Tour Historic Cowpens National Battlefield

By:Marie McAden


As historic sites go, Cowpens National Battl​efield isn’t much to look at. Once frontier pasture grounds for backcountry cattle farmers, it remains an open field of grasslands surrounded by forest and swamps. 

But in this park-like setting in Gaff​ney, a scrappy army of Continentals and backwoods militia helped turned the tide of the Revolutionary War, soundly whipping the ruthless British Gen. Banastre Tarleton.

Revenge never tasted sweeter.

Known as “Bloody Tarleton”, the much-vilified commander was widely hated in South Carolina after his troops butchered unarmed Continentals who had surrendered at Waxhaws in 1780.

Undaunted by Tarleton’s bad rep or his stronger forces, Continental Brig. Gen. Daniel Morgan and his “Flying Army” prepared to make a stand at Cowpens, a well-known crossroads in western South Carolina.

“Cowpens: A Battle Remembered” recounts the one-hour skirmish that set forth a chain of events leading to the defeat and surrender of British commander Lord Earl Cornwallis at Yorktown, Virginia, in October 1781. The 18-minute movie is shown hourly in the Cowpens Visitor Center.

The park center also features exhibits about the battle, a fiber-optic map illustrating the Southern Campaign of the American Revolution and a museum with authentic Revolutionary War weapons, including a three-pounder canon.

Outside, a 1.25-mile loop trail takes you to the historic Green River Road where the battle was fought Jan. 17, 1781. Wayside exhibits provide information on both armies and the strategy each side used to wage war.

When we visited the national park, we took a free one-hour tour of the battlefield led by Park Ranger Ashley Barrows. He told us Morgan’s 500 to 600 crack professional soldiers were outnumbered two to one by Tarleton’s forces.

To even the odds, Morgan enlisted the help of militia units from the Carolinas and Georgia. Armed with rifles, they were no match for a musket and its deadly bayonet. But the hunting long guns offered one strategic advantage — they were more accurate at greater distances.

Keeping this in mind, Morgan devised a battle plan to match the strengths of his men and the terrain. He formed his troops in three lines with sharpshooters at the front, followed by the militia and then the Continentals.

As the British came within range, the militia line fired, dropping two-thirds of the British officers. In the chaos of the fighting that followed, the Continental soldiers misinterpreted orders and began to retreat.

Seeing this, Morgan rode up and ordered his men to face about, firing point-blank at the closing British troops. The Continental soldiers plunged into the staggering ranks of redcoats, aided by a volley of fire from the militia and the cavalry.

Tarleton managed to escape, but the British loss was devastating: 110 killed, 229 wounded and 600 captured or missing. In comparison, Morgan lost 24 men and another 104 were wounded.

In addition to walking the battlefield trail, visitors can drive a three-mile auto loop road that runs around the perimeter of the battlefield. It features wayside exhibits, short wooded trails and the Robert Scruggs House, an early 1800s log cabin.

Cowpens National Park is open daily from dawn to dusk. The Visitor Center is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is free and pets are allowed on the property so long as they are on leashes no longer than six feet.

To learn more about the park, click he​re or call (864) 461-2828.

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