Battlefields, Bites, and Brews Review
Battlefield Tour: Cowpens
Calling all Revolutionary War history buffs! Cowpens needs to be at the top of your list of battlefields to visit and take a tour. It is a “must-see.” It’s also incredibly easy to tour the battlefield in less than two hours. I stayed with a fellow Marine officer at his farm in northwest South Caroline. After his roosters woke me up, I loaded up a Yeti filled with coffee and drove off to Cowpens National Battlefield. Cowpens was high on my list of battlefields to visit. One of the most decisive American victories of the Revolutionary War took place at Cowpens. Daniel Morgan pulled off a tactical maneuver called a double envelopment. As you will learn from touring the battlefield, this was no easy feat.
In August 1780, General Horatio Gates lost the Battle of Camden. As a result, he was replaced by General Nathanael Greene as commander of the southern theater. Greene took command in
December 1780. Shortly after taking command, Greene split his army in two. He created a “flying army” and put a Virginia frontiersman named Daniel Morgan in command of it. Morgan’s mission was to push west into the South Carolina backcountry to make Cornwallis think that he was going to attack a British fort at Ninety-Six, SC. As Morgan took the flying army west, Cornwallis was forced to deal with Morgan by deploying his own flying army to chase after Morgan.
Cornwallis tasked Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton (aka “Bloody Ban”) to do the job of stopping the Americans. In early January 1781, Tarleton pursued Morgan, who was trying not to become decisively engaged. By January 16, 1781, Morgan had finally been pushed to a spot several miles from the Broad River. He decided to stop and fight at a place called Cowpens. This place was known as a location for cattle grazing, hence the name Cowpens. On this field, Morgan resolved to make a heroic stand against “Bloody Ban” Tarleton.
On January 17, 1781, Morgan’s army and Tarleton fought a short, but vicious battle at Cowpens. Morgan used a defense in depth. He placed a line of skirmishers in a forward position. In the second line, he positioned his militia forces. On the third line, Morgan kept his Continentals. Furthermore, Morgan had cavalry troops under the command of Col. William Washington, who was a second cousin of General Washington. His cavalry was used as a reserve unit and also for a counterattack.
After an hour of bloody fighting, the Americans won the day. Morgan’s army had nearly destroyed all of Tarleton’s forces. The British suffered 868 casualties out of a force of 1,150.
Lessons Learned: Tactics and Strategy
The Battle of Cowpens was an overwhelming American victory. It is a brilliant example of the defense in depth. Moreover, Morgan employed his militia in accordance with their capabilities. He ordered the militia to fire two volleys. After their two volleys, he said they could withdraw. As a result, the British rushed each line and thought that the Americans were retreating. In fact, the British were duped. The Americans were not retreating. Each line got stronger. The British ran into the teeth of the formidable American third line, which was composed of Continentals. Continental soldiers were well-trained, professional soldiers. They could stand toe to toe with the best British soldiers.
Furthermore, Morgan was able to execute a double envelopment. This involved flanking the British from two sides. In doing so, the Americans killed or captured 80% of Tarleton’s forces. From a strategic standpoint, the battle was important, but not decisive. However, Cornwallis did burn his supply wagons and begin a campaign against Greene into North Carolina. Thus, Cornwallis undertook an operation that led to the famous Race to the Dan. After the Race to the Dan, the Battle of Guilford Courthouse was the next decisive battle.
About Cowpens National Battlefield
Cowpens National Battlefield is a beautiful battlefield in northwest South Carolina. True to its roots, the battlefield is in a rural part of the state. It is about ten miles north of Cowpens, SC and only minutes away from Chesnee, SC.
The battlefield is well preserved and easy to walk. There is a driving route around it. However, this is one you will want to walk to appreciate the tactics of the battlefield. Unlike Kings Mountain, the battlefield is very flat. Daniel Morgan placed his troops in three separate lines. Each line was spaced 150 yards from the other. As a result, the core of where the battle was fought is only four football fields long. The battle itself lasted a little over an hour, so its a relatively small battlefield. This is typical for Revolutionary War battlefields.
