On January 17, 1781, Patriot forces employed a rare double envelopment to decisively defeat a large British force in upcountry South Carolina. This stunning victory was one of the most important Patriot achievements of the American Revolution, convincing Lord Cornwallis that he must abandon his pacification campaign in South Carolina. At Cowpens National Battlefield, the National Park Service is working to restore the battlefield to its 1781 appearance.
A Surprising Victory That Really Mattered
Just before sunrise on the bitterly cold morning of January 17, 1781, a force of about 1,150 British infantry and cavalry troops under the command of the infamous Lt. Colonel Banastre Tarleton ("Bloody Tarleton") launched an attack on the Patriot army confronting them at a pasturing area called the cow pens about 15 miles northeast of Spartanburg, South Carolina. Tarleton was confident of a quick victory, something that was badly needed to restore momentum to the British campaign to pacify South Carolina following the severe setback at Kings Mountain the preceding October. The anticipated win would subdue the South Carolina upcountry, restore the confidence of British Loyalists (Tories), and free up British troops to push north where they could help crush Washington's Continental Army and put a stop to the Revolution.
It didn't work out that way. By 8:00 a.m., barely one hour after the attack commenced, Tarleton was fleeing the battlefield, having narrowly escaped with his life. Behind him was the wreckage of a his once-proud army (actually a large detachment), which had sustained such appalling losses that it had virtually ceased to exist as a functioning military unit.
When British commander Lord Cornwallis received news of this disaster, he is said to have been so distraught that he accidentally broke the tip off the sword he was leaning on. He realized that the jig was probably up for the British cause in South Carolina. The rest, as they say, is history. When Cornwallis took his army north, it was an act of desperation. Although he scored a (Pyrrhic) victory at Guilford Courthouse in North Carolina, he ended up cornered and conquered at Yorktown, Virginia, where he surrendered on October 19, 1781, just nine months after the pivotal Battle of Cowpens.
Things might have turned out very differently for the British had Banastre Tarleton not made a dreadful mistake at the cow pens on that long-ago January morning. Tarleton was an arrogant man who could not bring himself to believe that the American army opposing him -- an army that he believed to be little more than a rabble -- could possibly defeat his disciplined, mostly battle-hardened soldiers and dragoons, the elite of Cornwallis' forces. When Tarleton ordered the attack, he didn't realize that he was sending these crack troops into a clever trap laid by American commander Daniel Morgan. He also badly underestimated the discipline and courage of the American troops, who outnumbered the British nearly two to one.
Brigadier General Daniel Morgan, one of the Continental Army's ablest field commanders, had chosen the ground carefully, his flanks being protected by a ravine on his right and a creek on his left. He also planned a deadly surprise for Tarleton's troops. When the British charged the American lines head-on, the Patriot sharpshooters and militia in the first two lines fell back after firing a few rounds, just as Tarleton had expected. But this apparent rout was not what it seemed. The retreating militia enticed the British to pursue them into a third line consisting of nearly 600 combat-seasoned Continentals and militia who used bullets and bayonets to reap a fearsome harvest of British lives. In short order, both the right and left flanks of the British army were brought under heavy attack, caving them in and causing a general collapse of the British position.
When the smoke cleared, more than 800 British soldiers involved in the battle had been killed (110+) or wounded (200), and another 512 had been captured. Tarleton's army had been annihilated with a classic double envelopment, a feat so rare that it was managed just this once during the entire Revolutionary War. Cowpens was also one of the most lopsided victories of the war. Patriot losses totaled only about 125.
Preserving and Interpreting the Battlefield
For nearly 150 years, the Cowpens battlefield was not formally protected, though some efforts were made to commemorate the victory. In 1856, a local Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) chapter and members of the Washington Light Infantry (a Charleston militia unit formed in 1807) erected the Washington Light Infantry Monument at the battlefield. The battlefield's remote location and vandalism of the Washington Light Infantry Monument discouraged the erection of other monuments on the battlefield. Legislation to establish a national military park at Cowpens failed to clear Congress in 1898 and 1899.
Groups continued to lobby for the proposed park throughout the early 1900s. Finally, on March 4, 1929, Congress created Cowpens National Battlefield Site with just one acre of donated land. Although initially placed under War Department administration, the site was transferred to the National Park Service only four years later as part of the agency reorganization of August 10, 1933.
Boundary changes in 1958 and 1972 expanded the park to its present size of 842 acres, which encompasses the entire battlefield and also provides a buffer zone. The park was redesignated Cowpens National Battlefield in 1972 and had a visitor center by 1980. It is now visited by several hundred thousand visitors a year (224,394 in 2009) and offers a nice variety of attractions, including visitor center exhibits, ranger-led and self-guided tours on the 1.25-mile battlefield trail (with wayside exhibits), a 2-mile nature trail/bridle path, a section of the Overmountain Victory National Historic Trail, a 3-mile auto loop, several 19th century historic structures, picnic facilities, and special events such as an annual July 4th weekend fireworks and an anniversary celebration and living history encampment on the weekend closest to the battle anniversary.
The Site Restoration Program
Battlefield tours are the core attraction at Cowpens, and if the tours are to be as meaningful and instructive as practicable it's necessary for visitors to see the terrain and vegetation pretty much as it was when the battle took place. In fact, restoring the battlefield to its 1781 appearance was deemed important enough to merit this explicit statement in the park's General Management Plan: "By careful handling of the natural vegetation, the area within the park boundary will eventually come to resemble its appearance in Colonial times. The pasturelands and woodlands will again be in their historic relationship."
Historical accounts have left us with a fairly good idea of what the battlefield and surrounding landscape looked like in January 1781. According to veterans of the battle and others familiar with the site, the battlefield that lay between the creek and the ravine was a fairly level area of "open woods" with little underbrush. Hardwood trees were plentiful.
During the 1980s and 1990s, the Park Service worked to maintain the core battlefield as an open area while allowing the surrounding land to revert to forest. Then, in 2000 the park partnered with the Palmetto Conservation Foundation to conduct research and then develop and execute a more historically accurate restoration plan.
Research showed that the core battlefield was larger than originally thought and also had more trees, less underbrush, and a different species mix. In other words, some significant changes had to be made. To restore the 1781 vegetation of the battlefield it would be necessary to clear underbrush between large trees, reintroduce native grasses, and plant red oaks, yellow poplars (tuliptrees), hickories, and maples to replace the cherry trees, sweetgums, and other early successional species that had been allowed to grow up. Cane breaks (thickets) that affected troop movements during the battle would have to be restored or allowed to grow to full height in their historic locations.
Though much remains to be done, steady progress is being made with the use of both mechanical and manual methods. Fully restoring the battlefield to its 1781 appearance will require years of planting, mowing, selective thinning, trimming, and prescriptive fire operations. Keeping non-native invasive plants at bay, a very labor intensive activity, will be a perpetual struggle.
For additional relevant information, including comprehensive cultural and natural resource assessments, see this NPCA State of the Parks report on Cowpens National Battlefield.
If you visited this battlefield in the early years and haven't seen it recently, you should seize some early opportunity to see the battlefield again. At Cowpens, site restoration is making a difference.