George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Major General Nathanael Greene, 24 January 1781

From Major General Nathanael Greene

Camp on Pedee [River] S. Carolina January 2[4]th 1781.


In my despatches of the 29th Ultimo, I did myself the honor to acquaint your Excellency with the disposition I had made to counteract the movements of the enemy, and to protect the Country from their depredations.1

Lord Cornwallis continued at Weymissbury, making every preparation, and compleatly equiping his troops for the most active operations, untill the 9th Instant; when having been joined by the troops under General Leslie, he put his army in motion and advanced as far as the Cross-roads on the West side of the Catawba river, and about forty miles from Camden.2

The position which Brigr General Morgan occupied, was well chosen for harrassing the left flank, and checking the progress of the enemy on the route they had taken for the execution of their plan of operations. This I suppose induced his Lordship on the 11th to detach Lt Colonel Tarlton to dislodge him, and disperse the few Militia who were collecting.

I have the satisfaction to transmit your Excellency the copy of a letter which I this moment recieved from Brigadier Genl Morgan announcing the total defeat of Lt Colonel Tarlton’s detachment. The victory was compleat, and the action glorious. The brilliancy and success with which it was fought, does the highest honor to the American arms and adds splendor to the character of the General and his Officers. I must beg leave to recommend them to your Excellency’s notice, and doubt not, but from your representation Congress will receive pleasure from testifying their approbation of their conduct.3

Colonel Pickens was left on the ground to relieve the wounded, and to cover that part of the Country.4

I am unhappy that the distressed situation of this Army will not admit of our improving the advantage we have gained. But I hope it has given the enemy a check that will prevent their advancing for some days. Our supplies of provisions are growing more precarious; and the other Stores which I can only look for from Philadelphia, do not arrive in such quantities, as to replace those which are daily destroyed in service.

I have appointed Major Hyrne Deputy Commissary Genl of Prisoners for the Southern department, and ordered him to send all the prisoners of War to Virginia.5 The Militia under General Stephens will take charge of them, as their time of service has already expired.6

I have directed Major General the Baron de Steuben to transmit to Congress and to your Excellency regular reports of the operations in Virginia.7

I do myself the honor to enclose a copy of my Letter to Congress respecting the action of the 17th Inst.8 I am With sentiments of the most perfect esteem and respect Your Excellency’s Most Obedient Humble Servant.

Nath. Greene

LS, DLC:GW; LB, DLC: Nathanael Greene Papers; copy, DNA:PCC, item 155; copy, DNA:PCC, item 172; copy, NjP: De Coppet Collection. The LS is dated 28 Jan., but all the copies are correctly dated 24 Jan. (see also Greene’s second letter to GW of this date). GW replied to Greene on 27 February.

2For the movements of British major general Alexander Leslie, see James Duane to GW, 2 Jan., n.5.

3The enclosed copy of Brig. Gen. Daniel Morgan’s letter to Greene, dated 19 Jan. at “Camp near Cain Creek [S.C.]” reads: “The Troops I have the honor to command have gained a compleat Victory over a Detachment from the British Army commanded by Lt Colonel Tarlton. The Action happened on the 17th Instant about Sunrise at a Place called the Cow Pens near Pacolet River.

“On the 14th having recieved certain Intelligence that the British Army were in Motion, and that their Movements clearly indicated their Intentions of dislodging us, I abondoned my Encampment at Grindales Ford, and on the 16th in the Evening took Possession of a Post about 7 Miles from the Cherokee Ford on Broad River. My former Position subjected me at once to the Operations of Lord Cornwallis and Colonel Tarlton and in Case of a Defeat my Retreat might easily have been cut off. My Situation at the Cowpens enabled me to improve any Advantages I might gain, and to provide better for my own Security, should I be unfortunate. These Reasons induced me to take this Post, notwithstanding it had the Appearance of a Retreat. On the Evening of the 16th the Enemy occupied the Ground we removed from in the Morning. An Hour before daylight one of my Scouts informed me that they had advanced within five Miles of our Camp. On this Information the necessary Dispositions were made and from the Alacrity of the Troops we were soon prepared to recieve them.

“The Light Infantry, commanded by Lt Colonel Howard and the Virg. Militia under Majr Triplett were formed on a rising Ground. The 3rd Regt of Dragoons, consisting of 80 Men under the Command of Lt Colonel Washington, were so Posted in their Rear as not to be injured by the Enemy’s Fire and yet to be able to charge the Enemy should an Occasion offer. The Volunteer’s from N. Carolina, S. Carolina and Georgia under the Command of Colonel Pickens were posted to guard the Flanks. Majr McDowell of the N. Carolina Volunteer’s was posted on the right Flank in Front of the Line 150 Yds; and Majr Cunningham of the Georgia Volunteers on the left at the same distance in Front. Colonel’s Brannon and Thomas of the S. Carolina on the right of Majr McDowell and Colonel Hays and McCall of the same Corps on the left of Majr Cunningham Captains Tate and MacLannan with the Augusta Riflemen were to support the right of the Line.

“The Enemy drew up in one Line 400 Yds in Front of our advanced Corps. The 1st Batt: of the 71st Reg. was opposed to our Right: the 7th Reg. to our left. the Legion Infantry to our Center and two light Companies 100 Men each on their Flanks. In their Front moved on two field Pieces, and Lt Colonel Tarlton with 200 Cavalry was posted in the Rear of his Line. The Disposition being thus made, small Parties of Riflemen were detached to skirmish with the Enemy, on which their whole Line advanced on with the greatest Impetuosity, shouting as they advanced. Majrs McDowell and Cunningham gave them a heavy Fire and retreated to the Regiments intended for their Support. The whole of Colonel Pickens’s Command then kept up a Fire by Regiments retreating agreable to their Orders. When the Enemy advanced to our Line they recieved a well directed and incessant Fire, but their Number’s being superiour to ours, they gained our Flanks, which obliged us to change our Position. We retired in good order about 50 Paces, formed, advanced on the Enemy and gave them a brisk Fire, which threw them into Disorder. Lt Colonel Howard observing this gave orders for the Line to charge Bayonets which was done with such address that the Enemy fled with the utmost Precipitation.

