Following Buford's Massacre, as it soon came to be called, guerrilla bands formed under commanders including Thomas Sumter, Francis Marion and Andrew Pickens. Each had fought in South Carolina's brutal Cherokee War 20 years earlier, a campaign that had provided an education in irregular warfare. Soon, these bands were emerging from swamps and forests to harass redcoat supply trains, ambush forage parties and plunder Loyalists. Cornwallis issued orders that the insurgents would be "punished with the greatest vigour."
Two months of hard campaigning, however, failed to quash the insurgency. In late summer, Cornwallis, writing to Sir Henry Clinton, commander, in New York, of the British Army in North America, admitted that the backcountry was now "in an absolute state of rebellion." After acknowledging the risk entailed by expanding the war before the rebellion had been crushed, Cornwallis was nevertheless convinced, he informed Clinton, that he must invade North Carolina, which was "making great exertions to raise troops."
In September 1780, Cornwallis marched 2,200 men north to Charlotte. Meanwhile, he dispatched 350 Loyalist militiamen under Maj. Patrick Ferguson, a 36-year-old Scotsman, to raise a force of Loyalists in western North Carolina. Ferguson was flooded with enlistments; his force tripled within two weeks. But backcountry rebels, also, were pouring in from the Carolinas, Georgia, Virginia and what is now eastern Tennessee. More than 1,000 rendezvoused at Sycamore Shoals in North Carolina, then set off after the Tories. They caught up with Ferguson in early October on King's Mountain, near the border between the Carolinas.
There Col. William Campbell, leader of the Virginians, a red-haired, 6-foot-6 giant married to the sister of firebrand patriot Patrick Henry, exhorted his men to "Shout like hell and fight like devils." Indeed, as the rebels hurtled up the steep hillside, they shrieked a hair-raising battle cry learned from Indian warriors. At the summit, they overwhelmed their foe, shouting "Buford! Buford! Tarleton's quarter!" The victors killed Ferguson and desecrated his body. Loyalists were slain after they surrendered. Altogether, more than 1,000 of them were killed or captured.
Upon hearing the news, Cornwallis, still in Charlotte, immediately retreated 60 miles south to Winnsboro, South Carolina. He remained there into December, when he learned that Greene had taken command of the tiny Continental Army and redeployed it to Hillsborough, North Carolina, roughly 165 miles northeast. Cornwallis knew that Greene possessed barely one-quarter the strength of the British force. Spies also informed him that Greene had made a potentially fatal blunder: he had divided his army in the face of a numerically superior foe.
In that audacious move, made, Greene said, "partly from choice and partly from necessity," he had given 600 men to Gen. Daniel Morgan, a tough former wagon master who had joined the army in 1775. After sending Morgan west of Charlotte, Greene marched the remainder of the force, 800 or so troops, toward the Pee Dee River, 120 miles to the east. His strategy was simple: if Cornwallis pursued Greene, Morgan could liberate British-held posts in western South Carolina; if the British went after Morgan, Greene wrote in a letter, there would be "nothing to obstruct" Greene's forces from attacking British posts in the backcountry outside Charleston. Other factors also figured into his unconventional plan. As his army, Greene wrote, was "naked & destitute of everything" and the countryside was in an "impoverished condition," he believed that "provisions could be had" more readily if one division operated in the east, the other in the west. Furthermore, the smaller armies could "move with great celerity," forcing the redcoats to give chase to one of them, and, Greene hoped, exhaust themselves.
But Cornwallis also divided his force. He dispatched Tarleton with 1,200 men to destroy Morgan, while he set off after Greene with 3,200 troops. Within a week, Tarleton caught up with Morgan, who had fallen back, buying time for the arrival of reinforcements and scouting for the best place to fight. He chose Cowpens, a meadow 25 miles west of King's Mountain. By the time Morgan positioned his army there, his force had swelled to 1,000.
Near 6:00 a.m. on January 17, Tarleton's men splashed across Macedonia Creek, pushing to the edge of the meadow, moving, an American soldier later recalled, "as if certain of victory." Tarleton's force advanced the length of two football fields in three minutes, huzzahing as they came, drums beating, fifes sounding, sunlight gleaming off bayonets, "running at us as if they Intended to eat us up," Morgan would write a few days later. He ordered his forward line to open fire only when the British had closed to within 35 yards; at that instant, as one American soldier wrote in a letter home, a "sheet of flame from right to left" flashed toward the enemy.
After three such volleys, the Americans retreated. Believing the militiamen to be fleeing, Tarleton's men surged after them, only to run into a fourth deadly volley, laid down by Continentals posted in a second line behind the militiamen. Morgan then unleashed his cavalry, which materialized from behind a ridge; the horsemen, slashing with their sabers, bellowed "Tarleton's quarter." The "shock was so sudden and violent," one rebel would recall, that the British quickly retreated. Many threw down their weapons and ran, said another, "as hard...as a drove of wild Choctaw steers." About 250 of the British, including Tarleton, escaped. Many of those who could not flee fell to their knees, pleading for their lives: "Dear, good Americans, have mercy on us! It has not been our fault, that we have SKIVERED so many." The cavalrymen showed little mercy, an American, James Collins, reported later in his memoirs, attacking both armed and unarmed men, sweeping the battlefield like a "whirlwind."
While 73 of Morgan's rebels were killed, Tarleton had lost nearly everything. More than 100 British corpses littered the battlefield. Another 800 soldiers, a quarter of them wounded, had been captured, along with artillery, ammunition and baggage wagons. Morgan was euphoric. He swept up his 9-year-old drummer, kissed him on both cheeks, then cantered across the battlefield shouting: "Old Morgan never was beaten." Tarleton, he crowed, had been dealt "a devil of a whipping."