In December 1780, Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene dispatched Brig. Gen. Daniel Morgan and his "flying army" west from Charlotte, North Carolina. Morgan's command consisted of dragoons, militia, and Continental regulars. Greene directed Morgan to gather forage, support local American militia and threaten British outposts in the South Carolina backcountry.
Alarmed by Morgan's movement and the threat to his left flank at Winnsboro, Lord Charles Cornwallis ordered one of his top subordinates, Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton to pursue and destroy Morgan. Tarleton took with him his feared British Legion, the 7th Regiment of Foot, the first battalion of the 71st Regiment (Fraser's Highlanders), 17th Light Dragoons and a contingent of light infantry. Tarleton aggressively pursued Morgan and caught up with his quarry on the morning of January 17, 1781 south of the Broad River.
Morgan formed his men and awaited Tarleton in an open, rolling meadow known as the Cowpens. The terrain perfectly suited Morgan's battle plan. He decided to position his men in three successive lines. The first consisted of riflemen from Georgia and the Carolinas. Morgan placed his men, under Andrew Pickens, in the second line. Continental Regulars from Maryland and Delaware led by Lt. Col. John Eager Howard were in the rear of the militia. Later known as a defense in depth, Morgan hoped his first two lines would slow and deplete Tarleton's advance before his Contintenals struck the decisive blow.
Shortly after sunrise, the American rifleman encountered the lead elements of Tarleton's force. The Georgians and Carolinians held up the British vanguard enough to prompt Tarleton to form a battle line. From right to left Tarleton placed the 17th Light Dragoons, the light infantry companies, British Legion infantry, the 7th Regiment, and the British Legion Dragoons. He kept the 71st Regiment in reserve. As the British advanced, the riflemen fell back to the militia line.
After firing a few volleys, the militia withdrew. In the hopes of seizing the day, Tarleton sent forward the 17th Dragoons in a mounted charge. Watching the cavalry advance, Morgan ordered his own dragoons, under Lt. Col. William Washington to meet the attack. Washington skillfully led his men forward and repulsed the British cavalry.
Undeterred, Tarleton continued on to the third line and met stiff resistance from the Continentals. Tarleton then elected to commit his reserves and the 71st Regiment came upon Morgan's right. As the Americans redeployed to meet this threat, Morgan ordered them to reform on a nearby knoll. Watching their enemy seemingly withdraw, the British line broke into a bayonet charge. When the Americans reached their designated spot, Morgan yelled "Face about boys! Give them one good fire and the victory is ours!" The ensuing volley devastated the British ranks and Morgan launched a counterattack. In a double envelopment, the Continentals slammed in Tarleton's center while Pickens and Washington struck the British flanks simultaneously. Tarleton's line crumbled and what was left of his command fled from the field.
Cowpens was the most decisive American victory of the War for Independence. It gave a major boost to Patriot morale, inflicted casualties that the British could not replace and ultimately led to Cornwallis's surrender at Yorktown that fall.