“Lt Colonel Washington discovering that the Cavalry were cutting down our Riflemen on the left charged them with such Firmness as obliged them to retire in Confusion. The Enemy were entirely routed and the Persuit continued for upwards of 20 Miles.

“Our Loss is very inconsiderable, not having more than 12 killed and 60 Wounded. The Enemys Loss was 10 Com. Officers killed, & upwards of 100 R. & File, 200 Wounded; 29 Com. Officers and more than 500 Privates Prisoners, which fall into our Hands with two field Pieces, two Standards, 800 Musquets, one travelling Forge, 35 Waggons, 70 Negros & upwards of 100 dragoon Horses and all their Musick. They destroyed most of their Baggage which was immense.

“Altho’ our Success was compleat, we fought only 800 Men & were opposed by upwards of 1000 chosen British Troops.

“Such was the Inferiority of our Numbers that our Success must be attributed to the Justice of our Cause and the Gallantry of our Troops. My Wishes would induce me to name every Contin[ent]al in the Corps. In justice to the Bravery and good Conduct of the Officers, I have taken the Liberty to enclose you a List of their Names from a Conviction that you will be please⟨d⟩ to introduce such Character’s to the World.

“Majr Giles my Aid D. Camp and Capt. Brookes my Brigade Majr deserve and have my thanks for their Assistan[c]e & Behaviour on this Occasion.

“The Baron De Glaebuck, who accompanies Majr Giles with these Dispatches, served with me as a Volunteer and behaved so as to merit your Attention” (DLC:GW). The copy sent GW probably was an edited version of Morgan’s actual letter to Greene, which contains more details of the battle (see Greene Papers description begins Richard K. Showman et al., eds. The Papers of General Nathanael Greene. 13 vols. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1976–2005. description ends , 7:152–61). A list of commissioned officers of Morgan’s corps who participated in the battle, dated 19 Jan., is in DLC:GW. GW announced the victory in the general orders for 14 February.

For an account of this battle from the British perspective, see Charles Cornwallis to Henry Clinton, 18 Jan., in Davies, Documents of the American Revolution description begins K. G. Davies, ed. Documents of the American Revolution, 1770–1783; (Colonial Office Series). 21 vols. Shannon and Dublin, 1972–81. description ends , 20:32–34. For scholarly assessments, see Lawrence E. Babits, A Devil of a Whipping: The Battle of Cowpens (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1998); John Buchanan, The Road to Guilford Courthouse (New York, 1997), 296–333; and Don Higginbotham, Daniel Morgan, Revolutionary Rifleman (Chapel Hill, 1961), 119–55.

4Andrew Pickens (1739–1817), of South Carolina, held a commission as a militia captain early in 1775, and in the next two years he rose to the rank of colonel. Pickens surrendered to the British after their victory at Charleston, S.C., in May 1780, but he declared his parole invalidated after the British plundered his plantation. He soon became a prominent leader of militia forces in South Carolina. Commissioned a brigadier general of South Carolina after the Battle of Cowpens, Pickens, commanding state troops, distinguished himself throughout the operations in North and South Carolina during the remainder of 1781. In 1782, he led expeditions against the Cherokee Indians in upper South Carolina and northeast Georgia, forcing them to agree to a peace treaty. He served almost continuously as a representative or senator in the South Carolina general assembly from 1776 to 1799, with only a brief pause to represent his district in the U.S. House of Representatives, 1793–95. Later elected again to the general assembly for one term in 1812, Pickens was often employed as a commissioner in boundary disputes and to treat with the southern Indians.

5See Greene to Edmund M. Hyrne, 18 Dec. 1780 and 25 Jan. 1781, in Greene Papers description begins Richard K. Showman et al., eds. The Papers of General Nathanael Greene. 13 vols. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1976–2005. description ends , 6:594–95, 7:194.

Edmund M. Hyrne (1748–1783) joined the 1st South Carolina Regiment as a captain in 1775. In 1778, he became deputy adjutant general of the Southern department, holding that post until the end of the war. He was promoted to major in May 1779. After his service as deputy commissary general of prisoners, Hyrne served as an aide-de-camp to Greene.

6See Greene to Edward Stevens, 25 Jan., in Greene Papers description begins Richard K. Showman et al., eds. The Papers of General Nathanael Greene. 13 vols. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1976–2005. description ends , 7:195–96.

7See Greene to Steuben, 24 Jan., in Greene Papers description begins Richard K. Showman et al., eds. The Papers of General Nathanael Greene. 13 vols. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1976–2005. description ends , 7:186–87.

8The enclosed letter from Greene to Samuel Huntington, president of Congress, dated 24 Jan., reads: “I have the honor to enclose for the information of Congress the copy of my letter to his Excellency Genl Washington with the enclosures announcing the glorious defeat of a detachment of the British Army under Lt Col. Tarlton.

“The action was important and reflects the highest honor on General Morgan and the troops under his command.

“Major Edward Giles will deliver these despatches and have the honor to give Congress such further information as they may request.

“The Deputy Commissary Genl of Prisoners will as soon as possible transmit a particular return of the prisoners taken on the 17th; by which conveyance I will forward the Standards to be laid at the feet of Congress” (DLC:GW; see also Greene Papers description begins Richard K. Showman et al., eds. The Papers of General Nathanael Greene. 13 vols. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1976–2005. description ends , 7:185).

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