A Devil of a Whipping

The Battle of Cowpens

By Lawrence E. Babits

256 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 6 illus., 6 tables, 19 maps, 3 figs., notes, bibl., index

  • Paperback ISBN: 978-0-8078-4926-2
    Published: February 2001
  • E-book EPUB ISBN: 978-0-8078-8766-0
    Published: February 2011
  • E-book PDF ISBN: 979-8-8908-6950-0
    Published: February 2011

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Awards & distinctions

1998 Distinguished Book Award, Army Historical Foundation

Honorable Mention, 1999 Fraunces Tavern Book Award, Fraunces Tavern Museum

The battle of Cowpens was a crucial turning point in the Revolutionary War in the South and stands as perhaps the finest American tactical demonstration of the entire war. On 17 January 1781, Daniel Morgan's force of Continental troops and militia routed British regulars and Loyalists under the command of Banastre Tarleton. The victory at Cowpens helped put the British army on the road to the Yorktown surrender and, ultimately, cleared the way for American independence.

Here, Lawrence Babits provides a brand-new interpretation of this pivotal South Carolina battle. Whereas previous accounts relied on often inaccurate histories and a small sampling of participant narratives, Babits uses veterans' sworn pension statements, long-forgotten published accounts, and a thorough knowledge of weaponry, tactics, and the art of moving men across the landscape. He identifies where individuals were on the battlefield, when they were there, and what they saw--creating an absorbing common soldier's version of the conflict. His minute-by-minute account of the fighting explains what happened and why and, in the process, refutes much of the mythology that has clouded our picture of the battle.

Babits put the events at Cowpens into a sequence that makes sense given the landscape, the drill manual, the time frame, and participants' accounts. He presents an accurate accounting of the numbers involved and the battle's length. Using veterans' statements and an analysis of wounds, he shows how actions by North Carolina militia and American cavalry affected the battle at critical times. And, by fitting together clues from a number of incomplete and disparate narratives, he answers questions the participants themselves could not, such as why South Carolina militiamen ran toward dragoons they feared and what caused the "mistaken order" on the Continental right flank.

About the Author

Lawrence E. Babits is professor of maritime history and nautical archaeology at East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina.
For more information about Lawrence E. Babits, visit the Author Page.


"An important work that draws upon untapped evidence and employs new methods for interpreting traditional sources. . . . Babits gives us the definitive history of this significant battle." —Journal of Military History

"A superb example of the 'new military history'. . . . Babits comes closer than any previous historian to reconstructing the eighteenth-century soldier's experience of combat and has given us as close to a definitive account of the battle of Cowpens as we are ever likely to have."—Virginia Magazine of History and Biography

"A superb new study. . . . Babits's account moves with the sharpness and decisiveness of the action he describes. . . . No other Revolutionary battle has been subjected to this level of meticulous, intensive, multifaceted analysis. This book will stand as the model for any such future effort. One of Babits’s purposes was the hope that the Cowpens veterans would not be forgotten. The masterful work that he has produced goes far towards achieving that purpose." —Journal of Southern History

"One of the best analyses that we have of an individual Revolutionary War engagement."—Journal of American History

"An engaging narrative. . . . An important contribution to Revolutionary War military history, sure to be of interest to Revolutionary War students and historians of the South."—Southern Historian

"No previous author has applied the power of social history to this battle; Babits’s work should serve as the model for future historians trying to relate the chronology of events to the position of units and individual soldiers on the terrain of the battlefield. His methodology gives the common soldier a voice in unraveling the complex details of the fight from the smoke and bad information obscuring key facts. . . . With the tools of social history, Lawrence Babits has demonstrated what military historians have long argued: war is above all else a human endeavor worthy of study to complete the record of mankind’s struggle to survive and to achieve."—William & Mary Quarterly