January 17, 1781
“The bloody butcher” is what colonists called British Colonel Banastre Tarleton.
He let his dragoons bayonet and hack hundreds of surrendering Americans at Buford’s Massacre during the Battle of Waxhaw, May 29, 1780.
In January of 1781, 26-year-old Colonel Banastre Tarleton led 1,200 of Britain’s best troops, consisting of British dragoons, regulars, highlanders and loyalists, in a day-long, non-stop pursuit of the Americans.
American General Daniel Morgan led Colonel Banastre Tarleton into a trap—the Battle of Cowpens, JANUARY 17, 1781.
The Americans took a stand at two low hills with the Broad River behind them, leaving them no opportunity to retreat.
Seeing this a foolish decision, British Colonel Tarlton gave into the temptation to pursue without doing any reconnaissance.
This scene was depicted in the movie, The Patriot, in which Mel Gibson’s character Benjamin Martin, portrayed a composite of the fiercest Carolina leaders:
- Gen. Andrew Pickens (nicknamed “the Wizard Owl”);
- Gen. Francis Marion (nicknamed “the Swamp Fox); and
- Col. Thomas Sumter (nicknamed “the Carolina Gamecock”).
Approaching Cowpens, without taking time for his fatigued troops to catch their breath after their exhaustive march, Tarlton order a headlong attack upon the American militia.
American General Daniel Morgan had his line of militia fire twice into the charging British cavalry, then quickly retreat around a hill.
At a full gallop, it was only too late that Tarlton’s dragoons discovered that behind the militia was a wall of 400 battle-hardened American Continental soldiers who had been hiding.
The American Continentals stood immovable, firing at point-blank range. 100 dragoons where shot.The militia that retreated then circled around, appearing on the other side of the hill to attack Tarlton’s flank.
In the confusion, 110 British were killed and 830 captured.
Captured British officer, Maj. McArthur of the 71st Highlanders commented that:
he was an officer before Tarleton was born; that the best troops in the service were put under ‘that boy’ to be sacrificed.
The Battle of Cowpens is widely considered the tactical masterpiece and turning point of the Revolutionary War.
When British General Cornwallis was told the news, he was leaning on his sword—and leaned so hard the blade snapped.
Cornwallis gave chase, abandoning his slow supply wagons so he could pursue faster.
General Daniel Morgan hastily retreated north, meeting up with American General Nathaniel Greene, and they raced to get out of South Carolina, across North Carolina, and into Virginia.
Cornwallis regrouped and chased the Americans as fast as he could, discarding more cumbersome, slow wagons.
Cornwallis arrived at the Catawba River just two hours after the Americans had crossed, but a sudden storm made the river impassable, delaying the British pursuit.
The British nearly overtook the Americans at the Yadkin River, but again rains flooded the river slowing the British.
Now it was a frantic race to the Dan River.
General Nathaniel Greene quickly got the Americans across before another flash flood blocked the British.
British Commander Henry Clinton wrote:
Here the royal army was again stopped by a sudden rise of the waters, which had only just fallen (almost miraculously) to let the enemy over, who could not else have eluded Lord Cornwallis’ grasp, so close was he upon their rear.
Having discarded his supplies in the chase, Cornwallis was at a disadvantage.
General Nathaniel Greene recrossed and fought against Cornwallis again at the Battle of Guilford Court House, March 15, 1781.
Colonel Tarleton was shot in the right hand, causing the loss of two fingers.
Though the British were considered to have won the battle, their heavy losses of over 500 killed or wounded contributed to their later defeat.
Badly needing supplies, Cornwallis was ordered by British General Henry Clinton to move his 8,000 troops to a defensive position where the York River entered Chesapeake Bay, and wait for British ships.
Providentially, Ben Franklin and Marquis de Lafayette were successful in their efforts to persuade French King Louis XVI to send ships and troops to help the Americans.French Admiral de Grasse left off fighting the British in the West Indies and sailed 24 ships to the mouth of Chesapeake Bay, where, in the Battle of the Capes, he drove off 19 British ships which were trying to evacuate Cornwallis’ men.
De Grasse’s 3,000 French troops and General Rochambeau’s 6,000 French troops hurriedly joined General Lafayette’s division as they marched to Yorktown to help Washington trap Cornwallis against the sea.
French troops also joined:
- General Benjamin Lincoln,
- General Baron von Steuben,
- General Modecai Gist,
- General Henry Knox and
- General John Peter Muhlenberg.
Altogether, 17,000 French and American troops surrounded Cornwallis.
On October 19, 1781, Cornwallis surrendered, and the Revolutionary War was effectively over.
Yale President Ezra Stiles wrote, May 8, 1783:
Who but God could have ordained the critical arrival of the Gallic (French) fleet, so as to … assist … in the siege … of Yorktown? …
Should we not … ascribe to a Supreme energy … the wise … generalship displayed by General Greene … leaving the … roving Cornwallis to pursue his helter-skelter ill fated march into Virginia …
It is God who had raised up for us a … powerful ally … a chosen army and a naval force: who sent us a Rochambeau … to fight side by side with a Washington … in the … battle of Yorktown.
General Washington wrote to William Gordon in March of 1781:
We have … abundant reasons to thank Providence for its many favorable interpositions in our behalf. It has at times been my only dependence, for all other resources seemed to have failed us.