Major General Nathaniel Greene, Commander of Continental Forces in the South was attempting to recover American military fortunes. His strategy was to divide his army and force the British to split theres.
To that end, he sent Brigadier General Daniel Morgan with a detachment called the "Flying Army" into South Carolina to work on the British left flank and rear. Morgan was to threaten outposts, protect the country and raise spirits.
Major General Charles Cornwallis, British Commander in the South, sent Banastre Tarleton with the British legion and some of his best light troops. Tarleton was hated in the Carolinas after his troops butchered Colonel Abraham Buford's surrendered Continentals in May 1780 at Waxhaws, South Carolina.
Since Tarleton's forces outnumbered his, Morgan sent for militia units from South Carolina, North Carolina and Georgia, getting men who had fought at Musgrove Mill, Kings Mountain, Kettle Creek and Williamson's Plantation. Although these men were well-trained, they could not compete with British battle tactics. Their rifles could not mount a bayonet so they were defenseless against a bayonet attack or mounted charge. The militia's strength was in their prowess with rifles. Their rifles had greater range and, in their hands, were deadlier and more accurate than British muskets. Morgan devised a battle plan to match the strengths of his men and the terrain.
Morgan marched his army onto the field on 16 Jan 1781, while trying to elude a British trap. The next morning, while his men cooked their breakfast in camp at Thicketty Creek, scouts brought word that Tarleton and his forces had crossed the Pacolet River twelve miles south and were coming fast. Morgan's forces broke camp immediately and marched down the road. They stopped at Cow Pens, a frontier pasturing ground on the road (later called Green River Road) to a ford across the Broad River.
Morgan chose to fight in an open wood, where the ground sloped gently southeast, from which the British would approach. The field had three low crests separated by wide swales. The Green River Road ran through this field and Morgan formed his troops in three lines straddling the road. The front line contained small groups of sharpshooters. The sharpshooters were to use well-aimed fire to slow Tarleton's advance and then fall back. The second line, about ninety yards behine the sharpshooters, included Colonel Andrew Picken's militia. They were to fire two shots at a killing distance and fall back behind the Continentals.
The third line, approximately 150 yards behind Pickens troops, stretching out along the forward crest, was made up of Lieutenant Colonel John Edgar Howard's 600 crack Maryland and Delaware Continentals and veteran Virginia militia. Behind the crest, Lieutenant Colonel William Washington commanded 150 calvarymen with orders to protect the militia and be ready to fight.
The patriot forces saw the British in full view just before dawn. Tarleton sent calvary to drive back the American sharpshooters. He then formed his lines and advanced them to the battle. He lined up his infantry along the road with 50 dragoons on each side. Behind the lines in reserve were a brigade of Highlanders and 200 Legion Calvary. As British forces came within range, Picken's forces fired and hit two-thirds of the British officers before withdrawing behind the Continental line. The dragoons on the right pursued the militia but were driven back by the calvary.
The fighting became fierce when the British reached the Continentals. The Highlanders attacked and threatened to outflank the patriot forces. Howard ordered his right flank to fall back and form a new front, but the order was miscommunicated and the entire line began to retreat.
In an effort to salvage the battle, Morgan chose new ground for the Continentals to rally. When they reached that point, the men turned about and fired point-blank at the red coats, then attacked with bayonets. As the Continentals were attacking, Washington's calvary attacked the British right and Picken's militia fired on the British left. British resistance collapsed and Tarleton with his legion calvary (which never joined the battle) raced from the field.
In less than an hour, the British had 110 killed, 229 wounded and 600 captured or missing. A number of slaves were also captured. For the patriot forces, 24 were killed and 104 were wounded.
Morgan later told a friend he had given Tarleton and the British a "devil of a whipping".
© 2010 Jeanne Hicks Warning: The unauthorized reproduction or distribution of this copyrighted work is illegal. Criminal copyright infringement, including infringement without monetary gain, is investigated by the FBI and is punishable by up to 5 years in federal prison and a fine of $250,000.