In the early stages of the Southern Campaign, British troops gained easy victories over ill-equipped American forces in several conventional battles. In both body and spirit, the Patriot cause was dealt a crushing blow.
After the Battle of Camden, British Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton aggressively pursued an American force under General Daniel Morgan through the South Carolina backcountry.
Confident that his 1,150 men would meet with continued success, Tarleton chose to act without full knowledge of his enemy’s numbers. Morgan, on the other hand, knew the strength and location of Tarleton’s force, and with this knowledge, he prepared his 1,065 men for battle.
On the morning of January 17, 1781, Morgan’s Patriots met the British on wide-open South Carolina pastureland.
After the fiasco at Camden, Morgan knew that his men would likely panic in the early stages of the battle. Hoping to discourage thoughts of retreat, the American commander positioned his forces between the Broad and Pacolet Rivers, ensuring that their only option was to meet the British head-on.
The Americans were organized into three lines, with skirmishers in the front, militia in the middle, and well-trained Continentals in the rear.
Morgan’s orders were that the militiamen in the second line were to meet the British attack with two volleys and then retreat and reform as a reserve. This maneuver would give the appearance of an American rout, while at the same time concealing the presence of the Continental line holding the high ground.
Morgan’s plan worked exactly as intended. The British suffered heavy casualties in their initial effort to drive back the American skirmishers and militia. By the time they reached the line of Continentals, Tarleton’s men had become disorganized.
At that point, Morgan’s reserves moved forward from behind the Continentals and enveloped the British soldiers. American dragoons hit Tarleton’s right flank while the reformed militia attacked the left.
The British force collapsed. By 8 A.M. the battle was over. Some 75 percent of Tarleton’s men were either killed, wounded, or captured. American losses were significantly lower, totaling about 150 men killed or wounded. Morgan later bragged that “It was a devil of a whipping!”