The Patriot (2000)




Director:  Roland Emmerich

Starring:  Mel Gibson (Benjamin Martin), Heath Ledger, Joely Richardson, Tcheky Karyo, Jason Isaacs, Tom Wilkinson, Chris Cooper, Lisa Brenner, Rene Auberjonois

Battle of Cowpens, South Carolina, January 17, 1781




Mel Gibson plays Benjamin Martin, a South Carolina man reluctant to join in fighting in the American Revolution, because of his negative experiences in the French and Indian War.  The death of one of his sons at the hands of a cruel British commander, finally forces Martin into action.  The official website for the movie says his character is a composite of various patriot leaders: Colonel Daniel Morgan, who fought Colonel Banastre Tarleton and Lord General Charles Cornwallis at the Battle of Cowpens; Francis Marion, the "Swamp Fox," a South Carolina guerrilla swamp fighter; Elijah Clark; Thomas Sumter; and Andrew Pickens.

To really sort it out, read the real history of the battle.  But the movie is still great as it is a well-crafted action flick that holds one's interest.  It stimulates the viewer to search out the real history. 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.



Historical Background:

After the failure of the British to take Massachusetts, the British were able to occupy New York City and Philadelphia. But they were unable to capitalize on these victories by taking the areas surrounding these important cities.

So Lord Cornwallis decides to strike against South Carolina and then against North Carolina and Virginia.

1777 (February 27) – at the Battle of Moore’s Creek Bridge, the militia defeated a larger force of Loyalists, thereby ending royal authority in North Carolina and delaying any full-scale British invasion of the South at this early stage of the war.

1779-80 – the military stalemate in the North caused the British to look south again for their next victories.

1778 (December 29) – the British capture Savannah, Georgia.

Fall 1779 -- Cornwallis convinces Sir Henry Clinton to let him strike against Charleston, South Carolina.


8 April -- British light-draft frigates push by fire from Fort Moultrie and anchor off Charleston. Clinton then calls on the Americans to surrender. The British landed their troops south of Charleston rather than risk a frontal assault. General Benjamin Lincoln hesitates a little too long.

1780 (May 12) – British forces under Clinton took Charleston from an American force under the command of General Benjamin Lincoln. The British take 5,500 prisoners. It was the worst defeat of the entire war for American independence.

1780 (May 29) – Tarleton’s Legion defeated Colonel Abraham Buford and his Third Virginia Continentals marching through the Waxhaw, North Carolina. (This is sometimes called Buford’s massacre because he refused quarter to the Americans and made Tarleton a hated man among the Patriots.)

1780 (August 16) – the Americans under General Gates suffered a disastrous defeat at Camden, South Carolina where much of the Southern Continental Army was captured. The battle made a national hero of Banastre Tarleton in England. Gates fled from the battle site, earning him a reputation as a "fool and coward".  He fled until he had reached Charlotte, North Carolina (60 miles away), thereby ending his military career.

Clinton returns to New York. Within three months, Cornwallis had taken almost the whole of South Carolina. In this effort, he made great use of the brutal Colonel Banastre Tarleton's Legion, known for giving no quarter in battle.

22 June -- the veteran Maryland and Delaware line regiments arrive at Hillsboro, North Carolina, sent there by General Washington. General Horatio Gates put in command of the Department of the South against the advice of General Washington. Gates, against everyone's advice, decides to attack Camden, South Carolina.

7 October -- a force of 4000 South Carolina Loyalists under Major Patrick Ferguson defeated at the Battle of Kings Mountain in North Carolina. Cornwallis had to retreat back into South Carolina. There his cavalry officers, Tarleton and Wemyss, fought a series of skirmishes with the Americans under the leaders Pickens, Marion, and Sumter.

December -- Congress finally allows Washington to pick the leader of the Southern Department; General Nathanael Greene chosen. He had a very small army of less than 2,000 men. He splits his forces between himself and General Daniel Morgan and they begin to harass the British forces. They later receive reinforcements; especially noteworthy were the forces under "Light Horse Harry" Lee.


Cornwallis splits his forces into three parts and goes on the offensive to eliminate the forces for Greene and Morgan.

It may have been easy to take the coastline of South Carolina, but in the back country it was another story. There was a lot of fighting between Loyalists and Patriots with raids and reprisal raids being common.

General George Washington made General Nathanael Greene the new commander of the Southern army. Greene split his army, sending General Daniel Morgan southwest of the Catawba River to harass the British supply lines.

The British commander, General Cornwallis, sent Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton to block Morgan’s actions.

1781 (January 12) – the Battle of Cowpens. Tarleton's scouts located Morgan’s army at Grindal’s Shoals on the Pacolet River and pursued them. Morgan retreated north to Burr’s Mill on Thicketty Creek.

1781 (January 16) – Morgan decided to make a stand a frontier pasturing ground and crossroads known as the Cowpens.

Morgan called for the militia to meet at the Cowpens and during the night Andrew Pickens’ men drifted into camp.

1783 (January 17) – in the morning Tarleton’s dragoons arrived. They formed up on the Green River Road. Tarleton’s style was to make a frontal assault and Greene knew this.

Greene organized his troops into three lines:

1) sharpshooters;

2) the militia, commanded by Andrew Pickens;

3) the Continentals under John Eager Howard.

The sharpshooters hit some 15 targets, especially selecting officers, and causing the dragoons to retreat.  The sharpshooters retreated 150 yards join the second line, the militia.

The militia fired off two volleys, as requested by Morgan, and then retreated to the third line, the Continentals.

Tarleton sent his dragoons after the militia. To counter this move, William Washington’s Patriot cavalry entered the frey. The British Dragoons were taken by surprise and fled the field.

Now the two infantries slugged it out.

An order from John Eager Howard to his troops on the right flank was misinterpreted as an order to retreat. General Morgan saved the day by riding up to the retreating troops and telling them to turn about.

The British had been fooled by the mix-up in the American line and had begun a disorderly, wild charge at the American lines. The volley from the turned around right flank took a heavy toll on the British. The volley was followed up with a Patriot bayonet charge that broke the British charge. This was followed by the charge of the re-formed militia and cavalry.

The British were caught in a double envelopment and their troops started surrendering.

Tarleton himself fled down the Green River Road to Cornwallis’ camp.

The British losses were 110 dead, over 200 wounded and 500 captured. Morgan lost only 12 killed and 60 wounded. At the Battle of Cowpens, American troops under Morgan were able to kill or capture nine-tenths of the British forces: Tarleton's Tory troopers and a Scots infantry regiment.

Cowpens has been called the turning point of the war in the South. It was the start of a series of good results that led to an American victory at Yorktown.

1781 (15 March) -- Cornwallis came after Morgan and Greene. The British won the Battle at Guilford Courthouse, North Carolina, but it was a costly victory with 500 dead or wounded. Far from their supply lines, Cornwallis gave up on the Carolinas and headed for Virginia  Cornwallis had lost almost one-third of his forces at the Battle of Guilford Courthouse. He was forced to retire to the coast at Wilmington, North Carolina.

1781 (8 September) -- Greene beaten at the Battle of Eutaw Springs.

1781 (Fall) -- Greene drives all the British forces back into Charleston.

1781 (October 18) – the British army defeated and surrendered at Yorktown, Virginia.

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