The visitor center is not big. It has a few exhibits and a gift shop. They will show a fifteen minute video at the visitor center. The theater also contains most of the exhibits.
Visitors can walk the battlefield in less than an hour. It is one of the most compact battlefields, and is very similar to Ninety-Six in terms of walking time. Even the visitor center is small, and can be toured in less than a half hour. If you plan two hours at Cowpens, you will have more than enough time to cover the essentials of the battle, take pictures, and appreciate this sacred ground where Patriots fought for American independence.
Where to get bites and brews
If you first go to the town of Cowpens, there is a wonderful coffee and ice cream shop called Cowpens Coffee & Creamery. This is a great spot to fuel up before touring the Cowpens Battlefield. Alternatively, it is a good spot to get some ice cream after a visit and walk around the battlefield.
The town of Chesnee is actually closer to the battlefield. In Chesnee, thirsty battlefield tourists can find Outside Influence Brewing. This brewery opened in the spring of 2023. It already has been racking up rave reviews from guests. They serve a full lunch menu with burgers and sandwiches. It’s only a seven minute drive from the battlefield, so it’s an ideal spot to get a burger and a brew after walking in Daniel Morgan’s footsteps at Cowpens.
Driving and Travel
As I mentioned, Cowpens Battlefield is a little off the beaten path. The closest big city is Charlotte, NC, which is about 1.5 hours away. Spartanburg, SC is about a half hour away. Interstate-85 is the main north-south route and I-26 is the main east-west route. You will be turning off the interstates onto state highways and driving some more. The point is that unlike Kings Mountain and Guilford Courthouse, Cowpens is not as close to the interstate. But, its not hard to find. There is plenty of parking at the visitor center as well as clean restrooms.
For more driving instructions and travel recommendations, check out the NPS page here.
My recommendation is to combine Cowpens and Kings Mountain into a day trip. Plan on spending more time at Kings Mountain. I recommend going to Kings Mountain in the morning and then driving to Cowpens and touring it in the afternoon. My recommendation is based on the fact that Kings Mountain will be more physically demanding. Cowpens can be walked at a more leisurely pace. Also, Kings Mountain is a more complex battlefield. Cowpens is simpler and will be easier to envision. The two battlefields are only 30 miles from each other. The drive ranges from 45 minutes to an hour depending on traffic. There was a lot of interstate traffic when I visited them in the spring of 2023.
Cowpens is fantastic. It is one of my favorite battlefields. Daniel Morgan is an American hero. I love his story and his leadership. There are many other impressive American heroes to include Col. William Washington, who was General Washington’s second cousin, and an all-around gifted cavalry officer. Some other American heroes include John Eager Howard and Andrew Pickens.
Cowpens is arguably where one of the most tactically brilliant battles in American history. The double envelopment is the holy grail of tactical achievement. Morgan is compared to the legendary commander Hannibal, who defeated a larger Roman army at Cannae in 216 B.C using the double envelopment. Daniel Morgan pulled it off on January 17, 1781. Now, visitors can appreciate the service and sacrifice of Morgan and his army. At the end of the day, we can raise a glass to the American patriots that helped secure our independence at a small cattle field known as Cowpens.
Podcast episode on the Battle of Cowpens
- American Guerillas (Part One): War in the Carolinas
- American Guerillas (Part Two): The Sword of the Lord and Gideon
- American Guerillas (Part Three): The Old Wagoner’s Revenge
- A Devil of a Whipping
- William Washington, American Light Dragoon: A Continental Cavalry Leader in the War of Independence
- The Road to Guilford Courthouse
- Daniel Morgan: A Revolutionary Life
- Kings Mountain and Cowpens
- Nathanael Greene: A Biography of the American Revolution
- South Carolina and the American Revolution
- To the End of the World: Nathanael Greene, Charles Cornwallis, and the Race to the Dan
- The Cowpens Staff Ride and Battlefield Tour by Lieutenant Colonel John Moncure