Cornwallis to retain the Seventh Regiment. This request having been granted, on the 12th he continued his course to the westward in order to discover the most practicable fords, and the Enoree and Tiger were passed on the 14th, above the Cherokee Road. That evening Tarleton obtained information that Morgan was on the Pacolet, guarding all the fords. In the meanwhile Cornwallis's march northward had not been made in accordance with his plans, as the junction of Leslie's command had been much retarded by high waters, and it was not until the 14th that "Leslie is at last out of the swamps," at which time Cornwallis was at Bull Run.
On the 15th Tarleton made a reconnaissance of Morgan's dispositions covering the fords of the Pacolet, and that evening a feint was made to cross high up the river. The morning of the 16th this course was altered, as it was now known that Morgan had with, drawn from the Pacolet, and a passage was secured within 6 miles of the hostile camp. The British continued their march for several miles, and hatted in some log huts to rest and reconnoiter Morgan's whereabouts. Tarleton intended to post his troops behind the huts in case Morgan showed an inclination to attack him in this position. In his narrative he says that the camp afforded a plentiful supply of half-cooked provisions, left by the Americans that day. Patrols and spies were dispatched to observe the Americans during the night, and dragoons followed until dark, when they were ordered back to the main body. Early in the night the patrols reported that Morgan had withdrawn to Thicketty Creek, and that several groups of partisans were en route to join him. Tarleton determined to push ahead promptly for the purpose of engaging Morgan before he could effect a passage of the Broad, and before his numbers were too greatly augmented. Accordingly at 3 o'clock on the morning of the 17th the pursuit was resumed. The wagons and baggage of his train were left in camp under the protection of a small detachment from each corps.