Daniel Morgan’s victory over Banastre Tarleton at the Cowpens is one of the most celebrated battles of the revolutionary war. Some historians consider it the greatest tactical victory of the contest and the only time Patriot forces completely routed an army of British regulars in the field. Daniel Morgan’s synchronized use of militia, regulars, and cavalry burned out the British attack and caused the destruction or capture of all General Cornwallis’s light troops.
In almost every retelling of Morgan’s victory, the official accounts are reprinted and we cheer as Tarleton received a well-deserved “Devil of a whipping.” However, sometimes a fresh look can be just as enjoyable as the more popular accounts. Below are a couple of eyewitness accounts from lesser known participants. First we have a page from the journal of Lt. Thomas Anderson from Delaware that provides an excellent telling from the perspective of a Continental infantry officer.
January 17, 1781: Before day reced information that col Tarlton was within five miles of us with a strong body of horse and infantry whereon we got up and put ourselves in order of battle by day light they have in sight halted and form’d the line in full view. as we had no artillery to annoy them and the Genl not thinking it prudent to advance from the ground we had form’d. We look’d at each other for a considerable time, about sunrise they began the attack by the discharge of two pieces of cannon and three huzzas advancing briskly on our riffelmen that was posted in front who fought well disputing the ground that was between them and us. flying from one tree to another at last being forst to give ground they fell back in our rear the enemy seeing us standing in such good order halted for some time to dress their line which outflanked ours considerably. They then advanced on boldly under a very heavy fire untill they got within a few yards of us but their line was so much longer than ours they turn’d our flanks which caused us to fall back some distance. The enemy thinking that we were broke set up a great shout charged us with their bayonets but in no order. We let them come within ten or fifteen yards of us then give them a full volley and at the same time charged them home. They not expecting any such thing put them in such confusion that we were in amongst them with the bayonets which caused them to give ground and at last to take to the flight. But we followed them up so close that they never could get in order again untill we killed and took the whole of the infantry prisoners. At the same time that we charged, Col Washington charged the horse which soon give way. We followed them ten miles but not being able to come up with them returned back to the field of battle that night and lay amongst the dead & wounded very well pleased with our days work. March this day
Another eyewitness account comes from a militia soldier in James McCall’s regiment previously informally referred to as the South Carolina Refugees. Large numbers of South Carolina soldiers had been granted paroles by the British after the fall of Charleston in 1780, on the condition that they no long take up arms. By the time of Cowpens most of the Long Cane militia had renounced their paroles and rejoined the fight. This included their commander, Col. Andrew Pickens (soon to become Brig. Gen. Andrew Pickens), and the South Carolina force at Cowpens should probably be identified as the Ninety-Six militia brigade as it also included men from the Fair Forest, Sparta, and Little River regiments. They are generally identified as having been in the second line of defense at Cowpens. In any event, here is the account of James Potter Collins.
About sunrise on the 17th of January, 1781, the enemy came in full view. The sight, to me at least, seemed somewhat imposing. They halted for a short time, and then advanced rapidly as if certain of victory. The militia under Pickens and Moffitt was posted on the right of the regulars some distance n advance, while Washington’s cavalry was stationed in the rear. WE gave the enemy one fire; when they charged us with their bayonets, we gave way and retreated for our horses. Tarleton’s cavalry pursued us. “Now”, thought I, “my hide is in the loft.”
Just as we got to our horses, they overtook us and began to make a few hacks at some, however without doing much injury. They, in their haste, had pretty much scattered, perhaps thinking they would have another Fishing Creek frolic, but in a few moments Col Washington’s cavalry was among them like a whirlwind, and the poor fellows began to keel from their horses without being able to remount. The shock was so sudden and violent they could not stand it and immediately betook themselves to flight. There was no time to really, and they appeared to be as hard to stop as a drove of wild Choctaw steers going to a Pennsylvania market. In a few moments the clashing of swords was out of hearing and quickly out of sight.
By this time both lines of the infantry were warmly engaged and we, being relieved from the pursuit of the enemy, began to rally and prepare to redeem our credit, when Morgan rode up in front and, waving his sword, cried out, ‘Form, form, my brave fellows! Give them one more fire and the day is ours. Old Morgan was never beaten.’
We then advanced briskly and gained the right flank of the enemy, and they, being hard pressed in front by Howard and falling very fast, could not stand it long. They began to throw down their arms and surrender themselves prisoners of war. The whole army, except Tarleton and his horsemen, fell into the hands of Morgan, together with all the baggage.
 Thomas Anderson, “Journal of Thomas Anderson,” Historical Magazine (April 1867),14.
 James P Collins, Autobiography of a Revolutionary Soldier, reprinted in Commager & Morris, The Spirit of Seventy-Six, (Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 1958), 1156.