It was the classic story of a small band of soldiers standing up to a battle-hardened, superior force.
227 years ago a small force of Continental Army soldiers and raw local militia took on the British at a hilly pasture described simply as the cow pens, and beat them. The stunning and decisive victory became the turning point in the southern war, ultimately driving Corwallis to Yorktown and final defeat.
In 1778 the British, under General Charles Corwallis, began what they called the Southen Campaign, with the idea of taking control of the southern colonies and working their way north. It began well with victories at Savannah, Charleston and Camden, and by the autumn of 1780 Cornwallis was so confident of victory that he began preparations to move north (NPS). Cornwallis tacitly allowed brutal tactics in maintaining order, giving the order to be “vigorous” in punishing rebels, and allowing Colonel Banastre Tarleton to wreak terror among the locals who were were loyal to the revolution.
Into these conditions rode General Nathanael Greene, hand-picked by George Washington to salvage the defense of the southern states. It was a tall order.
Greene split his troops to force Cornwallis to do the same, putting Daniel Morgan in charge of one of the groups and instructing him to, “… cut supply lines and hamper British operations in the backcountry, and, in doing so ‘spirit up the people (NPS).'” Cornwallis countered with Colonel Tarleton and his Raiders. It was rumored that Tarleton allowed no quarter – “take no prisoners.”
Morgan chose the ground and devised a brilliant scheme to lull the British into his trap. He placed raw recruits in the front two lines, instructing them to fire two rounds … then run. The British, thinking the Americans were being routed (as had happened many times before), would charge. Waiting for them would be Morgan’s Continental regulars.
The scheme worked perfectly (for the full acount, click here). The British were decimated, losing somewhere around 3 out of every 4 soldiers during the battle (TheAmericanRevolution.org). American losses were light.
After Cowpens, Cornwallis (and Tarleton) were forced to moved north, fighting Greene all the way to Virginia. Eventually he settled in Yorktown to rest his troops. You know the rest.
COWPENS has been the proud name of two Navy ships – USS COWPENS (CVL 25), a light carrier that saw action in WWII and the first light carrier to enter Tokyo Bay; and USS COWPENS (CG 63), the first ship to fire tomahawks during OIF (March 20, 2003).
The name, once a simple description of pastureland in South Carolina, has become synonymous with American ingenuity and resolve. It still does, 227 years later.